What is behind dismissal of Egyptian Defense Minister?
On Thursday, June 14, 2018, Abdul-Fattah Al-Sisi appointed Lt. Gen. Mohammad Zaki, the former commander of the Republican Guard, as defense minister instead of Lt Gen. Sedki Sobhi, and the appointment of Staff Maj. Gen. Mohamed Abbas Helmy Hashem as Commander of the Air Force instead of Lt. Gen. Yunis Al-Masry, who was given a civil position as Minister of Civil Aviation. Al-Sisi also appointed Maj. Gen. Mahmoud Tawfiq as Minister of Interior instead of Maj. Gen. Magdi Abdel Ghaffar. Sisi also issued Presidential Decree No. 271 of 2018 appointing General Sedki Sobhi as Assistant to the President for Defense Affairs, and Presidential Decree No. 272 of 2018 appointing Magdi Abdel-Ghaffar, the former Minister of Interior, as Advisor to the President for Security and Counterterrorism Affairs.
Egyptian Army before dismissal of Sedki Sobhi and Yunis Al-Masry
Since July 3, 2013 until the dismissal of former Defense Minister Sedki Sobhi and former Air Force Commander Yunis al-Masry, Sisi re-structured the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF), firing 31 of its commanders. With the departure of Sedki Sobhi and Yunis al-Masri, the number of commanders dismissed from the SCAF reached 33 commanders, leaving only 3 commanders from the SCAF formation on July 3, 2013, when Sisi led a military coup against Egypt’s first democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi, namely:
1- Former Secretary General of the Ministry of Defense and current Chief of Staff, Lt. General Mohamed Farid Hegazi.
2. Assistant Minister of Defense for Constitutional and Legal Affairs, Maj. General Mamdouh Shaheen.
3- Chairman of the Financial Affairs Authority of the Egyptian Armed Forces, Maj. General Mohamed Amin Nasr.
Indications and interpretations
1- What about the constitutional problem?
According to article 234 of the Egyptian Constitution of 2014 that is interpreted by Law No. 18 of 2014, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces is entitled to appoint or dismiss the Minister of Defense, in the sense that the members of the Military Council must be consulted before the appointment or dismissal of the of Minister of Defense.
Some believe that what has been done in changing Defense Minister Sedki Sobhi is against the Constitution articles, which is not surprising as this is what Sisi has been doing all the time since he led a military coup against Egypt’s first elected president and Constitution (of 2012).
However, some argue that Sisi had promoted that Article 234 of the Constitution was meant to immunize the position of Minister of Defense to let Sediki Sobhi think that he is far from any dismissal as happened with other army commanders who were sacked by Sisi even before he turned into “president”. Observers say that, on the part of Sisi, this attitude was meant to prevent Sedki Sobhi from engagement in any counter-activity that could threaten Sisi’s regime. Moreover, observers argue, it would give Sisi enough time to tighten control over the SCAF so that members of the military council should vote for the non-renewal of Sobhi as Defense Minister for a new term.
2- What is behind getting rid of Sobhi?
Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi came to power through a military coup; and the rulers who come to power in this way do not usually trust the circle surrounding them, even if they were their coup partners. Since July 3, 2013 until the dismissal of former Defense Minister Sedki Sobhi and former Air Force Commander Yunis al-Masry, even before he became “president”, Sisi removed 31 military commanders from within the military council to dominate the decision making process in the army, and exclude his rivals inside the military institution – as Sisi has always worked to overthrow influential figures within the army, including commanders of the first and second field armies as well as commanders of the central, north, south, and west military zones. In October 2017, Sisi dismissed Chief of Staff Mahmoud Hegazi before the time was ripe for dismissing Minister of Defense Sedki Sobhi. Sisi also detained Sami Anan and put Ahmed Shafiq under house arrest when they announced their intention to run for the last presidential election.
Some believe that the dismissal of Sobhi was scheduled to occur after firing the former Chief of Staff, Mahmoud Hegazi, in October 2017; so they linked this with the attempt to target Sedki Sobhi’s helicopter in the city of El Arish, Sinai, on 19 December 2017, where he was accompanied by former Minister of Interior Magdi Abdel Ghaffar, who was also dismissed in the last reshuffle. In this context, some believe that targeting the helicopter of Sobhi and Abdel Ghaffar came after Sisi himself leaked information about the timing of the two ministers’ visit to Sinai, in attempt to get rid of them before the last presidential election.
For further dominance, Sisi ousted his friend Yunis al-Masri from the Air Force Command and transferred him to the Ministry of Civil Aviation, which is usually done when the Air Force Commander is dismissed, as in the case of Lt. Gen. Ahmed Shafiq after his departure from service. (He had been appointed as Minister of Civil Aviation).
It should be noted that the announcement of the cabinet reshuffle came just before Eid al-Fitr vacation and one day before the matches of the Egyptian national team in the World Cup competition, to cover this important step; as the dismissal of the Minister of Defense and the Minister of the Interior is not that easy. Also, the Egyptian media covered this matter as a normal cabinet reshuffle without referring to the dismissal of the minister of defense, Sedki Sobhi, and the interior minister, Magdi Abdel Ghaffar. The Egyptian press only circulated a photo of Sisi while meeting the former ministers of defense and interior together with the new defense and interior ministers (Lt. General Mohamed Zaki and Maj. General Mahmoud Tawfik). The photo showed Sobhi and Abdel Ghaffar with signs of happiness on their faces to send a message that the change was not a kind of dismissal and that there was no conflicts within the military institution.
Paving the way for Lt. Gen. Mohamed Zaki
Al-Sisi has long been paving the way for Lt. General Mohamed Zaki to become the Minister of Defense. On January 18, 2017, Sisi promoted Staff Maj. General Mohammed Ahmed Zaki, the former Commander of the Republican Guard, to the rank of Lt. General. It is noteworthy that the Egyptian Institute for Studies published on January 28 2017 an assessment paper titled: “Egypt: Indications of Promotion of Republican Guard Commander”. One of the explanations given by that assessment was that such promotion was a prelude for the appointment of Lt. General Mohammed Zaki in a higher position within the military institution to enable him to be a SCAF member. This is what had exactly happened with many former Republican Guard commanders before being appointed in sensitive positions in the Egyptian army: such as the positions of Chief of Staff or Defense Minister.
Some consider Sisi’s choice of Lt. General Mohammed Zaki to become the second man within the Egyptian armed forces, as a natural result for Zaki’s role in the military coup against President Mohamed Morsi. Zaki had refrained from protecting Morsi in more than one situation: including his position during the Ittihadeya events in December 2012 (where President Morsi’s life was endangered), and the during the July 3 coup d’etat, when Sisi overthrew Morsi.
3- Implications of Anan’s move to run for presidential election
Sisi has always worked to take full control of the military institution. Therefore, any person who was viewed by Sisi as posing a threat to him was immediately removed either by legal means or by any other means. When Lt. General Sami Anan announced his intention to run for the presidential election in January 2018, it was reported at the time that a number of military commanders (who saw that he had the right to run for election against Sisi) supported him, including: Magdi Hatatah, former chief of staff and Usama Askar, the former third field army commander, Sami Diab, the former commander of the Republican Guard, and Khalid Fawzi, the former director of the General Intelligence Service. The question is: Is there a connection between the dismissal of Lt. General Sedki Sobhi and Sami Anan’s candidacy for the presidential election?
The formation of the military council which overturned President Mohamed Morsi was completely changed by Sisi except for only three commanders: Chief of Staff Lt. General Mohamed Farid Hegazi, Assistant Minister of Defense for Constitutional and Legal Affairs Maj. General Mamdouh Shaheen, and Chairman of the Financial Affairs Authority of the Egyptian Armed Forces, Maj. General Mohamed Amin Nasr. However, the most important of the three is Chief of Staff Mohammed Farid Hegazi because he has the power (based on his post as Chief of Staff) to move troops on the ground, as the chief of staff has the full authority to give orders to move forces. Some believe that the appointment of Mohamed Farid Hegazi as Chief of Staff instead of Lt. General Mahmoud Hegazi, who was sacked in October 2017, is a step to get rid of the former as Sisi did with his predecessors. It is noteworthy that a few months after Farid Hegazi’s appointment as Chief of Staff, Sisi ordered him to clear Sinai of the armed rebellion there within only three months. However, eight months have already passed since then and the armed insurgency (which the Sisi regime still regards as acts of terrorism) is still existing in the governorate of North Sinai. The question now is: Will Sisi succeed in removing the last three influential commanders within the military institution based on the army’s failure to confront the rebellion in northern Sinai or will Farid Hegazi have another opinion?
It is expected that Sisi will carry out more measures to impose full control on all joints of the State, which will not be possible without controlling all the security, information and military services. However, in return, such measures will provoke more hostilities against Sisi within the military institution. Based on this, many important developments are expected to take place in the Egyptian army during Sisi’s second term in office.