Mohamed Morsi Abdel Fatah El Sisi

With a bold decree canceling the June 17 Supplementary Constitutional Declaration that limited his powers just before his inauguration–as well as a spate of new senior appointments eliminating senior leaders of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) and promoting more junior SCAF members–President Mohammed Morsi appears to be using last week’s Sinai crisis as an opportunity to implement a broader plan.  What is not yet clear is whether he will succeed to a greater degree than he did with an earlier part of the strategy.

Morsi has now sacked Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, Minister of Defense since 1991 and de facto president since Mubarak’s departure, and Chief of Staff Sami Enan (often seen as almost equal to Tantawi in power), giving them medals for service and making them presidential advisors.  Morsi also replaced the heads of the air force and navy. The new defense minister is SCAF member Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, former head of military intelligence, and the new chief of staff is former army commander Sidqi Sobhi (also from the SCAF).  Morsi named Mohamed al-Assar, third in command in the SCAF, as “Assistant to the Minister of Defense,” an office al-Assar technically already held.  Al-Assar’s mention might be read as a signal of reassurance to the United States, as he has been responsible for handling military relations with Washington for years.

Morsi appointed as vice president Mahmoud Mekki, a senior judge who was a tireless crusader for judicial independence in 2005-6 and paid the price of discipline under the Mubarak regime.  Mekki’s brother Ahmad, also an activist judge, was recently appointed Minister of Justice. All of these new choices are respected senior officials–although the new Defense Minister is tainted by his justification of the use of virginity tests in 2011 during the questioning of female detainees (which he claimed were necessary to protect military officers from accusations of rape)–and none is publicly affiliated with the Brotherhood, although some are reported to have Islamist leanings.

While the appointments are getting the most media attention, Morsi’s decree—in which he seized not only full presidential but also legislative powers—is at least as important.  By canceling the June Supplementary Constitutional Declaration, Morsi reinstated presidential authority over defense appointments and military affairs, and also removed the SCAF’s veto over articles in the new constitution.  He also did something more profound, which was to amend the March 2011 Constitutional Declaration, basically removing all executive and legislative powers from the SCAF and transferring them to himself, at least until there is once more a parliament to retake legislative authority.

Morsi’s latest steps are the third move in a strategy to remove some of the remaining components of the Mubarak regime.  His first move, a July 9 decree that attempted to reinstate the lower house of parliament dissolved by court order, has not really been implemented.  The parliament met once and then referred its fate to the courts, which have not acted on the matter yet.  Morsi then moved into a mode of cooperation with the SCAF for several weeks that suggested he knew he had overreached, but now it seems he was merely waiting for another opportunity.

The military and intelligence failure inherent in the Sinai attack in which 16 Egyptian soldiers were killed provided Morsi with the space to make move two, which was the sacking of General Intelligence Director Mourad Mouwafi and several other senior security officials.  And the success of that step, welcomed by most observers as implementing a degree of accountability, seems to have paved the way for move three, the boldest so far.

There are several possibilities for how Morsi’s move will play out over the coming days and what it will mean for the long term.  The immediate question is whether Tantawi and Enan will step aside or will strike back at Morsi, either immediately or later on.  That might depend on whether more junior members of the SCAF—al-Sisi, Sobhi, and al-Assar—cooperated with Morsi against Tantawi and Enan.  If not, another military coup could take place.  Another possibility is that Morsi’s decree will be challenged in the courts and his appointments overturned.  Either of these scenarios would be likely to lead to violence between military and Brotherhood supporters.

If Morsi’s moves stand, it could be months before it is clear where they will take Egypt.  Optimists on Twitter August 12 were saying that Morsi was finally removing the dregs of the Mubarak regime and would now implement the goals of the 2011 revolution.  Certainly it would have been difficult, perhaps impossible, for Morsi to be an effective president under the constraints the SCAF had set up for him.  But there is also the possibility that Morsi will move beyond the caution of his early appointments to bring more and more Brotherhood members or sympathizers into senior positions, carrying out the putsch that many have feared.

One development to watch closely is the fate of the constituent assembly, which was selected by the parliament and is working on a new draft constitution while facing a lawsuit that could end in its dissolution.  Morsi has now seized from the SCAF the prerogative to appoint a new assembly should this one be dissolved.  Another area to watch is senior judicial appointments; there have been rumors that Morsi will act soon to change the composition of the Supreme Constitutional Court, as some of the judges have sided with the SCAF against Morsi.  Either of those steps would set off a new round of alarm bells in Egypt and beyond.

Michele Dunne is the director of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. 

Photo Credit: AP