Morsi Makes His Move

What the Power Grab Means for Cairo -- And Washington

Supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood's presidential candidate Mohamed Morsi carry a banner of him. Asmaa Waguih / Courtesy Reuters

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

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