After 21 years at the Defense Ministry and 17 months at the helm of an authoritarian transitional bloc, democratic convulsions have finally ousted General Hussein Tantawi from atop Egypt's defunct Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF). Unanimity indicates that President Mohamed Morsi exploited a militant ambush on Egypt's security forces to strip Tantawi of his titles. No time in the foreseeable future would provide such an uncontested opportunity to cut down the SCAF's accumulated political power - even U.S. Secretaries Hillary Clinton and Leon Panetta reportedly pressured Tantawi to bring Sinai under control before something unfortunate occurred.
Morsi would reverse the SCAF's attempt to micromanage Egypt's national budget, legislation and the selection of a constituent assembly responsible for drafting a new constitution.
Both the ex-general and his allies are likely to play their hands calmly as they attempt to rewrite a favorable history. In Tantawi's case, he will likely grasp onto Egypt's first free elections in recent memory and not let go. His leave, he can easily argue, is the product of a fledgling democracy that he helped nourish through dangerous times. Most revolutionaries won't fall for his deception, instead viewing him as a primary counterrevolutionary force, but he has few alternative narratives to rally around. Bashing the Muslim Brotherhood only reaches so many ears when the mouth speaks from Mubarak's time.
Tantawi's defense, whether he uses it or not, is certain to be amended and proliferated by the Obama administration. On cue, the various departments responsible for crafting U.S. foreign policy are publicly eager to watch the democratic process unfold in Egypt - as if the Brotherhood's rise and Tantawi's fall are truly welcome events in Washington. Seeking to assure Americans that Washington maintains influence in Cairo, U.S. officials have deployed to articulate a standard script of counterrevolutionary platitudes. White House spokesman Jay Carney and Pentagon spokesman George Little both said that the administration expected "at some point there to be changes in the military leadership. Naturally, they expect "we’ll be able to maintain strong defense relations with Egypt."
"It’s important for the military and political leadership in Egypt to continue to work together to address both the economic and security challenges facing that country," they recited to reporters.
Significant portions of their statements were also directed towards the Sinai Peninsula and Israel, with Carney hoping that Morsi’s announcements "will serve the interests of the Egyptian people and maintain good relations with Egypt’s neighbors." He even dares to "commend General Tantawi for his service, especially during the extremely difficult transition from President Mubarak’s leadership through the elections." These types of statements strip Washington's skin bare and fully expose the skeleton of U.S. policy: foreign interests still place themselves ahead of the Egyptian people.
”I would also say,” added the State Department's Victoria Nuland, "as I think our colleagues at the Pentagon have already said, that these new appointees, the new leaders of the military, are all people that we have worked with before and who – many of whom have trained here in the United States as well.”
Nuland is clearly speaking to Americans and Israelis, not Egyptians.
Yet the administration's true reaction doesn't seem match the choreographed rhetoric sent out across its departments. Regardless of their support for Morsi (a diplomatic necessity) and feigned indifference for Tantawi's loss, the general was the last hope for Washington after Mubarak and Omar Suleiman collapsed into history. He served as the Obama administration's life-line and instrument of control during the revolution, receiving favorable coverage from Washington throughout repeated acts of violence and slander against the revolutionaries. Israel's government and media is also buzzing with "great concern" and "surprise," suggesting that Washington isn't as informed or collected as advertised.
Given the continual interference from Washington and the Brotherhood's own political interests, the rest of Morsi's decision is equally murky. His power move could yield substantial progress towards alleviating concerns within the revolutionary ranks, or lead to another cycle of revolutionary action at the conclusion of Ramadan. Pandering is inevitable but beneficial in this particular case, the opposite scenario being intolerable; in contrast to Yemen's replacement military officials, a decision made with substantial U.S. input, Tantawi's firing also appears more independent. Conversely, Egyptians on both sides of the revolution could view Egypt's new Defense Minister, General Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, as a Brotherhood pawn within the military. Yasser Ali, Morsi's spokesman, also clarified that Tantawi had been given "the nation’s highest honors and appointed military adviser to the president."
As for the Brotherhood's own ambitions, Morsi is laying the foundation of a new Egypt - an Egypt where the group maintains a dominant political position. One cannot underestimate this sense of power after being deprived and suffering through decades of persecution, and curbing excessive ambitions won't be easy. Morsi's measures have now concentrated legislative and executive powers into his hands, and many Egyptian activists have reinforced the urgency of resolving this dilemma as soon as possible. After Tweeting, "Ending military rule is a step in the right direction," former IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei warned that Egypt's "transitional mess continues" so long as Morsi holds "imperial powers."
Similarly, the National Front demands that Morsi waste no time fulfilling the rest his promises: completing the "National Unity Project" (respect for all layers of society), establish a representative presidential cabinet, restructure the Constituent Assembly and draft a new constitution acceptable to all Egyptians, and hold new parliamentary elections. Composed of high-profile activists, writers and political figures, the National Front had previously agreed to support Morsi over Ahmed Shafiq on the condition that he follow through with their six-point plan. One point stipulates a "crisis-management group," including several National Front members, "to assist the president during the transition process until a complete handover of power is accomplished."
Their last demand: "abide by complete transparency with the people regarding any changes and developments."
For the most part Morsi's actions appears genuinely "sovereign" as described. He must realize that his group cannot ignore the revolutionaries any more than Mubarak or Tantawi, and that mass demonstrations await any misstep or abuse of power. External influence from Washington, Jerusalem, Riyadh and other capitals will continue seeping into Egypt's government - and the Brotherhood will cooperate out of national interests - but the group is also positioned to resist their motives. Whether the Muslim Brotherhood can continue delivering the fruits of revolution to civil and religious minds alike remains uncertain, but ending Tantawi's brief authoritarian reign is a big step in the right direction.