Democracy Now! correspondent based in Cairo.
In a major shakeup, Egypt’s new president, Mohamed Morsi, dismissed the country’s two top generals over the weekend, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi and military Chief of Staff Sami Enan. Morsi also quashed the army’s recent constitutional declaration that had curbed the new leader’s powers. "What’s, I think, most important to realize is that all of the new appointments came from within the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces," Democracy Now! correspondent Sharif Abdel Kouddous says from Cairo. "These weren’t outsiders that came in to replace them." [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: Today we turn to Syria for our first segment. Earlier today, Syria’s prime minister, Riyad Hijab, said the Syrian regime is collapsing, quote, "morally, financially and militarily." Hijab’s comment comes a week after he defected to Jordan.
Meanwhile, Monday, United Nations observers in Syria blamed both government forces and the armed opposition for the increasing civilian death toll in Syria. Babacar Gaye is [head of] the U.N. Supervision Mission in Syria.
BABACAR GAYE: I have reoriented the activities of our observers to monitor the level of violence and the use of heavy weapons. It is clear that violence is increasing in many parts of Syria. The indiscriminate use of heavy weapons by the government and savage attacks by the opposition in urban centers are inflicting a heavy toll on innocent civilians.
AMY GOODMAN: In a moment, we’re going to turn to Syria. But first we’re going to Cairo, Egypt, to a major shakeup. Egypt’s new president, Mohamed Morsi, dismissed Cairo’s two top generals over the weekend: Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi and military Chief of Staff Sami Enan. Tantawi had served as ousted leader Hosni Mubarak’s defense minister for two decades and headed the powerful Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. To replace him, Morsi appointed General Adbul Fattah el-Sisi, the head of military intelligence. Speaking on Sunday, President Morsi defended the move.
PRESIDENT MOHAMED MORSI: [translated] To those attending and to the honorable Egyptian people, the decisions I took today were not meant ever to target certain persons, nor did I intend to embarrass institutions, nor could my aim ever be to narrow freedoms for those whom God created free. And it must be from the heart of Islam and out of nobility and chivalry that we must be loyal to those who were loyal. And I never intended to target a person or individual, nor did I mean to send a negative message about anyone. My aim was the benefit of this nation and its people.
AMY GOODMAN: In addition, Egyptian President Morsi quashed the army’s recent constitutional declaration that had curbed the new leader’s powers. Thousands gathered in Tahrir Square to celebrate the decision. On Monday, many in Cairo continued to express their support for Morsi’s move.
BADAWI SAYED MAHMOUD: [translated] It can be said that starting today the country is no longer under military rule. Military rule is now over, and Egypt will become a civil state in which everyone will be entitled to their rights.
AMY GOODMAN: Political analyst Mohamed al-Zayaat suggested the move decreases the power of the military but was probably taken with the military’s consent.
MOHAMED AL-ZAYAAT: [translated] The role played by the military council has come to an end. The role played by Field Marshal Tantawi and the military leaders is over. But I believe there was an agreement in the last days between the military council and Morsi, and the choice of General el-Sisi as the new defense minister was done, I believe, by a recommendation in order to secure the military as an institution, because he was the manager of Tantawi’s office for many years. But in my point of view, the role of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces is over, and the military institution is gradually returning to its barracks, and the president has begun taking control of the decision-making process.
AMY GOODMAN: To find out more about the situation in Egypt, we’re going to Cairo to Democracy Now! correspondent Sharif Abdel Kouddous.
Welcome, Sharif. Tell us about this extremely significant shift.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, Amy, we can really divide what happened on Sunday into two parts, the first being a major reshuffle of the military within the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, the most prominent of which, of course, was Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, the chair of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. The defense minister for more than 20 years in Egypt has been forced into retirement, as well as the number two man in the military, the chief of staff of the armed forces, Sami Enan. Both of them were given what can be called an honorable exit. They’ve both been named presidential advisers. They’ve both been awarded medals. Tantawi was awarded the Order of the Nile, which is the highest honor in the country. So, rather than really a face-off between Morsi and the military, this has fueled speculation that really this was part of a safe exit scenario, whereby members of the Supreme Council will be able to leave their posts without fear of prosecution for the numerous crimes committed over the transitional period, including the killing of protesters, most notably on October 9th when 27 protesters, mostly Coptic Christians, were killed.
The departure of Tantawi was probably inevitable at some point. He’s close to 80 years old, but also because of what many analysts say was growing dissatisfaction amongst middle and lower ranks of the army with Tantawi’s leadership of the transitional period that really undermined a lot of the credibility and the popularity of the army in Egypt. Morsi also retired the heads of every service of the armed forces—the air force, air defense, navy—and gave them similar golden parachutes.
But what’s, I think, most important to realize is that all of the new appointments came from within the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. These weren’t outsiders that came in to replace them. So the man that replaced Tantawi as defense minister is Adbul [Fattah] el-Sisi, who is the former military intelligence chief. He’s the youngest member of the Supreme Council, in his fifties, so certainly a generational shift there. He’s not really someone who’s known in the public eye, except for in last year, when he admitted and defended the army’s use of so-called virginity tests against female protesters in March of 2011. But really, we can describe this as junior officers taking the posts of their superiors. This is really a personnel reshuffle, a major personnel reshuffle, within the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, rather than any major transformative institutional change that has taken place, and it’s really a reconfiguration of the relationship between the army and between the president, whereby it seems the military has protected its vast economic and business interests.
Now, there’s conflicting accounts in the press of whether Tantawi and Sami Enan, the top two military officials, were aware or were a part of negotiations before this announcement took place on Sunday. What, by most accounts, is clear is that Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood were in some kind of coordination with some ranks of the senior military—with senior leadership of the military, that there was some kind of consensual process that took place between the military and the presidency. Some have even described this as a coup within the military by the junior ranks against the old guard.
So, of course, Morsi also appointed a vice president, Mahmoud Mekki, who’s a senior judge. He was a leading figure in the independent judges movement during the Mubarak era. However, many have noted that Morsi promised to nominate a Coptic Christian and a female as his vice president. So, within the personnel reshuffle, that’s one part of what happened on Sunday.
The other major part, as you mentioned, Amy, is the announcement by Morsi of a four-article constitutional declaration that he issued, which essentially abrogates the military’s constitutional addendum in June that they issued in the 11th hour as the polls closed in the presidential election that curbed much of the president’s powers and handed it to the military council and also handed legislative power to the military council. So what Morsi’s announcement on Sunday does, with this constitutional declaration, is, in the absence of a sitting parliament—we must remember the elective parliament was dissolved by a court ruling in June—Morsi now has full legislative power in addition to executive power. He has the ability to sign international treaties. And perhaps most crucially, he has the power now to appoint a constituent assembly that will draft the country’s constitution, if the current hundred-member body is deadlocked or fails to do so. So Morsi essentially has near dictatorial or dictatorial powers. He can rule by fiat.
Many point to the fact that this wasn’t done all of a sudden, that Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood had been planning this for a few weeks now. But really what happened on August 5th with the attacks in Sinai really paved the way for Morsi to make this move. This was when militants attacked army soldiers stationed on the border with Gaza and Israel, killing 16 army soldiers, the highest death toll in the army in decades in Egypt. It’s been called "the Ramadan massacre" and really fueled criticism of the military’s readiness, of the breakdown in security in the Sinai, and weakened the old guard’s position. So, in summation, we can call this really a major reconfiguration of the relationship between the presidency and the army, with the presidency really coming out reinforced as the senior partner in this co-marriage of governance of Egypt.
AMY GOODMAN: Sharif, you talked about people expressing fears that President Morsi may assume practically dictatorial powers. Egypt’s top reform leader, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, tweeted Monday, "With the military stripped of legislative authority, and in the absence of parliament, the president holds imperial powers." And this is political analyst Mohamed al-Zayaat speaking on Monday.
MOHAMED AL-ZAYAAT: [translated] It is feared that the president’s assumption of political, executive and military powers, in addition to legislative power, will in the end allow room for the president to act as a dictator. This will all depend on his actions, because right now it is possible for him to form a constituent assembly, should the current one fail. So how would he form it? Will he hold exclusive decision-making authority? Or will he consult with other political powers? The benefit he gets out of these powers that he has taken will all depend on his actions and whether or not it will allow the participation of others or will end in Muslim Brotherhood hegemony.
AMY GOODMAN: Sharif, your response?
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, Amy, a couple of points here. First of all, that’s true. As I said, on paper, Morsi does have full dictatorial power right now. But let’s remember that these powers previously were held by an unelected council of military officers who were Mubarak appointees. So, to the extent that these powers have been shifted to Morsi, who is an elected official—the only elected branch of government is the presidency right now—is a move that has been welcomed by many groups across the political spectrum, by many revolutionary youth groups, and was seen as a positive step.
Now, we’re in this mess because of a broken and disfigured transitional process that was led by the military council. And so, because we have no sitting parliament right now, legislative powers have to reside somewhere, and so currently they do reside with Morsi. Having said that, of course, many groups that have feared the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, of the rise of Islamists in government in Egypt, and sought the military as a bulwark against this rise, have decried these decisions. But much of the independent press and much of the youth groups that supported the revolution have viewed this as a positive step in Egypt’s transition.
AMY GOODMAN: Finally, the closure of opposition media to the Muslim Brotherhood and the, last week, armed militants killing—what was it—16 Egyptian border guards in Sinai?
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Right. Well, first, on the media, there’s been growing criticism of the Muslim Brotherhood for what’s seen as a crackdown on the media. A newspaper called Al Dustour, an edition on Sunday had a front page—this is a very polemic newspaper that is virulently anti-Muslim Brotherhood; nevertheless, it had a front-page piece calling—saying the Muslim Brotherhood was trying to establish an Islamic caliphate in Egypt and calling for people to support the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces in what some said they were calling for some kind of coup. That edition was pulled off the stands by Morsi’s government. Also, a TV host named Tawfik Okasha, who can be compared to Glenn Beck in the United States, really a shock jock kind of guy who’s very anti-Brotherhood, was taken off the air. There’s also been criticism of what some journalists see as the stacking of the editors of publicly—of the state-owned newspapers with Islamist sympathizers. So there is this question of kind of a crackdown or a takeover of the media by the Muslim Brotherhood.
And as for the point with the attacks in Sinai, as I mentioned before, this was a very big deal in Egyptian media. Sixteen soldiers were killed. It was the biggest death toll in decades and really, I think, helped Morsi—gave Morsi an opportunity to enact these massive changes. Right after that attacks, he sacked the intelligence chief, Murad Muwafi, as well as the head of the central security forces and the presidential guard. Less than a week later, we see these massive changes with the reshuffling of the SCAF, getting rid of Tantawi and Sami Enan. So—and the military has said it is cracking down on militants in Sinai right now. But there’s been reports by journalists in the region, they’re seeing scant evidence of a real military offensive. So, that’s where we stand right now.
AMY GOODMAN: Sharif, I’d like to ask you to stay with us. We’re going to go to break, and then Sharif Abdel Kouddous, Democracy Now! correspondent, is just back from Syria, and we want to find out what is happening in Syria, and also we’ll speak with Hampshire College Professor Omar Dahi. Stay with us.