Short commentary: On the ousting of the generals in Egypt

Less than two months after his election, President Mohammed Mursi made a radical move: he removed the president of the High Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) from the government, announced his and his deputy’s retirement, and abolished the so called additional constitutional declaration, which was enacted by SCAF in June.

The 23-member SCAF headed by generals, Tantawi, and Annan, ruled over the post-revolutionary political developments of Egypt through a series of constitutional declarations. The army aimed to preserve the status quo and its privileged position in the era of democratization by insisting on keeping its budgetary autonomy and influence over important aspects of state sovereignty. During the presidential election, SCAF dissolved the elected, Islamist-majority parliament and appropriated essential presidential powers in anticipation of an Islamist victory. This made Egypt similar to Turkey 20 years ago. Both states had a double source of sovereignty: elections and the military.

President Mursi openly denounced this so called soft coup but took just a few symbolic steps against the army. Until the last moment he seemed to be a president with very limited powers. Recent moves, however, showed that what seemed to be passivity was in fact preparation for a decisive action to impose his authority.

Mohamed Mursi did two things: he removed from power the two most powerful military figures and named a young military intelligence chief, Abdel Fattah Sissi, who brings along a group of younger officers, Defence Minister. The absence of immediate reaction from the old army leadership indicates an internal coup. Mursi might have collaborated with the younger opposition within the army.

The move shows a possible future distribution of power: an Islamist-military alliance. Such an alliance would certainly lead to a more efficient government than the cold war that rages hitherto between the Islamists and the military. But in the long term, such an alliance is certainly negative for the democratization of state institutions and political liberalism. The question is whether it will survive the upcoming negotiations on the details of a power division in the new constitution.

The second move was the abolition of the last constitutional declaration by SCAF, which was widely considered illegitimate and undemocratic. The power thus returns to the president and SCAF loses its constitutional privileges. It helps solve the fluid and unclear legal situation in which the Army used to change the rules of on the go and it is certainly a positive step.

Yet, in the absence of an elected assembly, such a move leads to a strong concentration of an almost dictatorial power in the hands of the president. The Egyptian state, however, is still in a situation of institutional weakness – it is unclear which institution has which power. The assertion of an elected institution – the president – at the expense of a non-elected and uncontrollable institution – the SCAF – is a risky, but potentially positive development.

All of this depends on how Mursi will proceed: whether he will continue to concentrate power, or whether he will make use of his new assertiveness to speed up the reform and constitutional processes, that is, whether he will act as a statesman

Zora Hesova