Egypt’s Morsy Walks a Political Minefield in Sinai Crisis

While the military mounts a largely symbolic show of force, the elected President starts a slow and deliberate campaign to assert executive authority

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EGYPTIAN PRESIDENCY Handout / AFP / Getty Images

Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy shakes hands with an Egyptian soldier who was wounded in an attack in Sinai during a visit to a hospital in Cairo on Aug. 7, 2012

Three days after unknown militants attacked an Egyptian security post, killing 16 Egyptian soldiers before launching a raid across the Israeli border, President Mohamed Morsy on Wednesday finally took action.

The newly elected President sacked intelligence chief Mourad Mwafi, who had been appointed by former President Hosni Mubarak during his final days in power. Mwafi was replaced, temporarily, by another senior Mubarak-era intelligence man, Raafat Abdel Wahed Shehata. Morsy also fired the governor of North Sinai governorate, where the attacks took place. The President also asked Field Marshall Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces that continues to wield considerable executive power, to replace the commander of the military police, after the latter failed to secure the funeral for the slain soldiers. In an embarrassment for Morsy, his Prime Minister Hisham Qandil was attacked and chased from the funeral by a promilitary mob. And while he was at it, Morsy also named a new commander for the Republican Guard, two new police chiefs within the Interior Ministry and a new presidential chief of staff.

Egyptian media painted the purge as a response to a security lapse. Mwafi told local papers that he knew of an imminent attack and had alerted the military, which had failed to respond to his warning. Rumors also trickled out of the presidential palace that the presidential guard had told Morsy that it would be unable to ensure his security if he attended the soldiers’ funeral. (Morsy stayed away.)

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But the reshuffle may, in fact, be a symptom of the power struggle between the Islamist-elected President and the military junta that replaced Mubarak in February 2011, which has sought to maintain at least some of its power.

Robert Springborg, an expert on Egypt’s military at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School, sees the changes as a power play. The commander of Morsy’s Republican Guard, along with his intelligence chief, may have caused the President some embarrassment over the Sinai crisis, but more generally they had proven to be less than loyal, Springborg argues. “The presidential guard’s position is the defense of the President,” he says. The force is sufficiently large and well armed that it should have been able to secure Morsy’s presence at a state funeral; its failure to do so signified much more than an organizational failure. Former President Anwar Sadat — who was ultimately assassinated by killers within his own military — relied heavily on the presidential guard to root out alleged conspirators, Springborg says. “It’s an absolutely key position, and for the President not to have control over the presidential guard is to suggest he doesn’t have real sovereignty.”

The President also officially controls the intelligence service that Mwafi commanded, as well as the Interior Ministry — despite the fact that both ministries played major roles under Mubarak in the repression of Morsy’s political alma mater, the Muslim Brotherhood. But few were under any illusions that Morsy gained control of those ministries after taking office at the end of June. “Mwafi was clearly Tantawi’s man,” says Springborg. He was a former member of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which is currently headed by Tantawi, and a military-intelligence man for much of his career. One retired deputy state security chief, Fouad Allam, told TIME shortly after Morsy’s election that the President would likely get very little access to the spy agency’s dossiers. Nor would replacing Mwafi make much difference, Allam said: “Even if he did assign a new head of intelligence, that person would have to be from the same intelligence service,” carrying the same loyalties and training.

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But while Morsy may have replaced Mwafi with another man of the same ilk — and made similar moves in the Interior Ministry — that’s not the point, argues Springborg. “Morsy doesn’t want to undermine these institutions. He wants them to be loyal to himself and the Brotherhood. It would have been too great of a step to pull someone in from the outside — the military council would not have tolerated it,” he says. “But they make it clear that those people are now dependent on Morsy and the Muslim Brotherhood.”

An important if discreet shift has begun, he says.

Last week, Morsy’s newly appointed Prime Minister Qandil announced a Cabinet that thrilled almost no one, more than half its positions going to career bureaucrats who served the previous regime. The Muslim Brotherhood claimed five key domestic development and education posts, but left security and foreign affairs to Mubarak-era pros. The Islamists know what they’re able to influence and what they can’t at this point in time, says one analyst working for a foreign delegation in Cairo, who was unauthorized to speak to the press. “It’s probably a safe assumption that a number of these ministries are outside of his direct control,” the official says — so the Brotherhood is focusing on its strengths, and they’re behaving pragmatically.

The trouble with Morsy’s strategy, some analysts and activists argue, is that it focuses on changing loyalties among the security chieftains rather than investigating and reforming the system itself, which was the focus of last year’s rebellion. The repressive institutional culture of the police and security agencies has gone largely unchallenged — as Cairo’s handling of the crisis in Sinai attests to.

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The mostly Bedouin population of the desert peninsula bordering Israel and the Gaza Strip has long complained of government neglect and poor development. Tribal politics and mistrust of the state prevail in the peripheral region, and weapons and religious extremism abound. Since the uprising that ousted Mubarak, the security situation has only deteriorated.

Some local residents hope the reshuffle proves fruitful. “Maybe a new governor and a new intelligence chief will actually do something because they’ll be more afraid for their jobs than the last people, now that they’ve seen them get fired,” says Ibrahim, a Bedouin smuggler in the region.

But while Morsy may be able to reset the loyalties, the faulty system will be harder to change. The Egyptian military has responded to the violence in Sinai with Operation Eagle, labeled by state newspapers as “the biggest purification campaign in the Sinai,” which they say has killed dozens of “terrorists” in air strikes and gun battles, and wiped out “criminal hotbeds.” Pictures of the operation depicted armored personnel carriers rumbling over desert roads and Egyptian security forces clambering over sand dunes, gripping assault rifles. But local journalist Ahmed Abu Deraa, who joined the military in a series of dawn raids on Thursday that involved 13 armored vehicles, six jeeps and one helicopter, says the claims in state media are all bluster. “No one died and no one was arrested,” he says. “The air strikes? They only fired two missiles in the desert to scare people. The campaign did not achieve anything.”

Nor does Morsy have any control over the operation, which amounts to little more than a show of force, says Springborg. “What they’ve done is launch an exercise that is highly visible and completely ineffective, and maybe even a phony one,” he says. “To root out the threat in the Sinai is a long-term intelligence operation. It requires boots on the ground, knowledge of who’s there, and that’s exactly what the military doesn’t have.” Nor are the changes rung by Morsy this week likely anytime soon to alter the balance of power between the elected government and the generals — or the situation on the ground in Sinai.

— With reporting by Caroline Kolta / Cairo

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