Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi on Aug. 12 announced the retirement of the country's top five officers from military service. Defense Minister and head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi and army Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Sami Annan were both given top civilian posts as advisers to the president, while the air and naval chiefs along with the air defense chief were also retired from service and given top civilian positions. Second-tier commanders took over from the retired officers, while unconfirmed reports in Egyptian media suggest that the deputies of the promoted commanders have taken over the posts vacated by their superiors.
The military needs to secure its influence in the new political system in which the president is no longer drawn exclusively from the armed forces, which had been the case in Egypt since Lt. Col. Gamal Abdel Nasser established the modern Egyptian republic through a military coup in 1952. It is also grappling with internal tensions due to younger officers' frustrations over a lack of opportunity for promotion. The president's move may have partially addressed both issues. Given that the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces had heavily circumscribed Morsi's powers just before the June presidential election, it is unlikely his decision was a unilateral one, and it may have been made in cooperation with the ambitious younger members of the armed forces to nudge out the aging military leadership.
Egypt's second- and third-tier commanders and the general staff officer corps have for some time been displeased with the top brass's refusal to relinquish posts and allow those below a chance at promotion. Indeed, Stratfor sources in Cairo said resentment reached an all-time high after the 2011 uprising against former President Hosni Mubarak and has not subsided. The internal schisms have received little attention amid the larger struggle between the military and the Muslim Brotherhood for control of Egypt, but the recent retirements, promotions and reassignments suggest that an internal restructuring within the military was also under way.
Tantawi has been at the helm of the military establishment since the 1990s. He gave no indication that he intended to retire, and it is unlikely that his or the others' retirements were purely voluntary. Instead, they likely came as a result of pressure from subordinates who charge that the professionalism of the military as an institution is harmed when the normal flow of promotions is disrupted and aging generals remain at the helm for too long.
The retirements and promotions come at a time when the military is searching for a new arrangement that will preserve its authority now that the country has moved away from the single-party model to a multi-party one with competitive elections. The military has always wanted to resume ruling from behind the scenes and leave day-to-day matters of governance to civil authorities, and the new civilian assignments for the now-retired generals will likely be the conduit through which the defense establishment maintains its oversight of the political system.
In addition to Tantawi and Annan, who were made presidential advisers, the former air force chief will become the head of military production. Likewise, the former naval chief has reportedly been named head of the Suez Canal Authority, an important revenue-generating asset for the country, and the former air defense chief was named chairman of the Arab Organization for Industrialization, a military development group. Under this arrangement, the military can go back to operating key state institutions through retired commanders, as was the case under Anwar Sadat and Mubarak. Unlike previous times, however, these commanders will be working with a president whose background is in the Muslim Brotherhood, not the military. Furthermore, these three appointments show that the defense establishment will be able to continue to dominate the country's economic sector.
Since Mubarak's ouster and the beginning of Egypt's political transition, the Muslim Brotherhood's efforts to assert its power have repeatedly been countermanded by the military, and Morsi's decree could similarly be reversed. However, Tantawi reportedly consented to the move, and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces released a statement saying the shifts were settled via negotiation between the president and the military, indicating the military will not directly challenge the moves.
Under the new arrangement, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces remains powerful, but its composition and leadership have changed. Sensing an opening, Morsi has already issued presidential orders beyond what may have been agreed upon with the military. Morsi canceled a June 17 constitutional addendum issued by the ruling council and amended the constitutional declaration issued on March 30, 2011, with one that grants him full executive and judicial authority as well as the power to set all public policies in Egypt and sign international treaties. The declaration also gives Morsi the right to form a new constituent assembly tasked with drafting an Egyptian Constitution should any future developments prevent the current assembly from carrying out its responsibilities.
These presidential orders have not been implemented, and the judiciary or the military is likely to block them from ever being enacted just as they have done with previous initiatives intended to empower the legislature or the president. While Morsi may have achieved a symbolic victory in removing long-serving members of the former Mubarak regime from their military posts, the military had its own reasons for going along with the moves -- reasons that are intended to increase, not reduce, the military's influence over the civilian government. Furthermore, Morsi is unlikely to exercise unencumbered authority any time soon, especially with the new constitution, which will likely limit the powers of the president, being drafted.