Sunday August 19th, 2012
By Barrie Dunsmore
In 1970, Egypt and Israel began the War of Attrition. I and my ABC News crew would spend months in Cairo, just in case Egypt’s periodic artillery fire at Israeli positions across the Suez Canal - and/or Israel’s retaliatory bombing raids into Egypt - were to ignite another full scale Middle East War. But there was lots of down time and the bosses in New York strongly encouraged us to do feature stories to justify some of the costs of keeping us there. One day I had the bright idea to do a profile on the vice president of Egypt, a totally unknown figure in the outside world named Anwar Sadat - the man who theoretically would become president of Egypt if something were to happen to President Gamal Abdel Nasser.
As Nasser was only 52 and the most powerful man in the Arab World, he seemed very secure. Nevertheless, I applied to the Ministry of Information for permission to do a feature on the man who was in line to succeed Nasser. Within a day or two the Minister himself called me in. He told me Sadat was purely a figurehead, spoke not a word of English – and he implied, wasn’t very bright. Therefore my request was denied.
Just a few months later in September 1970, Nasser died of a massive heart attack. In the immediate stories of the succession, Sadat was touted as Nasser’s puppet with no chance to survive the infighting among would-be successors. But within six months Anwar Sadat had out-maneuvered all of his opponents and was fully in control. When I did my first interview with Sadat, who by then was the unquestioned leader of Egypt, I couldn’t resist telling him what denigrating things the Minister of Information had said about him when he was vice president. While I don’t recall his exact words I do remember that his eyes twinkled, he puffed on his pipe and he chortled.
When Egypt’s new president Mohammed Morsi was sworn in at the end of June, Egyptians of every political faction- as well as the majority of non-Egyptian analysts - all seemed to agree that Egypt’s first ever, elected president in modern times, would not be a strong leader. After all, on the eve of his swearing in, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces issued a decree that dissolved Parliament, which Morsi’s Moslem Brotherhood Party controlled following free elections. The general’s edict also apparently stripped the new presidency of much of its power while preserving a range of powers and privileges for the military.
Yet a week ago, this was the lead story in the New York Times; “President Mohammed Morsi of Egypt forced the retirement of his powerful defense minister, the army chief of staff and several senior generals, in a stunning purge that seemed for the moment to reclaim for civilian leaders much of the political power the Egyptian military had seized since the fall of Hosni Mubarak last year. Mr. Morsi also nullified a constitutional declaration issued by the military that eviscerated the powers of the presidency and arrogated to the military the right to enact laws.”
A similar story in the Washington Post put it this way. “The man who was until recently widely regarded as a charmless, accidental president has cast aside rivals and consolidated power with stunning speed and shrewdness…… Morsi forced out the country’s top two defense chiefs in a sudden and dramatic move that analysts saw as an early victory in a power struggle many Egyptians thought would remain stalemated for years. Perhaps most surprising was how little pushback the dismissals drew in a country that has been led by military men for six decades.”
As the smoke has cleared what seems remarkable is that there has still been no push-back from the military. Some analysts suggest Morsi cleverly exploited the incident two weeks ago in which renegade Islamists over-ran an army outpost in the Sinai desert killing sixteen Egyptian soldiers. This deeply embarrassed the military. Other reports this past week have emphasized that junior officers were dissatisfied with the aging generals of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and encouraged the change. While I have seen no reporting on this, I suspect that Morsi may have bought off men such as Field Marshall Mohammed HusseinTantawi, the head of SCAF, with promises that there would be no prosecutions or retribution against those high generals who have lined their pockets for decades as the Egyptian military came to control perhaps as much as half of the entire Egyptian civilian economy.
The United States government reportedly had some anxious moments over the sudden changes in Cairo. But it turns out that the new Defense Minister and armed forces commander is Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sissi. He is well- known to the U.S. and an administration official told the Washington Post that al-Sissi, had, “espoused cooperation with the United States and the need for peace with neighbors.”
Still there remain many uncertainties ahead as noted this past week in a Council on Foreign Relations on-line interview with Steven A. Cook, the Council’s top Egypt expert. He gives Morsi “good marks” so far. But Cook points out that because of Morsi's background as a leader in the Muslim Brotherhood, there is "concern now among remnants of the old regime, people who enjoy a secular lifestyle, Coptic Christians, and others, about what the intentions of the Brotherhood are," since many of these people have counted on the military to keep the Brotherhood in check.
This means controlling the Brotherhood will be President Morsi’s ne xt major challenge. Egypt’s economy is in a tailspin and the unemployment rate is exploding. He needs to attract significant new foreign investment to Egypt and to get masses of international tourists to start coming back. But that won’t happen if the most radical Islamic wing of his party turns Egypt into a fundamentalist state. The booze and bikinis that come with business people and tourists are incompatible with strict Islamic law enforced by religious fanatics.
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