Is Morsy Staging or Reversing a Coup?

Gianluigi Guercia / AFP / Getty Images

Seizing on the momentum created by the attack on Egyptian forces in the Sinai Peninsula last week, new Egyptian President Mohammad Morsy took several bold moves this weekend. One of them was firing the country's most senior military leaders. These moves not only consolidate Morsy's personal and ex officio power, they in effect reverse the traditional hierarchy of authority between military and civilian leaders in Egypt.

Even more significantly, Morsy has attempted to reverse the “supplemental constitutional articles” that the military issued on August 12 (just before the recent presidential election) an act which purports to restore presidential and legislative powers back to those elected bodies. The fight for the future of Egypt may have reached a turning point.

The Sinai attack was, perhaps, the last straw for the leadership of the already-unpopular chiefs of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. That leadership could no longer claim to be effective defenders of the Egyptian state, giving Morsy the opportunity to first clean house at a lower level (which he did last week) and then eliminate the senior leadership this weekend. He dismissed SCAF leader Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi and his second-in-command, General Sami Annan, the two men who essentially led Egypt since the fall of deposed President Hosni Mubarak.

It appears likely that Tantawi's replacement, General Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, was aware of and agreed to this dramatic upheaval. It's widely speculated that other military leaders also connived in the shakeup. In spite of the announcement, SCAF remains an institution with considerable authority over military matters.

Al-Sisi is well known to American military and political officials, and has had numerous dealings with Israeli authorities as well. So Morsy's move probably does not auger a transformation in Egypt's military or foreign policies, or the complete sidelining of SCAF as an institution. Indeed, following the Sinai attack, both sides report that Egyptian-Israeli security coordination has reached levels unseen in many years.

Morsy is framing these moves in both legal and “national interest” terms, but they certainly serve to consolidate his power, that of the presidency, and, therefore, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Other opposition figures largely welcomed his actions, particularly those that restore traditional powers to the presidency and the legislature and overturn what was largely seen as a military power grab in the run-up to the presidential election. Morsy may be trying to assuage concerns about Muslim Brotherhood domination of the government by also appointing a new vice president, reform-minded judge Mahmoud Mekki. But it's impossible not to see the gestures as a power grab of his own.

Since the fall of Mubarak, however, the Muslim Brotherhood has had a history of overreaching. It tried to stack the first formation of the Constitution-drafting Constituent Assembly with Islamists, only to be met with widespread objections from all non-Islamist constituencies. And it undermined its credibility with a sudden reversal of its long-standing pledge not to put forward a presidential candidate. If it is not careful, the Brotherhood may again assert powers beyond its elected mandate, which would beunacceptable to a huge swath of Egyptian society that will not tolerate Islamist domination of the country.

Many Egyptians are no doubt hoping that the new moves clarify the untenable confusion about lines of authority between elected and unelected institutions that have characterized the post-Mubarak era. But if they come to feel that Morsy and the Brotherhood are beginning to consolidate total control over the government, particularly by acting beyond the legal limitations of the office of the presidency, this could ultimately backfire.

As it stands, allegations of a presidential “coup” are largely restricted to supporters of the deep state and the existing institutions that are holdovers of the Mubarak era. The appointments of Al-Sisi and Mekki are no doubt intended to mollify such concerns. But Morsy will have to tread carefully in coming months. He was elected by a clear, but narrow, margin over former Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq and Egyptian society remains deeply divided between Islamists and non-Islamists. If he is seen as going too far, a backlash against him could be swift and possibly overwhelming.

It is likely that there will be a legal pushback against Morsy's overturning of the “supplemental constitutional articles,” particularly sicne Morsy took his oath of office under the very terms of that declaration. He has, in effect, overturned the very system through which he attained office. The power struggle in Egypt has been largely playing out in the court system, but has been less about law and more about raw political power. That's likely to continue, in spite of the recent upheaval.

The courts retain widespread authority and apparently continue to view the rise of the Brotherhood with skepticism if not alarm. If they do rule against him in the inevitable legal challenges, his willingness to enforce court rulings will indicate whether or not the Brotherhood accepts the separation of powers and recognizes the authority of the judiciary or is prepared, in effect, to go it alone in defiance of legal rulings.

As things stand, Morsy now has almost unfettered authority in Egypt, at least in theory. With the legal status of the sitting Parliament uncertain, he appears to have asserted sole power to enact, confirm and enforce legislation, declare war, and oversee the formation and function of the Constitution-drafting Assembly. New parliamentary elections are more crucial than ever. But until they happen, the power of the president, at least on paper, appears virtually absolute. In practice, there remain many other centers of power, including the new SCAF leadership and the judiciary.

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Assuming that the military and, for the meanwhile, the courts, allow Morsy's decisions to go effectively unchallenged, Egypt, in effect, has a new dictator, albeit an elected one. Beyond the urgent need of restoring legislative authority through new elections, the power struggle in Egypt will increasingly focus on the crafting of the new constitution, which will either produce a system that involves real checks and balances or which consolidates yet another system in which the presidency wholly dominates the political system.