By Mohammed Ali Ibrahim
In the 1974 Rumble in the Jungle, boxer Muhammad Ali leaned on the ropes like he was beaten, letting his opponent George Foreman tire himself out punching, before Ali came back to win the match. The term ‘rope-a-dope’ was famously used to describe the style and has since been used to describe a situation where someone deliberately adopts an apparently weaker position in order to gain an advantage over their opponent. The phrase could aptly be applied to the situation in Egypt over the past 18 months. Egypt was divided between the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and the Muslim Brotherhood. Some wanted SCAF to take hold of the country and kick out the Islamists who ruined Egypt; whereas others called for the President to be given all the powers which SCAF had usurped through the second constitutional declaration. On 12 August the Islamists scored their biggest triumph yet since the 25 January revolution. Egypt’s new Islamist President Mohamed Morsy dismissed Cairo’s two top generals and cancelled the constitutional declaration curtailing his powers, in a sudden and dramatic move that freed him of many of the restrictions of military rule.
It was not clear to what extent the measures were agreed to in advance by dismissed Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, who had taken over as the head of SCAF when Hosni Mubarak was deposed, nor was it clear how far they would shift the power balance between the generals and Morsy’s long-suppressed Muslim Brotherhood. Nevertheless there is a consensus that Tantawi is not that beloved a leader that his officers and soldiers would reject his retirement as was the case with the late Abdelhakim Amer in 1967 or Abu Ghazala in 1987, who were forced to retire by Nasser and Mubarak repectively in moves that caused the army’s dismay.
Some claim that the President consulted Tantawi, 76, and the military Chief of Staff, General Sami Enan, 64, before ordering both men to retire, but I suppose that this would only have been to enable them to save face.
However, coupled with what Morsy’s spokesman described as the cancellation of the constitutional declaration issued just before his election, by which Tantawi and his colleagues curbed presidential powers, the surprise move seemed to indicate a substantial reordering of Egypt’s political forces as it waits for a new constitution after six decades of unbroken army rule.
“Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi has been transferred into retirement from today,” a presidential spokesman said in a statement, appointing in his place General Abdellatif Sisi, as the Chief of the Armed Forces and Defense Minister.
Enan was replaced by General Sidki Sobhi. Both retirees were appointed advisers to the President.
Morsy, whose victory over a former general prompted concerns in Israel and the West about their alliances with Egypt, also appointed a judge, Mahmoud Mekky, as his Vice President. Mekky is a brother of newly appointed Justice Minister Ahmed Mekky, who had been a vocal critic of vote rigging under Mubarak.
The President, who has said he will stand by Cairo’s treaties with Israel and others, has shown impatience with the military following violence in the Sinai that brought trouble with Israel and Gaza early this month. After the attack in which Islamist militants killed 16 Egyptian border guards before trying to storm the Israeli border, Morsy, whose own Brotherhood movement renounced violence long ago, sacked Egypt’s intelligence chief last week.
Currently there are two possible interpretations for Morsy’s move. One sees it as meting out a deserved punishment to the army for its slackness in Sinai that led to the massacre of 5 August. A second sees it as a deliberate move to clear out the older generation of high ranking officers in the army who took part in the 6 October war against Israel in 1973, in order to facilitate moving the Egyptian army closer to the United States and its Gulf allies. Only the president knows which explanation is correct. The move also indicates a failure of the long-planned counter revolution planned for 24 August before it could even begin. The counter revolution was supposed to have the support of the army in order to topple the President but it appears he may have been smart enough to foil their attempt.