Brother Knows Best

How Egypt's new president is outsmarting the generals.

Uriel Sinai/Getty Images
Uriel Sinai/Getty Images

Shortly after the Aug. 5 killing of 16 paramilitary policemen near Egypt’s border with the Gaza Strip, Egyptian, Israeli, and U.S. officials determined that the perpetrators were part of an "extremist group" — one they have yet to identify. According to official accounts, assailants firing AK-47s attacked the conscripts and officers as they prepared for iftar, the traditional breaking of the Ramadan fast. Eight of the terrorists were killed in the ensuing firefight, but not before the perpetrators hijacked an armored personnel carrier and tried unsuccessfully to cross the Egypt-Israel frontier.

To a variety of observers, however, the official story seems a little too neat. The Egyptian government rarely comes to a quick conclusion about anything except when its leaders have something to hide, typically resulting in a half-baked story that few are inclined to believe. The tale about a shadowy group of militants fits the bill, leaving journalists, commentators, and other skeptical Egyptians with two theories: Either the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) and Egypt’s intelligence services planned the operation to embarrass Egypt’s new president, Mohamed Morsy, or Israel’s Mossad did it — a silly allegation that Morsy’s own Muslim Brotherhood advanced. Lost in all this speculation, however, were the attack’s unexpected but important political effects.

What makes the Rafah incident more interesting than previous attacks in Sinai — of which there have been many — is its potential to break Egypt’s political logjam. At first it looked as if Morsy would bear much of the blame for the attack despite his tough rhetoric in its aftermath. Indeed, he stayed away from the funerals for the martyred policemen, claiming implausibly that his security detail would disrupt proper mourning rituals. Protesters chased Hisham Qandil, Morsy’s handpicked prime minister, from the proceedings with a barrage of shoes. On Tuesday, it seemed that predictions of Morsy’s early political demise would prove accurate. But just 24 hours later the tables had turned.

It was perhaps inevitable that Egypt’s various political parties, groups, and factions would try to leverage the violence in Rafah to their political advantage. Even the April 6 Movement, Kefaya, and other less well-known groups seized the opportunity to burnish their now fading political images with what turned out to be a sparsely attended protest. They rallied near the Israeli ambassador’s residence over Mossad’s alleged responsibility for the killings, apparently indifferent to the irony of expressing solidarity with the widely demonized  security forces. At the end of the day, however, these antics were but a sideshow to the next act in Egypt’s central political drama, pitting the SCAF against the Muslim Brothers.

For months now, it has seemed that this play had no end. The Brothers have long maintained a vision of society that resonates with many Egyptians but very little in the way of means to transform these ideas into reality. The military is an exact mirror image of the Brothers. The officers have no coherent and appealing worldview, but they have had the ability to prevent those who do from accumulating power and altering the political system. The result has been a stalemate, marked by a series of tactical political deals that only last until circumstances force the Brothers and the officers to seek accommodation.

But the Rafah killings may well have tipped the scales. As weak as Morsy’s position seemed to be, two distinct advantages have enabled him to spin the attack to his political advantage: the utter the incompetence of Maj. Gen. Murad Muwafi, the head of the General Intelligence Service, and the very fact that Morsy is a popularly elected president.

On the first count, Muwafi admitted that his organization intercepted details of the attack before it happened, but that he and his team never "imagined that a Muslim would kill a Muslim brother at iftar in Ramadan." He then passed the buck, lamely offering that he had given the information to the proper authorities, presumably the Ministry of Interior. Muwafi may have been using the reference to Muslims’ killing of fellow Muslims while breaking fast to cast suspicion on the Israelis — no matter that this theory is demonstrably untrue — or because it reflected the complacency of the Mubarak era of which he is a product. Either way, it played to Morsy’s advantage.

Under Mubarak, Muwafi would likely have gotten away with his ineptitude. No doubt, there were intelligence failures during the Mubarak era, but the former president and his minions could always count on force and state propaganda to cover their tracks. (It is important to remember that however unseemly it was for the Muslim Brotherhood to blame Israel for the Rafah attacks, it is a tactic that Hosni Mubarak perfected during his three decades in power. A little more than a month after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, for example, Mubarak told an Israeli TV audience, "You are responsible [for terrorism]." ) But old tricks don’t always work in the new Egypt. Muwafi’s admission that the GIS knew an attack was on the way provided Morsy with an opportunity to clean house — a stunning move made possible only by the fact that he can claim a popular mandate. Out went Muwafi, North Sinai governor Abdel Wahab Mabrouk, and Hamdi Badeen, the powerful commander of the Military Police.

The SCAF, the GIS, and Ministry of Interior may yet respond, but they are in a difficult political position. How do they justify opposing the president for removing the people ostensibly responsible for failing to prevent the deaths of Egyptian troops? In the new, more open Egypt, people are demanding accountability and Morsy is giving it to them,  which may be why Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, head of the SCAF, has so far yielded to Morsy. Yet Tantawi’s position is made all the more precarious because if he does not respond in some way, he is signaling that there is no price to be paid for defying Egypt’s defense and national security establishment, opening the way to further efforts to undermine the deep state.

Given the SCAF’s June 17 constitutional decree stripping the Egyptian presidency of virtually all of its national security and defense-related prerogatives, it is unclear whether Morsy has the authority to back up his sweeping personnel changes. Muwafi is a military officer, but General Intelligence is — at least on the government of Egypt’s organizational chart — separate from the Ministry of Defense, which would suggest that the president was within his legal right went he sacked the intelligence chief.  The same argument can be used regarding Abdel Wahab Mabrouk, who is also a military officer but, by dint of his position as governor, is subordinate to the interior minister. Yet like so much in Egypt, what is written is different from actual practice, so there may be ways that both men retain their positions. The fate of Badeen is clearer since he is an active military officer and the June 17 decree prohibits the president from making personnel moves without SCAF’s approval. At the very least, President Morsy will have to leave the choice of Badeen’s replacement to Field Marshal Tantawi.

As the New York Times, the Washington Post, and other major newspapers all dutifully reported, the violence in Sinai was  an "urgent" and "crucial" test of Morsy in his "tense relationship with the military." It was, indeed,  an early test, and Egypt’s new president seemed to pass with flying colors. Against all expectations, Morsy made the most politically out of the Rafah killings. To be sure, this episode was not exactly Anwar Sadat’s takedown of Ali Sabri, Gen. Mohamed Fawzi, and Gen. Sharawi Guma in 1971 for allegedly plotting a coup d’état that ended with all three behind bars and went a long way toward consolidating Sadat’s power. Yet if Morsy can make the dismissals stick, he will not only have made a convincing case that he is much more than the weak transitional figure the SCAF has sought to make him, but he also will have begun a process that could alter the relationship between Egypt’s security elite and its civilian (and now elected) leadership.

Steven A. Cook is the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. His latest book is False Dawn: Protest, Democracy, and Violence in the New Middle East.

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