It’s been an eventful month so far in Egypt, to put it mildly. On the heels of rising instability and fatal violence in North Sinai pitting militants against both the Egyptian and Israeli states, on Sunday President Mohamed Morsy announced significant changes to both the leadership of the armed forces and the structure of the political system.
Clashes in the north of Sinai are nothing new, but the attack on August 5 — an operation that resulted in the deaths of 16 Egyptian border guards, as well as the theft of vehicles then used to penetrate Israel — was shocking in both its magnitude and audacity. (See The Arabist for Issandr El Amrani’s exceedingly useful summary of the initial attack in Sinai, posted August 6.) The area has since seen additional violence, including Egyptian airstrikes that` reportedly killed 20, and further armed clashes initiated by both militants and Egyptian armed forces.
As the situation in North Sinai has continued to boil over, the jockeying over power at the national level doesn’t seem to have skipped a beat. President Morsy (who captured the presidency as the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate, although since his election victory he has formally left the organization and its political party) recently moved to assert his authority in a two-pronged maneuver, as laid out in an August 12 article in The New York Times:
President Mohamed Morsi of Egypt forced the retirement on Sunday of his powerful defense minister, the army chief of staff and other senior generals, moving more aggressively than ever before to reclaim political power that the military had seized since the fall of Hosni Mubarak last year.
Mr. Morsi also nullified a constitutional declaration, issued by the military before he took office on June 30, that had gutted the authority of his office. On Sunday, he replaced it with his own declaration, one that gave him broad legislative and executive powers and, potentially, a decisive role in the drafting of Egypt’s still unfinished new constitution.
This came after a different shakeup earlier this month in direct response to the attacks in Sinai. As for what this all means, there isn’t exactly consensus. The August 12 NYT story following the more recent personnel changes noted:
For his new defense minister, Mr. Morsi chose the head of military intelligence, Gen. Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi, who was seen as close to Field Marshal Tantawi… Gen. Mohamed al-Assar, a member of the military council, was named an assistant defense minister. He told Reuters that Mr. Morsi’s decision was “based on consultation with the field marshal and the rest of the military council.”
While the retirements marked at least a symbolic end to the military’s dominant role in Egyptian politics, Mr. Morsi’s abolishment of the constitutional declaration posed a more fundamental challenge to the military. It also raised the possibility of a new confrontation with one of Egypt’s highest courts.
After offering a caveat regarding the preliminary nature of his impressions, El Amrani presented his initial perspective on the moves in a Sunday post. In the piece, he breaks down Morsy’s decisions into two categories, dealing first with the military personnel changes:
The overall impression I get is of a change of personalities with continuity in the institution. More junior officers are taking the posts of their former superiors, and some SCAF members are shifting positions. The departure of Tantawi was inevitable considering his age and unpopularity…