One of the more remarkable things to have happened this weekend was Egyptian President Morsi’s dismissal of the military’s top echelon. It’s the kind of thing that has to be done with care. If Morsi is not assured of the loyalty of the military’s lower ranks then he is running the risk of a coup. If the military leadership stays fired, then Morsi has consolidated an enormous amount of power into his hands.
What’s fascinating about this move is its timing: just after the killing of over a dozen Egyptian soldiers by Islamist terrorists and a subsequent agreement with Israel to be allowed to move attack helicopters into the Sinai to deal with these terrorists. Was the Sinai attack enough to convince Morsi that the generals were paper tigers? Perhaps he feels that the generals were too cozy with Israel. It’s difficult to say—there are no truly democratic or free institutions that we can use to gauge his administration’s sentiment. This makes Egypt a dangerous black box.
It’s possible that President Morsi could be aligning Egypt with radical Islamist groups. I find this doubtful. Morsi’s moves, including releasing jailed dissidents and proclaiming Egypt’s respect for treaties, seem more in line with someone looking to build a state on popular consensus and neither on radical politics nor on military power. We can learn a lot from the fact that while some groups in Egypt seek to disavow the Camp David Accords, Morsi’s administration only talks about amending them. The emendations he is seeking seem to be more symbolic to demonstrate Egyptian sovereignty over the Sinai. Notably, he is not seeking to demonstrate this to Israelis, because they already recognize Egyptian sovereignty there. Indeed, if anything, he is making a point to the people living in the Sinai.
Israel must tread carefully, but there are reasons for hope. First of all, the Egyptian President seems to want good relations with Israel, but he is struggling with pleasing his Muslim Brotherhood constituents and the reality of running Egypt. Morsi must also face the fact that Egypt’s military is also a powerful commercial force; the military leadership makes a lot of money from the military’s investments and war with Israel would endanger that. So even though he has fired the top echelon Morsi still has to contend with an Egyptian army that prizes stability, which is very important when we consider that Israel is the economic powerhouse of the region.