There was nothing sinister about Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi’s assertion of control over the military, even if it caught most of the world off guard. Morsi, of course, is part of the Muslim Brotherhood, one of the Arab world’s oldest Islamist factions. But as Egypt’s first genuinely elected president, Morsi has a popular mandate to steer the ship of state. The top military leaders who have governed Egypt for the past 17 months had made a last-ditch effort to keep power away from him by stripping the presidency of most of its authority before he took office. On Sunday, Morsi took those powers back, and replaced the military brass with generals who will be loyal to him. Many presidents would have done the same.
The most surprising thing about Morsi’s shake-up is that it went so smoothly. Days later, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, the 76-year-old former defense minister who had governed Egypt since the revolt forced Hosni Mubarak from power, was shown on state television saluting Morsi, who gave him an award for his two decades of service. It is still unclear why the military acquiesced so quickly. The recent attack on Egyptian border guards in the Sinai, allegedly by Islamic militants, presented an opening for Morsi to assert himself. His crackdown on the militants in Sinai, which showed a willingness to defend law and order against fanaticism, and his removal of senior military officers appear to have been widely accepted by Egyptians.
Morsi’s assertion of power over the military comes after an Egyptian court dissolved the lower house of parliament, ruling that a large percentage of its lawmakers were elected unlawfully. Morsi initially tried to reinstate the so-called People’s Assembly, but the country’s high court made it clear that doing so would be illegal. Reinstating parliament would be “a real act of defiance of the judicial system,” according to Nathan Brown, professor of international affairs at George Washington University, who is a specialist on Egypt’s legal system.
As a result, Morsi has almost no check on his authority until a new parliament is elected this fall. He can rule by decree. Although he didn’t create this situation, he could exploit it in ways that would be unhealthy for Egypt’s democracy, especially when it comes to drafting a new constitution. Egypt’s civil society and US officials must watch Morsi’s actions carefully and raise alarm bells if he abuses his power.
So far, Morsi’s record is mixed. He has appointed technocrats rather than religious zealots to top government positions. But he has taken worrisome moves to crack down on free speech. Most notably, two Egyptian journalists have been charged with incitement or publishing false information about the president. That raises fears that Morsi is poised to become yet another military dictator. Morsi should understand that the whole world is watching. And the global community will judge him based not on how much power he can acquire, but how wisely he uses it.