The Middle East Channel

Egypt’s cobra and mongoose become lion and lamb?

The power struggle between Egypt’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) and the Muslim Brother has been likened to the life and death struggle between the cobra and mongoose. In the event the analogy was misleading in that the conflict was relatively short and its outcome anti-climactic. The Muslim Brotherhood, apparently now led by ...


The power struggle between Egypt’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) and the Muslim Brother has been likened to the life and death struggle between the cobra and mongoose. In the event the analogy was misleading in that the conflict was relatively short and its outcome anti-climactic. The Muslim Brotherhood, apparently now led by President Mohamed Morsi, unceremoniously shunted Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi and his officer entourage off to various forms of retirement without so much as a whimper in response.

Like Hosni Mubarak before him, Tantawi’s seeming impregnable power had been based on the weak foundations of patronage and punishment, dished out in Tantawi’s case to the officers under his command. Obviously aware of resentment and disaffection within the military, Tantawi, again similar to Mubarak, sought to repress it by draconian punishment of defectors, by ladling out ever larger doses of patronage, including salary increases, bonuses and yet more plum "secondment" sinecures, and by mobilizing dependent editors and publishers to suppress media criticism of him and the SCAF. Ultimately these tactics were to no avail. Mismanagement of the political transition added the insult of degradation of the military’s reputation to the injury of its de-professionalization through more than two decades of Tantawi’s command. Like the country as a whole as regards the Mubarak regime, the officer corps had finally had enough of the nature and the consequences of corrupt, patrimonial rule of the military.

For their part, President Morsi and his allies clearly detected Tantawi’s vulnerability within the military and made their plans accordingly. Presumably prior agreement had been reached that when the opportunity arose, Morsi’s supporters in the military would endorse his proposed personnel changes. That opportunity came with the discrediting of Tantawi and the SCAF as a result of their mishandling of the Islamist raid on an Egyptian checkpoint in the Sinai on August 5. Morsi struck three days later at the key positions designed to protect the president, core of which are the command of the well equipped, 20,000 strong Republican Guard, which Morsi gave over to General Hamid Zaki, and the head of military intelligence, who became General Abd al Wahid Shihata replacing Tantawi loyalist Murad Muwafi. That Morsi would have direct control over anti-riot forces, vital if he was to be able to deter possible SCAF instigated demonstrations, was signaled by his changes to commands of the military police, the Central Security Force, and the Cairo Security Department. Changes to subsidiary positions more directly connected to the Sinai event, such as the Governor of North Sinai, provided cover for the strategically vital personnel moves.

Having secured the presidency against possible reactions from the military or the "street" orchestrated from the ministry of defense, Morsi was now prepared to go after Tantawi. The speed with which he moved suggests he feared a counter-strike. Indeed, by the end of the week rumors were circulating in Cairo that a coup was likely. On Sunday Morsi pounced, removing Tantawi and his heir apparent, Sami Hafez Anan, the latter of whom was replaced by the commander of the Third Army, as well as commanders of the navy, air force, and air defense. In two blows within a week Morsi had dramatically reconfigured not only the Brotherhood-SCAF relationship, but civil-military relations more broadly. But to what end? And why did the officers supportive of Morsi’s plans, including General Abdul Fattah el-Sisi who replaced Field Marshal Tantawi, agree?

One interpretation stresses the importance of Islamism, whether in the form of the Brotherhood’s active intent to seize the commanding heights of the state, or the passive acceptance of this alleged power grab by fellow travelers, possibly including General Sisi. Evidence proffered in support is that Morsi has also moved to subordinate the judiciary to his (the Muslim Brotherhood’s) control, by appointing Mahmoud Mekky as vice president and his allegedly Islamist inclined brother, Ahmed Mekky as minister of justice. Morsi’s choice of the al Azhar venue to make his dramatic announcement removing Tantawi and the language he used while so doing, laced as it was with Islamic imagery and references, suggested an Islamic legitimacy and justification for his actions. Appointments this week of editors and chairs of boards of state owned media outlets, including al Ahram, further support this view, as the Brotherhood controlled Shura Council committee responsible for these appointments opted almost exclusively for Islamists to fill the posts. Simultaneously the prosecutor general announced the indictments of two critics of the Brotherhood, Tawfiq Okasha, owner of a TV station, and Islam Afifi, editor of al Dustur, for incitement to murder President Morsi and for "sowing sectarian discord." And President Morsi unilaterally abrogated the SCAF’s June constitutional declarations intended to trim the Brotherhood’s power, thereby consolidating executive and legislative authority in the president’s hands and giving him decisive influence over the drafting of the constitution. As for General Sisi, speculation on his Islamist leanings is based on his wife’s reputed preference for the niqab. In sum, these developments seem to suggest an Islamist state in the making, with a military subordinate to or at least willing to implement the wishes of the Muslim Brotherhood.

A second, more accurate interpretation is suggested by a new analogy to replace that of the deadly cobra and mongoose to characterize relations between the military and the Muslim Brotherhood. It is that the lion of the military and the lamb of the Brotherhood will lie down together, but as separate, distinct beings each with its own purpose. While there are certainly already fellow travelers of the Muslim Brotherhood in the officer corps and many officers who will see advantage now in associating themselves with it or at least not opposing it, the corps as a whole is not about to become the striking arm of the Brotherhood. Its primary incentive for facilitating Tantawi’s removal was not Islamist commitment, but accumulated dissatisfaction with the Field Marshal’s debasement of their institution and its capacities, triggered by his inept political maneuvering. The agreement between key officers, on the one hand, and Morsi and his allies, on the other, will have been based on a division of roles and responsibilities in which the military as an institution continues to be the dominant actor in the formation and implementation of national security policies. The assumption underlying the agreement will have been that the re-professionalization of the military and the exercise of constitutional power by the civilian government, presently dominated by the Brotherhood, are compatible, indeed reinforcing objectives. Both sides, in other words, will have professed their respect for constitutional, legal, and professional norms and their centrality to the new relationship. The lion and the lamb, in short, have opted for coexistence, rather than a struggle akin to the cobra and mongoose fight in which one would ultimately destroy the other.

Whether this agreement proves to be durable or not will depend on numerous factors, key being respect for it by either side. If the Brotherhood seeks to impose its will on the state and nation, including the military, it will meet a reaction from the officer corps. This, and even the threat of it, combined with ongoing and probably intensifying civilian opposition, is likely to cause the Brotherhood to move carefully, whatever its real intentions. While a new form of anti-democratic political influence over the military could still result, were the Brotherhood actually to consolidate total power, the removal of the Mubarak military high command was the necessary, if not sufficient condition to begin the long march to institutionalized, civilian, democratic control of Egypt’s armed forces. For that reason alone it is a positive step, if one with other potential dangers.

Robert Springborg is a professor in the Department of National Security Affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the Department of Defense or the U.S. government.

<p> Robert Springborg is professor of national security affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School. The views expressed here are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Defense Department or the U.S. government. </p>