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Interview: Egyptian President's Firing Of Top Officers May Find Favor With Military, Politicians Alike

Egyptian President Muhammad Morsi (center) speaks with Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi (left) and Egyptian Armed Forces Chief Of Staff Sami Anan during a graduation ceremony at Cairo's military academy last month.
With his order that two top military officials be dismissed, Egyptian President Muhammad Morsi has once again entered uncharted territory.

Maha Azzam, a fellow at London's Chatham House think tank, discusses the implications of the move and predicts what might come next with RFE/RL correspondent Abubakar Siddique.

RFE/RL: How do you read Egyptian President Muhammad Morsi's order that two senior military leaders, Field Marshal Muhammad Hussein Tantawi and Armed Forces Chief of Staff Sami Annan, be retired?

Maha Azzam:
I think it's a major move against the role of the military in the politics of Egypt. It is a move that reflects the assertion of power by Morsi against two key figures in the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) that had a very important role to play in the transition period after the fall of [ousted President Hosni] Mubarak. And it's a move that comes sooner than many had expected.

RFE/RL: Given its powerful role in the country's politics, do you think the Egyptian military will accept the order?

We must realize that the military does not necessarily represent one bloc in terms of political opinion. And that the sackings came of those at the highest level in the military. And there may be those in the military that felt that their institution was being undermined during this transition period because of the growing unpopularity of General [Field Marshal] Tantawi and of the SCAF in general. And therefore, the fact that these two figures were removed was something that many in the military, as well as in the political arena in Egypt, may welcome.

RFE/RL: Dr. Azzam, how have political parties, the secular and liberal parties in particular, reacted to these dismissals?

It is something that in a sense puts them in a dilemma because secular and political forces have wanted Tantawi and the ruling military council out of the way and they want Egypt to move toward a civil society. So in many ways they will welcome the removal of Tantawi but on the other hand, they are worried by the assertion of authority by Morsi and his growing popularity at the level of society by these moves.

RFE/RL: In your estimation, how were these dismissals related to the situation in the Sinai Peninsula, where tensions are high after the recent military operation that followed the killing of Egyptian border guards on August 5?

We can only conjecture, but it seems that the killing of border guards strengthened President Morsi's hand in the sense that he felt he was under pressure to act and to act fast. And to say that those who failed in the military to protect the security of Sinai, in a sense, need to step aside. Therefore, the situation was dealt with quickly and he took political advantage from it.

RFE/RL: What do you make of President Morsi's appointment of a reformist former judge, Mahmoud Mekki, as the vice president?

President Morsi wants to maintain a degree of consensus and continuity. He is working very skillfully with different political actors. The choice of various figures, particularly after the removal of these key generals, reflects that very process of maintaining a degree of consensus and playing the game quite carefully in terms of choice of vice president and defense minister.

RFE/RL: One aspect of the political crisis in Egypt is the somewhat acrimonious relationship between President Morsi and the Supreme Court. Where do you see that relationship moving now?

The next port of call for President Morsi, in terms of reforms, is vis-a-vis the judiciary. But it is something that has to be played out very, very skillfully. And he has to make sure that he doesn't undermine the judiciary as an institution. However, there are many figures in the judiciary that have played a political role. And that ultimately will have to change.

RFE/RL: From what we discussed, it seems that Egypt is in uncharted waters politically, how do you see the situation evolving in the near term?

I think there are uncharted waters, but they are very much part of the same process of democratization. What we have seen from yesterday's developments [eds.: the August 12 order] is that we have a president at the helm that is willing to be assertive. We have to see to what extent he can reach consensus and to what extent he can succeed in reinstating parliament, which will be both a check on his own powers, but will cement the process of democratization in Egypt.