Over the weekend, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi sacked Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, the minister of defense, and Lieutenant-General Sami Hafez Enan, the chief of staff of the armed forces. He also cancelled the military’s June 17 constitutional decree, which stripped important national security and defense prerogatives from the presidency. His move came as a shock. Yet Morsi is doing what any prudent national leader does upon assuming office -- consolidating power. 

In the coming days, much of the commentary about Morsi’s gambit will focus on what it means for Egypt’s transition, especially the direction of civil-military relations, which have favored the armed forces for the past 60 years. Equally important, however, is how changes in Egypt’s senior military command will alter the country’s ties with the United States. If historical precedent is any guide, Morsi’s shake-up at the Egyptian Ministry of Defense will be followed by a strategic realignment between Cairo and Washington.

When they came to power in July 1952, Gamal Abdel Nasser and his fellow Free Officers (with a few notable exceptions) were willing to join in a Western security alliance. And for its part, the Eisenhower administration regarded Egypt’s new leaders as potentially important allies in confronting the Soviet Union. The U.S. embassy in Cairo cultivated both Nasser and Muhammad Naguib, who had been the Free Officers’ front man. At the same time, Washington began helping Cairo develop its own clandestine intelligence service. In the summer of 1954, Nasser requested $100 million in military and economic assistance from the United States. Washington demurred, offering $40 million instead. The move sowed mistrust and anger among the Egyptians but did not lead to an outright breach in relations. 

Over the following six months, however, things soured. The Free Officers disposed of the last remaining challenges to their new regime, especially the Muslim Brotherhood, and Nasser consolidated his own personal power. As part of that push, Cairo became an increasingly influential member of the Non-Aligned Movement and pursued a foreign policy of “positive neutralism.” The plan involved playing the major powers off each other to Egypt’s benefit. A part of it was amassing arms from countries other than the United States, which led to the  1955 “Czech arms deal” -- the largest transfer of weaponry to any Middle Eastern country at that time and signaled Nasser’s drift into the Soviet orbit.

Following Nasser’s death, Anwar Sadat’s consolidation of power and geo-strategic shift were even more pronounced than his predecessor’s had been. As a condition for being nominated president in 1970, the powerbrokers within the Arab Socialist Union (ASU) -- the party created in 1962 to administer the state and serve as a source of power for Nasser -- forced Sadat to accept limits on his own presidential authority. The most important of these was a stipulation that he rule collectively, which meant that he would have to secure the agreement of the ASU’s Supreme Executive Committee and the Central Committee on all major policy initiatives. 

By May 1971, however, Sadat had cultivated enough support, especially among the military and police officers, to oust the four men who had tried to curtail his power: General Sharawi Guma, the interior minister; Sami Sharaf, the minister of state for presidential affairs; Ali Sabri, the head of the ASU; and General Mohamed Fawzi, the minister of war. The officers whom Sadat promoted to fill the vacancies were all respected professionals focused on the battle to come with Israel, which occupied Sinai at the time. To be sure, Sadat met with challenges -- namely, from his handpicked minister of war, General Muhammad Sadiq, due to differences over war planning. But after sacking Sadiq and successfully crossing the Suez Canal in 1973, Sadat became his own man. From then on, he was able to initiate fundamental changes to Cairo’s foreign policy. In the aftermath of the October War, Sadat walked away from the Soviet Union -- which, in many ways, had helped make Egypt’s success in the opening round of the conflict possible -- in favor of strategic alignment with the United States. 

Hosni Mubarak, who succeeded Sadat after his assassination in 1981, never confronted such challenges to his power because he enjoyed well-developed ties and considerable good will among the military and political elite. Mubarak’s successor, Morsi, seems to have more in common with Sadat, however. Like Sadat, Morsi was initially forced to accept limits on his authority. Also like Sadat, he has fought back. In less than a week, Egypt’s new president has removed not only Enan and Tantawi but Murad Muwafi, the former chief of intelligence. The intelligence service and the military both opposed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood. And of course, it was Tantawi and Enan, as the leaders of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, who had issued the June 17 decree. The circumstances are, of course, quite different, but the dismissals of Muwafi, Enan, and Tantawi evoke the jettisoning of Sabri, Sharawi, Sharaf, and Fawzi a little more than 41 years ago.

It is hard to draw any conclusion just yet about Egypt’s strategic orientation, but it may look more like Egypt’s foreign policy of the mid-1950s than Cairo’s approach to the world over the last four decades. Observers do not know much about Tantawi’s replacement, General Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi, other than the fact that he is 57 years old and a former infantryman who was the head of the military intelligence service. If Sissi, Mohamed Refaat Shehata, the new head of the intelligence service whose appointment appears to be temporary, or Sidki Sayed Ahmed, the new chief of staff, have a worldview, it is not well known. That is unlikely to matter, though, because they owe their positions to Morsi. What is widely understood is the Brotherhood’s long-standing opposition to the strategic relationship between Egypt and the United States, which Muwafi, Enan, and Tantawi were known to champion. Indeed, under Tantawi -- who became minister of defense in 1991 -- the United States routinely enjoyed expedited access through the Suez Canal, overflight rights, and training in the form of the biannual Bright Star exercise, which is the largest of its type in the world. For their parts, Muwafi and Enan were well respected in Washington for their professionalism and work with the United States. 

It thus stands to reason that Morsi’s sacking of Egypt’s top national security and defense officials might in part represent a shift in Egyptian foreign policy away from the United States. Toward what country, however, remains unclear. There is no other power that could be Egypt’s patron, yet Cairo might not need one. Egypt, representing a quarter of the Arab world and strategically located on the Suez Canal and Afro-Asian rift -- is a power in its own right. Sissi, Ahmed, and Shehata’s arrival might signal a desire to pursue a foreign policy more befitting of Egypt’s prestige, an approach to the world that does not privilege any particular foreign relationship over another and that is geared toward maximizing Egypt’s national interests in contrast to what many perceive to be the record of the last three decades. If this is the case, then it seems that the Muslim Brother who is Egypt’s president is a good Nasserist. With the consolidation of Morsi’s power, the Egyptians may be embarking upon nothing less than “positive neutralism” in redux.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now
  • STEVEN A. COOK is Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. His Twitter handle is @stevenacook.
  • More By Steven A. Cook