President Mohammed Mursi of Egypt giving a speech in which he praised the military in Cairo (photo: dpa)
Changes in Egypt's Military Leadership

Mursi Reaches Agreement with the Generals

The changes in the Egyptian military leadership are not the result of a "civilian putsch", says Stephan Roll of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP). They are rather the result of a long-planned changeover from one generation to the next, in which the generals will continue to hold a veto in any future political system

Egyptian president Mohammed Mursi's replacement of Egypt's military leadership and his changes to the transitional constitution do not so much imply a reduction in the power of the military as an agreement regarding the division of power between the president and the army commanders.

The dismissal of the 77-year-old Hussein Mohammed Tantawi as defence minister and of the physically unwell Sami Anan as his chief of staff were evidently agreed with the highest military authority in the country, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF).

Neither man left his post in disgrace; they were appointed presidential advisers and given high national honours. As well as Tantawi and Anan, the two other most senior generals in the country, the head of the air force, Reda Hafez, and the head of the navy, Moheb Memish, were also retired from their commands.

Egypt's new defence minister, Abdul Fattah al-Sisi (left), taking his oath of office at the presidential palace in Cairo (photo: dpa)
A long-overdue change in Egypt's military leadership: the new defence minister, Abdul Fattah al-Sisi (left), takes his oath of office in the presence of President Mursi in the presidential palace


Hafez was appointed minister for military production and Memish became chairman of the Suez Canal Authority – both lucrative posts in the Egyptian national bureaucracy.

A new direction for the military

Already, at the start of the year, and thus before Mursi became president, there were rumours in security circles about likely personnel changes among the aging military leadership. Younger generals were brought into position – among them Tantawi's successor, the 57-year-old Abdul Fattah al-Sisi. Al-Sisi, head of the military secret services, was one of Tantawi's closest confidants. In the light of this fact, rumours that he was "the Muslim Brotherhoods' man" in the military leadership seem implausible.

The new chief of staff is Sedki Sobhi; at 56, he's the youngest member of the Supreme Council. Also promoted was Major General Mohammed al-Assar, formerly assistant to the defence minister with responsibility for armaments and, as a result of his frequent appearances in the media, one of the best-known members of the military leadership. Al-Assar, who will in future represent the defence minister in the cabinet, is said to have excellent relations with the US administration.

The new defence minister, Al-Sisi, and his chief of staff may do more than just herald the arrival of the next generation in the Egyptian military leadership, they could also drive forward the reorientation of the forces. Aside from the fact that the forces are in a generally bad condition, Tantawi and the other elderly generals in his inner circle always thought of the Egyptian military in strategic terms as a "conventional army".

Egyptian military in the Sinai (photo: Reuters)
Fragile security situation: "The death of 16 soldiers at the hands of terrorists on the Sinai Peninsula in early August will have made it clear to many younger officers that it is time for a change in the military leadership and for a new strategic direction for the forces," argues Stephan Roll


On the basis of their own experience fighting in the two wars against Israel, they have continued to uphold an out-dated view of the nature of the threat facing the country, according to which the Egyptian army needed to be prepared for large-scale war. Asymmetrical threats such as those that could arise from the difficult situation at Egypt's borders were largely excluded from their planning.

The death of 16 soldiers at the hands of terrorists on the Sinai Peninsula in early August will have made it clear to many younger officers that it is time for a change in the military leadership and for a new strategic direction for the forces.

In addition, there was immense unhappiness – especially among the younger officers – at the military's continuing loss of prestige among the people as a result of its role in the process of political transformation. Public questioning of the privileges of the military – and especially of the lack of transparency in its wide-ranging activities in the Egyptian economy – became increasingly aggressive. As a result, younger members of SCAF were pushing ever harder for the military to withdraw from active political responsibility.

Binding agreements with the generals?

Dr. Stephan Roll (photo: SWP)
Dr. Stephan Roll is an associate in the Middle East research group at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP)

​​But so far, the military felt it would be too risky to hand over power to the new president. The generals felt it was not clear whether Mursi and the Muslim Brotherhood would accept the wide-ranging independence of the armed forces within the country's political system.

The fact that Mursi has now taken for the presidency the powers that the military had awarded itself in the transitional constitution seems to suggest that there have been binding agreements between the generals and the Muslim Brotherhood.

It was already clear when Mursi appointed his government in early August that the Muslim Brotherhood would accept the military's power over defence, foreign policy and domestic security. It is also likely that the Brotherhood will support the interests of the military in the process of drawing up the new constitution. Mursi could push for a National Security Council to be included in the constitution, which would have a veto on all matters of foreign and especially security policy.

Such a body, which met for the first time following the incident in Sinai, is already provided for in the transitional constitution. If it were given a more established status in the new constitution, it would allow the generals to hold on to a large part of their power in the new political system, without having to take political responsibility themselves.

Stephan Roll

© German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) 2012

Translated from the German by Michael Lawton

Editor: Aingeal Flanagan/

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