Marc Lynch

Lamborghini Morsi

Lamborghini Morsi

After long weeks of political gridlock and stagnation, Egypt’s elected President Mohamed Morsi suddenly hit the gas over the weekend. Over the span of a few days, Morsi removed the head of General Intelligence, the head of the Military Police, the top two senior leaders of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, and the heads of all the military services. In addition to this SCAF-Quake, Morsi also canceled the controversial constitutional amendments promulgated by the SCAF just before he took office and issued a new, equally controversial amendment and roadmap of his own. What’s more, this all came after he replaced the editors of major state-owned newspapers with people viewed as sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood and cracked down on several other critical papers. Zero to 180 in three days — even Usain Bolt would be impressed by that acceleration. Swirv.

What does it all mean? It’s a bit of a cop-out, but really it’s too soon to tell. As always in Egypt, information is both scarce and abundant. Nobody really knows what’s going on, rumors of every variety fly fast and furious, and everyone has pieced together plausible-sounding theories based on their fears or analytical predispositions. (Remember, though, as a rule it’s almost never as bad as it seems on Twitter.) It will take a while for the full implications to become clear. Eventually, more reliable information will trickle out about what really happened: were Tantawi and Anan consulted, or did they find out on TV? Did junior officers collude with the presidents office, or were they equally surprised? And the behavior of key actors in the coming weeks will shed light on their intentions this weekend:  does Morsi move to impose an Islamist vision or reach out to create a broadly based constitutional convention? Does the military strike back in some form? Until then, just about everyone — in Cairo, in Washington, and everywhere else — is struggling to pierce through the haze and make out what they can.

Taking that uncertainty into account, I can see at least three dominant takes on what’s going on. Those who believe the SCAF remains fully in control see a clever scheme to cement long-term military rule in alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood by gently dumping the unpopular figureheads while retaining an institutional hold on power. Those who fear the Muslim Brotherhood see the makings of a full-scale Ikhwanization of Egypt, with Morsi seizing dictatorial powers, brushing aside the secular bastion of the SCAF, and putting himself in place to shape the new constitution. And those who still see the prospect for some kind of real democratic transition can find some comfort in an elected president removing the senior leaders of the outgoing military junta without a bloody fight and asserting the principle of political control by an elected president. None of these three strikes me as completely right and all probably have some elements of truth. But there’s nothing very satisfying about a theory of the case which is equally satisfied with, say, Tantawi remaining in his position or Tantawi being forced out of his position. 

My general take is still that the current phase of Egyptian politics is going to be a long, grinding institutional war of position. That kind of politics can be deeply frustrating for an engaged public sphere, since so much of it takes place behind the scenes and in indirect maneuvers rather than in thrilling street protests or the realm of public debate. For example, presumably Morsi and his team have been carefully preparing the ground for this weekend’s moves during the weeks where his administration appeared to be passive, floundering, and ineffective. In this arena, Morsi’s moves were a bold and unexpected frontal assault on the senior military leadership, but not a decisive one. His appointment of the respected jurist Mahmoud Mekki as Vice President could be seen as another such bold move in institutional combat, by potentially co-opting or intimidating the judiciary. But bold as the moves were, they don’t instantly wipe away the real power centers in Egyptian politics. Morsi today is more of a president, but Egypt is a long way from the "Islamic Republic" being bandied about by the Brotherhood’s critics. 

The fundamental problem remains one of trust and the absence of legitimate institutions. The political polarization of the last year and a half, fueled by all too many political and rhetorical mistakes on all sides, has left profound scars. The Shafiq voters in the presidential election have hardly reconciled themselves to Morsi, and most activists and revolutionaries remain as alienated as ever from a political struggle dominated by the military and the Brotherhood. On top of the polarization comes the legal Calvinball, where rules and legal institutions are fundamentally contested and no arbiter has uncontested judicial authority. And then there’s the regrettable absence of a parliament, another casualty of the pre-election institutional warfare. With so much in flux and so much distrust, every move, no matter how minor, becomes deeply laden with potential treachery and disaster. And this was no minor move. 

In most cases, I would think that the removal of the SCAF’s senior leadership and the assertion of civilian control by an elected government would be celebrated as a major triumph in the push for a transition to a civil, democratic state. But the deeply rooted fears of the Muslim Brotherhood, fueled by recognition of their popular strength and doubts about their democratic convictions, prevents any easy acceptance of that reading in many quarters. That’s why the next few weeks will be crucial, as Morsi makes clear what kind of constitutional process he really intends and as the military and the anti-Islamist trends in Egyptian politics weigh their next moves.  

I think that on balance this should be seen as a potentially positive step, despite the real downside risks of Muslim Brotherhood domination. It could even be a way to overcome at least one dimension of that deep political and social polarization which has been the legacy of the last political period. Asserting civilian control and removing the top SCAF leaders were necessary steps which most Egypt analysts didn’t expect at this point, and which — lest we forget — have been among the primary demands of the revolution since almost the beginning. If the golden parachute of some form of unwritten amnesty and appointments to advisory position was the way to get Tantawi and the others to step down without a fight, then this seems a price worth paying. But that verdict would change if Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood does go on to seek to dominate the new constitutional assembly– and that should, and will, be a major focus of the coming period.  

Note:  The title of this post pays homage this Kanye/Big Sean/Pusha T banger.  Obviously NSFW.  How I wish someone with skills would do a remix of this one as "Morsi."