Mohammed Morsi’s power grab leaves Egypt in one man’s hands again

08/13/2012 12:00 AM

08/14/2012 8:14 AM

For the first time since the toppling of then-Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak 18 months ago, Egypt is being governed by a person with zero ties to the previous regime, the result of a series of stunning personnel and constitutional changes that Mubarak’s successor, President Mohammed Morsi, announced Sunday.

Morsi consolidated nearly every facet of government power for himself, including overseeing the military and legislative functions, leaving only the judiciary independent. He also gave himself final say over the writing of a permanent constitution. On Monday, his spokesman, Yasser Ali, said Morsi wouldn’t reinstate Parliament, which was dissolved in June after a court ruled that the elections of some of its members were unconstitutional.

Together, Morsi’s changes appeared to strip a military that’s governed Egypt in some way since its independence 60 years ago of any direct power and left himself in complete control.

“Morsi has challenged the big guys, the establishment,” said Omar Ashour, a professor specializing in Islamists at the United Kingdom’s Exeter University who’s currently based in Cairo.

What remains a great mystery to everyone here is what Morsi will do with all that power.

On the usually emotive streets of Cairo, there’s been a muted response to what most agree is a momentous change. Many said they weren’t sure what it meant. Up until Sunday, there was a presumption that top military officials, bulwarks for the practices of the past, would limit any major changes that Morsi sought to impose. Indeed, in the early days of Morsi’s presidency, the military appeared to hold the upper hand over key decisions.

Revelers in Tahrir Square in the hours after the announcement said it marked a new Egypt, but they couldn’t say how. Ehab Ali, 35, a professor at an agricultural university, called the forced retirements of the top military brass the completion of the revolution.

It “had to happen. They are too old and not efficient Now Morsi can start his renaissance project," Ali concluded, though he couldn’t say what that project would be.

Clues to what Morsi intends may come from the personnel changes he’s made and the philosophy of the Muslim Brotherhood, whose political party was the standard that Morsi flew when he ran for the presidency.

Morsi’s choice of minister of defense, Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, for example, is from a younger generation of military commanders who could be a bridge between Mubarak-era governance and Morsi, who’s promised Islamist-based revolutionary change.

He replaced Field Marshal Mohammed Tantawi, the 75-year-old military man who’d worked alongside Mubarak for decades and headed the military council that ruled Egypt in the months after Mubarak’s resignation.

At 57, el-Sissi is thought to be the youngest member of that military council. He’s referred to as both an Islamist and a moderate. White House spokesman Jay Carney said Monday that officials had worked with el-Sissi in the past, suggesting that he, like Tantawi, will continue to be a conduit between Egypt and the United States and, potentially, Israel.

Yet el-Sissi, who served as head of military intelligence in the post-Mubarak period, also infamously defended the military practice of testing the virginity of women who’d been detained as a means of ensuring that soldiers aren’t accused of rape.

On Sunday, Morsi nullified a constitutional declaration written by the supreme military council during the period it governed Egypt that gave the council the final say over who can write the nation’s permanent constitution. The president’s new declaration gave himself that power.

That’s likely to influence the outcome of the debate over Article Two of the current constitution, which calls for shariah, or Islamic jurisprudence, to be the presiding law of the land. Although in place for decades, it wasn’t aggressively enforced under Mubarak and his generals.

A more forceful application of that law, however, is a key tenet of the Muslim Brotherhood. While Morsi resigned from the Muslim Brotherhood on taking office, its influence permeates his administration. The days and weeks ahead will answer how much he’ll use his newfound authorities to put similarly minded officials in office to carry out the Brotherhood’s interpretation of Article Two, observers said.

“What it means is that the Brotherhood is going to be able to dominate yet another aspect of Egypt’s political transition, unchecked,” said Eric Trager, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a research center.

Even the duration of these changes remained unclear. Just two months ago, the military ruled the nation and made grabs for political power. And just as the military once claimed when it made similarly bold pronouncements over the past year of transition, Morsi told the nation in a televised address Sunday that he had Egypt’s best interests at heart.

Some uttered another president’s name and another era: “Anwar Sadat, 1971,” referring to Sadat forcing out hundreds of military commanders who he thought were too close to his predecessor, Gamal Abdel Nasser. The difference is that under Sadat, a former army general, the military continued to define both governance and the economy.

With the removal of Mubarak’s generals at the hands of a civilian president who was once arrested by the army, Morsi appeared to transform the post-Mubarak period from a revolt to a potential revolution – for now at least.

“At this point Egypt’s revolt has become a revolution, because a new group has asserted total power. But I certainly don’t think it is completely settled,” Trager said.

McClatchy special correspondent Amina Ismail contributed to this report.

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