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Egyptian President Morsi Rejects Previous Limits on Presidential Power

August 13, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
In addition to removing military leaders from key government positions, Egypt's Morsi has also abated a constitutional provision limiting presidential power. Margaret Warner talks to Michele Dunne of Atlantic Council's Center for the Middle East about what these political moves mean for Egypt's delicate constitutional democracy.

MARGARET WARNER: To dissect this latest twist in Egypt’s political saga, we turn to Michele Dunne, director of the Atlantic Council’s Center for the Middle East. She previously served in the State Department and the National Security Council staff.

And, Michele Dunne, welcome back.

MICHELE DUNNE, Atlantic Council’s Center for the Middle East: Thank you, Margaret.

MARGARET WARNER: How big a move is this on Mohammed Morsi’s part, and why did he do it?

MICHELE DUNNE: Well, President Morsi did this to roll back restrictions on his power that were put in place just before he was declared the winner of the presidential election in June.

So he has — he has rolled — he has overturned this supplementary constitutional declaration that gave the military broad political powers, and he also, of course, replaced the powerful defense minister, Mohamed Tantawi, who was in his job for more than 20 years, and the chief of staff, as well as several others, the commander of the air force, the navy, et cetera. There was a whole bunch of military replacements.

MARGARET WARNER: But, I mean, if you look at it in the big picture, is this President Morsi trying to shift power, consolidate power more in the presidency and to diminish the military’s? Or was it a question of getting rid of Tantawi and elevating people he thought, what, are more loyal?

MICHELE DUNNE: It’s a matter of putting the military back into the place that they occupied before President Mubarak was removed in February 2011, so putting the military back into purely a military role and removing them from any extraordinary executive or legislative powers.

Now, the thing that does cause some concern is that Morsi himself now took on not only full presidential powers, but legislative powers. Because the parliament was dissolved following the Supreme Court decision a couple of months ago, there isn’t one.

And so, you know, that can lead some people to say, oh, this is the Brotherhood taking over Egypt.

MARGARET WARNER: I want to get back to the civilian side. But, first, let me ask you a little bit about the military.

Now, Tantawi nor any of the senior brass that were ousted has squawked about this. Was there some sort of a deal?

MICHELE DUNNE: There were — the people that Morsi elevated to the Defense Ministry and the chief of staff and so forth were other members of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.

So he chose very carefully. If he had tried to bring in outsiders or whatever, I’m sure there would have been a problem. But it looks as though, frankly, he was working with other members of this same body, the SCAF, to put them into senior positions and to move out Tantawi and Anan.

MARGARET WARNER: So, you’re saying that the military is now not going to bid, as it did just two months ago, for control over the budget, control over the prime minister, legislative authority that they wanted to exercise without oversight?

MICHELE DUNNE: Yes, that’s right.

I mean, and — but we — now we have to see if this sticks. So far, in Egypt, things are quiet and it looks as though it’s going to stick. But there have been so many twists and turns in this Egyptian transition, it’s hard to say what’s coming next.

There’s still a battle to be fought over the new Egyptian constitution, new parliamentary elections after that. And it’s really hard to say whether the military will reassert itself. It still has a lot of economic power. And so I think the struggle for power between the civil and the military in Egypt is far from over.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, on the civilian side, you referenced the possibility of new parliamentary elections.

Right now, with no parliament essentially legitimately sitting, is there any civilian check on President Morsi’s power?

MICHELE DUNNE: Not — well, there are the courts. There is still this Supreme Constitutional Court and several other courts in Egypt that are pretty much well-respected and so forth. And there have been a few tussles already between Morsi and the courts.

It was the courts that dissolved the parliament in which Morsi’s party had a near majority and so forth. So, one of the things that people are waiting to see is whether he’s going to change some appointments of senior people in the courts. That’s a possibility. He has recently appointed a senior judge as his vice president and a new justice minister.

And they’re already speaking about independence of the judiciary. And they may want to replace some of the senior judges who are still there from the Mubarak era.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, there was big concern on the part of secular opposition figures who helped topple Mubarak that this was going to mean that Morsi’s election would mean the Muslim Brotherhood essentially establishing total control over the government.

Can you — what can you tell from his appointments? Are most of his new appointments from the Brotherhood? To what degree is this an Islamist government?

MICHELE DUNNE: No, he appointed a few ministers from the Brotherhood. He appointed a prime minister and a new Cabinet a little bit more than a week ago.

And most of them are not from the Brotherhood. There are a few. Now, his appointments were criticized as being not very powerful people, technocrats, not political heavyweights and so forth. But, no, he has been careful, I think. And his military appointments and so forth are people well-qualified, from the establishment, not necessarily known for Islamist leanings.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, Michele Dunne, thank you so much.

MICHELE DUNNE: You’re welcome.