By Aijaz Zaka Syed
Egyptâ€™s President Mohamed Mursi smiles during a meeting with IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde at the Presidential Palace in Cairo, August 22, 2012.
REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh
Most newspapers in India where I am right now ignored the developments in Egypt choosing to bury them inside. Even Urdu dailies that usually show greater interest in the goings on in the Middle East went with the current. But anyone with the slightest familiarity with the Middle East would know that the sacking of the army chief Gen. Hussain Tantawi and chief of army staff Gen. Sami Enon by President Muhammad Mursi is nothing short of a political earthquake in the volatile region.
Itâ€™s perhaps as earth shaking in its import as the departure of Hosni Mubarak last year, perhaps even more. Surely the raw and inexperienced new civilian president cannot get away with this, argued the pundits. And like everyone else I found myself waiting with bated breath for the swift response that Mursiâ€™s action was almost certain to invite from the military which has ruled Egypt for the past six decades.
Nothing has happened though. So far. Mursiâ€™s great gamble seems to have paid off for now. The army has seemingly taken the change in its stride. Given the prevailing mood and scenes of instant jubilation on the streets of Egypt though, perhaps it had little choice in any case. Mursiâ€™s purge hasnâ€™t been limited to the firing of 75-year old Tantawi and equally seasoned Enon. The entire old guard, including chiefs of air force, navy, intelligence and military heads of various money-spinning government bodies like the Suez Canal Authority, has been shown the door.
For someone dismissed until weeks ago as a lightweight president without a job description and sans real powers, Mursi has demonstrated incredible chutzpah and alacrity in taking on the institution that has wielded power since King Farouk was banished 60 years ago by Naguib and Nasser.
Within days of taking over as the first freely elected civilian president, Mursi defied the generals by convening Parliament, elected with much fanfare after Mubarakâ€™s exit and promptly dissolved by the army and the so-called supreme constitutional court.
Mursiâ€™s move, however, provoked instant rebuke by the military-appointed judges and the new president graciously retreated. It was clearly a tactical retreat by the US-educated former professor, having realized that unless the genie of the army was coaxed back into the bottle the real change would forever remain elusive.
As elsewhere in Maghreb, the army holds the key to power in Egypt. And now that key is in the hands of the Islamist president. Considering the pivotal nature of Egypt in the Middle East and the strategic region straddling the Middle East and Africa, this is nothing short of a revolution in itself. A peopleâ€™s coup against the men in khaki who have for once been caught in the web of their own machinations and intrigues.
The generals may have willy-nilly allowed a Brotherhood man to replace their old comrade what with the chant of â€˜changeâ€™ rising from the Tahrir Square, they could never really stomach it. The night before the presidential runoff, the generals granted themselves all the powers that belonged to the incoming president. Democracy or no democracy, real power would rest with the self-styled Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and they let everyone know it.
Yet Mursi and the junta went with the charade of â€œtransfer of powerâ€ from the military to the president even though nothing except the presidential palace was turned over to the new head of state. The new leader, however, bided his time, waiting for the right opportunity to strike. It presented itself following the Sinai massacre of 16 unsuspecting Egyptian border guards having their iftar.
The Sinai killings were clearly timed and intended to spark a new political and security crisis, undermining Egyptâ€™s new leadership as well as its relationship with the Palestinians, especially Gazaâ€™s Islamist rulers. Hamas is an ideological affiliate of the Brotherhood. The loudest cheers for Mursiâ€™s victory were predictably heard in the Palestinian territories.
Soon after taking charge, Mursi didnâ€™t just order the opening of the Rafah border crossing, offering respite to the long besieged people of Gaza. (Rafah is the only connection with the outside world and thus the lifeline for the Palestinians. It has remained shut thanks to Egyptâ€™s understanding with Israel.) In his meetings with the Hamas leadership in Cairo last month, Mursi emphasized that his top priority was achieving unity â€œbetween Hamas and Fatah, supplying Gaza with fuel and electricity and easing the restrictions on the border crossing between Gaza and Egypt.â€
No wonder many across the Arab world are convinced the Sinai attack was carried out by the Israelis, possibly with support from friends inside Egypt. Indeed, the smooth and effortless â€˜operationâ€™ has Mossad fingerprints all over it and the new Egypt-Palestinian equation as well as the Islamist leadership in Cairo had been the obvious target. Israel has never tried to hide its panic over the ascent of the Brotherhood next door. Egypt has been crucial to Israelâ€™s scheme of occupation and dispossession of the Palestinians and dominance of the region. While Israel has experimented with some of the worst forms of abuse against the Palestinians over the past half a century, the proud leader of the Arab world looked the other way. The annual $1.3 billion US aid going directly to the Egyptian Army certainly helped.
No wonder the Tahrir revolution set the cat among the pigeons in Israel. A democratic and independent Egypt wouldnâ€™t be as pliable. The cold-blooded Sinai attack must be seen against this backdrop.
As my friend Ramzy Baroud argues in his latest piece, who stands to benefit from the Sinai episode? Why would the Hamas or any â€œIslamist militantâ€ group for that matter, target the Egyptian soldiers quietly having their iftar, inviting the wrath of the Egyptian state? And why would the masked gunmen after carrying out the attack and having duly photographed their handiwork melt into Israel, unless they were following Israeli orders or were the Israelis themselves?
After all, Israel has a long history of using murder, subterfuge and obfuscation as state policy, last seen in the poisoning of Arafat and the assassination of Hamas leader Mahmoud Al-Mabhouh in Dubai. But if the Sinai outrage was designed to destabilize Egyptâ€™s new democratic leadership and strengthen Israelâ€™s friends in the military establishment, it ended up achieving exactly the opposite.
Instead of waiting for the armyâ€™s explanation and action, Mursi moved with remarkable swiftness sacking the Sinai officials and intelligence chief, besides dispatching gunships to pursue those responsible for the carnage.
Indeed, he went a step ahead, turning the crisis into an opportunity to do what would have been unthinkable only days ago â€” clipping the generalsâ€™ wings and effectively taking charge of the countryâ€™s destiny. Perhaps Mursi too was left with no options considering the growing rumors in recent days of a military coup against his leadership with some in the media openly egging on the army to take out the new president.
Whatever be the truth, change has come to Egypt and the Middle East and nothing and no one can stop or reverse it now. And what happens in the country perceived by the rest of the Arab world as Ummud Duniya (mother of all civilization) is sure to impact the region and beyond.
Of course, the road ahead isnâ€™t going to be easy by any means, perhaps even more arduous than it has been so far, considering the formidable challenges facing Egypt on all fronts. Besides, those who have tried to arrest the winds of change in Egypt arenâ€™t going to give up. The Middle East has interesting times ahead.
â€” Aijaz Zaka Syed is a widely published writer. Write him at email@example.com