What to make of the Egyptian president's recent decisions to sack both his minister of defense, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, and the army chief of staff, Sami Hafez Enan, to force the heads of the air force, navy and air defense to retire, and to annul the addenda to the constitution issued by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces on June 18, just prior to the elections?
Much as we can understand the moves against Tantawi and company from a good-government perspective, it is clear that Morsi's actions should be understood, first and foremost, as attempts to consolidate his power. Last week's debacle in Sinai that led to the deaths of 16 soldiers provided an apt occasion to make a move. Dismissing Tantawi and other senior military figures who are essentially remnants of the Mubarak regime serves a double purpose.
First, it allows Morsi to promote ideological confederates -- primarily among the younger officer corps -- in an institution seen as a constraint on presidential power and on the implementation of Islamist ideology. Second, as regards those who may not necessarily be supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood's ideology but are willing to pledge loyalty to the president, there is ample opportunity for Morsi here to establish patron-client networks that form an integral part of political life in the wider region, as my friend Abu Faris in Cairo pointed out to me.
This is where an analogy with Nouri al-Maliki in Iraq is appropriate. Even though we would not normally see a parallel between the Shi'i prime minister of Iraq and the Sunni president of Egypt, certain similarities in their situations and hence their behavior prove to illuminate Morsi's actions. In post-invasion Iraq, the Saddam-era armed forces had already been dissolved, allowing Maliki's own Islamic Dawa Party and like-minded groups to fill the ranks with their own Shi'a partisans and to solidify their patronage networks.
When he became premier in 2006 (having replaced Ibrahim Jaafari as the leader of the Dawa party), Maliki continued this process. Recently, however, he has aimed to bring back Sunni soldiers from the Saddam era -- provided they are willing to pledge him loyalty, something that can be seen as a way to nurture Sunni Arab support for the premier and to weaken pro-autonomy trends in the west and north of the country.
It should be noted that in his moves to monopolize his grip on Iraq's security forces, Maliki has the support of the Interior Ministry, which his party controls, and of the intelligence agencies he created.
Similarly, as Abu Faris noted in a discussion with me, Egypt's Morsi has the backing of the Interior Ministry and the country's mukhabarat (intelligence services) for his initiatives against the traditional military hierarchy. In this context, one can also understand better Morsi's recent crackdown on the independent media, which parallels the behavior of Maliki's government. In Iraq, the security forces have often harassed journalists, depending on a law that allows the premier to fine or imprison anyone deemed to have insulted the government and authorities. Frequently, the targeting of independent media entails accusations of whipping up sectarian hatred or conspiring against the government (e.g. by supporting the banned Ba'ath party).
In Egypt, moves against independent media have entailed placing travel restrictions on Tawfik Okasha -- owner of the Al-Faraeen TV station, which has now been shut down by the Egyptian authorities -- and on Islam Afifi, who runs the Christian-owned newspaper Al-Dustour. As The National newspaper reports, Al-Dustour faces charges on allegedly "harming the president through phrases and wording punishable by law," while the pretext against Okasha is that he has been calling for the assassination of Morsi and inciting sectarianism.
To be sure, Okasha is a deranged conspiracy theorist, obsessed with Zionism and Freemasonry. However, it is clear that he is simply being targeted for his stance against Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, and there is no evidence that he has ever called for murder or any other form of criminal sabotage. As for claims of stirring up sectarian strife, these unsubstantiated charges amount to little more than hypocrisy.
There are, after all, plenty of Islamist TV channels in Egypt inciting hatred against the Shi'a, who already face a precarious situation in that country (along with Copts and other members of minorities), yet these stations are not subject to any restrictions at all. For example, on one Salafist channel, Al-Nas TV, Mohamed Fawzi, who hosts a cooking show on the station, recently declared, "By Allah, you people [the Shi'a] are dogs ... Enough said, if there is a real Islamic regime, you people will not exist anymore ... I lived in Iraq for four and a half years, and these were the best days of my life. Allah's mercy upon Saddam Hussein. He wouldn't let you utter a single word."
Both Maliki and Morsi come from Islamist backgrounds in organizations for which being an open activist during the Saddam and Mubarak eras, respectively, meant risking, at the minimum, imprisonment and torture. It is therefore not surprising that the two have a paranoid mindset that sees a need to preempt perceived coup attempts and crack down on supposed threats to one's power.
Of course, neither man is a de facto dictator as of yet, and elections have been held in theory as an obstacle to such totalitarian power, but analyst Kirk Sowell of the biweekly newsletter Inside Iraqi Politics speculates that Maliki could evolve into a figure like Russia's Vladimir Putin. The same might also be said of Morsi.
Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi is a Shillman-Ginsburg Fellow at the Middle East Forum and a student at Brasenose College, Oxford University.