2. Power in Egypt Is Not About Personalities
Even Hosni Mubarak, in the end, was less important than the regime he headed. That much was clear in February 2011, when the strongman President of 30 years was unceremoniously shunted out of power by SCAF, a coterie of generals he appointed. That was a reminder, of course, that Mubarak’s regime hadn’t been created in his image and was no personality cult; he’d simply inherited the reins of power when his predecessor, Anwar Sadat, was gunned down. Mubarak ultimately owed his power to the military, and what the military had given, the military eventually took away.
Nor was SCAF created in Tantawi’s image, even though he headed it. It may have been just as plausible, had the transition gone differently, that the military junta might have been headed by former Mubarak consigliere, the late General Omar Suleiman. And what last weekend’s events have shown, if indeed SCAF acquiesces to Tantawi’s and Annan’s forced retirement, is that the institution of SCAF is more powerful than the individuals that might lead it. It’s a crystallization of the military’s authority, and also vast institutional and economic interests, in Egyptian society, rather than an expression of the power of a specific cohort of generals. And Morsy appears to have used that fact to tilt the balance of power between civilian government and the military a little more in his favor. The changes, wrote analyst Issandr el-Amrani, were made “mostly within the logic of promotion typical of the Egyptian military (i.e., no people were suddenly dropped into the senior ranks from lower ranks or outside the senior staff). 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.”
Still, Morsy’s moves will have temporarily disorganized the opposition he was encountering from a rival power center. And he has changed the power balance within that power center. “There are some members of the SCAF who helped Mr. Morsy to do this, and they will now be beholden to him and owe their positions to his administration,” Brookings Doha Center analyst Shadi Hamid told the Economist. “What we’re going to see is a temporary accommodation in the short-term. But the institutional struggle between the military and the Brotherhood will continue.”
By exploiting the differences among generals, Morsy may have at least temporarily demobilized opposition to himself from within the military and elevated a cohort of leaders that owe their positions to him. That might allow him to push SCAF out of the political process and the writing of a new constitution, denying it the role of protector of secularism, etc., but guaranteeing its institutional interests, like an extensive share of the economy. How that plays out remains to be seen, and it will be settled by the coming together in alliances and clashes of a number of different power centers.
For the record, it’s also misleading to think of this as Morsy’s power game: the new President had been a lifelong activist of the Muslim Brotherhood, a movement based on collective leadership. And even though he’s resigned from the movement now that he’s President in order to better represent all Egyptians, there’s no question which power center drives his agenda. Let’s not forget that Morsy, in fact, is something of an accidental President himself: Egypt’s elected leader today would be Khairat al-Shater, Morsy’s longtime mentor in the Brotherhood, were it not for SCAF’s electoral commission ruling him ineligible on a legal technicality. Morsy was the Brotherhood’s Plan B candidate. Sure, there are key personalities that will make mistakes and wise decisions along the way that will shape events, but ultimately those personalities will operate within the decisionmaking parameters and interests of the competing power centers to which they owe whatever authority they have.