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Morsi and the Army: The Illusive Power

[Cover of Glibert Achcar, [Cover of Glibert Achcar, "The People Want: A Radical Exploration of the Arab Uprising"]

[The following excerpts are taken from Gilbert Achcar’s recently published book The People Want: A Radical Exploration of the Arab Uprising, translated by G. M. Goshgarian (London: Saqi Books and Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013). The book will be featured in an upcoming NEWTON post. These selections were chosen by the author in light of the present situation in Egypt; for more on some of these points, click here.]

On 12 August 2012, [Mohamed Morsi] the new Egyptian president sent the SCAF’s two most eminent members into retirement. Both of these military men had been close associates of Hosni Mubarak: Hussein Tantawi, the commander in chief of the armed forces and minister of defense without interruption since 1991, and Sami Anan, chief of staff since 2005. This operation was orchestrated with great fanfare in order to make the very colorless Morsi out to be a forceful and, to boot, “revolutionary” president, since he was supposedly fulfilling what had become the popular movement’s main demand throughout the year preceding his election: that the army go back to its barracks.

The Muslim Brothers promptly mobilized to sing the praises of the president—a loyal follower of the Brotherhood’s leadership, just as the Tunisian prime minister is a loyal follower of Ennahda’s chief and Tunisia’s real president, Rached Ghannouchi. Presenting Morsi as the man who has fulfilled the “revolution’s” wishes is all the more grotesque for the fact that he has named the chief of military intelligence, Abdul-Fattah al-Sisi, to replace Tantawi. Sisi had distinguished himself in June 2011 by justifying the “virginity tests” that the SCAF had inflicted, among other humiliations, on seventeen female demonstrators who had been arrested on Tahrir Square in March. (Sisi’s declarations were such an embarrassment that the SCAF was forced to publicly disavow him.)

In actual fact, of all the dismissals of military leaders punctuating the history of the Egyptian republic, the one for which Morsi was responsible is the least dramatic. Compared with the dismissals of Amer, Chazly, or Abu Ghazalah, engineered by Morsi’s three presidential predecessors, his dismissal of Tantawi and Anan appears as an act of broad consensus, so broad, indeed, that even those relieved of their commands approved of it. The novelty, undoubtedly, is that Morsi is the first Egyptian president not to have come from the army’s ranks. This fact has been thrown into sharp relief by untold commentators who seem to have forgotten that the Egyptian uprising cheated another civilian of the presidency: Gamal Mubarak, Hosni’s son. Yet it is clearly because Morsi is a civilian lacking prestige and professional authority in the military’s eyes that he took care to confer with the upper echelons of the armed forces, in order to secure their full approval before deciding on dismissals, promotions, and appointments from their ranks, as has been attested by both the military men themselves and numerous observers.

Tantawi and Anan had to go in any case. Born in 1935, the SCAF's former chief had long since passed the age limit for the exercise of high military functions. As for Anan, born in 1948, he had lingered in the post of army chief of staff for seven years, although it is traditionally rotated every four years in Egypt. The man had been closely associated with Mubarak. Even before the Egyptian president was toppled, an Egyptian expert with intimate knowledge of the country’s military hierarchy had predicted that Anan was “too close to Mubarak to stay,” should the president himself step down. Mubarak and Tantawi were both deeply resented by Egyptian army officers, as is attested by the 23 September 2008 secret report of the US Embassy in Cairo revealed by WikiLeaks:

Recently, academics and civilian analysts painted a portrait of an Egyptian military in intellectual and social decline, whose officers have largely fallen out of society’s elite ranks. They describe a disgruntled mid-level officer corps harshly critical of a defense minister they perceive as incompetent and valuing loyalty above skill in his subordinates. However, analysts perceive the military as retaining strong influence through its role in ensuring regime stability and operating a large network of commercial enterprises….
       Since Abu Ghazalah, X noted, the regime has not allowed any charismatic figures to reach the senior ranks.
“(Defense Minister) Tantawi looks like a bureaucrat,” he joked. X described the mid-level officer corps as generally disgruntled, and said that one can hear mid-level officers at MOD clubs around Cairo openly expressing disdain for Tantawi. These officers refer to Tantawi as “Mubarak’s poodle,” he said, and complain that “this incompetent Defense Minister” who reached his position only because of unwavering loyalty to Mubarak is “running the military into the ground.”

Thus it was obvious that Tantawi and Anan could not cling to their posts very long after presidential power was handed over, as has been confirmed by Mustafa Higazi, another Egyptian specialist on the military:

In an interview with, Higazi described Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi’s decisions about the SCAF’s leaders as being, in some sense, a change of generations. Higazi said that this change had long been under discussion in Egyptian army circles and that the name of Egypt’s current Defense Minister, General Abdul-Fattah al-Sisi [born in 1954], had been seriously advanced….
       According to this analysis, Higazi thinks that the military has the same power it always has, despite the changes, with the difference that the new leadership does not assert this power as crudely as previous leaderships may sometimes seem to have.
       To illustrate his analysis, Higazi points to the way Tantawi and Anan were honored by, among other things, being named [presidential] advisors, besides being given high distinctions. He also points to the appointment of the previous chief of the military police to the post of Egyptian military attaché in China, and cites the fact that the military has maintained its economic interests and control over its own affairs.[2]

Tantawi’s and Anan’s exit thus took place under very favorable conditions for the two men: rather than being judged for crimes committed by the repressive forces while the SCAF was overseeing Egypt’s government, as the revolutionaries of Tahrir Square and other strongholds of the Egyptian uprising had repeatedly demanded (but then every member of the SCAF would have had to face judgment, including the new commander in chief of the armed forces and defense minister appointed by Morsi), they obtained de facto immunity from persecution for their past acts. Indeed, the president thanked them, decorated them, and even offered them sinecures! Describing that as a “revolutionary” deed, if not a “coup d’état,” is one symptom of a very advanced case of political myopia—if it is not simply a question of bad faith intended to deceive the people.

The army’s power and privileges have by no means diminished under Morsi in comparison with what they were under Mubarak. Egypt has seen nothing even remotely resembling the events in Turkey, where heads in the military hierarchy rolled one after the next, dozens of high-ranking officers were put on trial, and the members of the armed forces’ joint staff went into “voluntary” retirement, ceding their posts to successors named by the AKP government—developments that put a real end to the military’s tutelage over the Turkish political authorities. The difference between Morsi and Erdoğan is considerable here, like that between the Muslim Brothers and the AKP.


[W]e have witnessed the rapid proliferation of birds of ill omen exploiting the resources of Islamophobia to announce that the “Arab Spring” would culminate in totalitarian Islamic dictatorships that would make everyone regret the fallen regimes.[3] In one of the many incongruous convergences spawned by the Arab uprising, even certain leftists who, only yesterday, had been lambasting Islamophobia as a racist ideology fell back on the worst sort of Islamophobic arguments to denigrate the Libyan and Syrian uprisings, if not the Arab uprising as a whole. Certain liberals, for their part, went from wild enthusiasm for the revolution to melancholic depression.[4]


What this overview suggests is that while the earthquake of the Arab uprising has certainly caused an “Islamic tsunami,” as was only to be expected, it was, all in all, limited in size and scope. We would, moreover, do well to spin the metaphor out to the end. A tsunami is a transitory phenomenon; it rarely engulfs stretches of land for good. In time, we may very well discover that the “Islamic tsunami” was both the high point of the resurgence of Islamic fundamentalism that has been underway since the 1970s and also the point of departure for a new political cycle in the Arab region, one determined by the long-term revolutionary process that was set in motion on 17 December 2010 in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia.


[1] The expert is Gawdat Bahgat, a professor at the National Defense University (NDU) in Washington. Bahgat knows many of the Egyptian officers who have spent time at NDU. He is cited in Craig Whitlock and Greg Jaffe, “Where Egypt Military’s Loyalties Lie Remains Unclear,” Washington Post (5 Feb. 2011).

[2] Anis Zaki, “Khabir: al-Taghyir Kana Hatmiyyan bil-Jaysh al-Misri,”, 31 August 2012. It should also be noted that Morsi named the former commander of the air force chairperson of the board of the Arab Organization for Industrialization (the Egyptian military industries), and the former commander of the navy head of the Suez Canal Authority. The new defense minister, for his part, sent seventy generals into retirement, several of whom Tantawi had appointed to posts as assistant defense ministers after they had retired.

[3] See, for example, the reactionary book by John Bradley, After the Arab Spring: How the Islamists Hijacked the Middle East Revolts (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012). For Bradley, Jordan’s and Morocco’s “constitutional monarchies” [sic] are the best form of government the Arabs can hope for.

[4] I put an article by Hussein Agha and Robert Malley in this category: “This Is Not a Revolution,” New York Review of Books, vol 59, no. 17.

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