Tussle in Egypt over Morsi's oath

Egypt's army and Islamists Muslim Brotherhood tussle over President-elect Mohammed Morsi's oath

Egypt President Mohammed Morsi. Picture: AFP

CAIRO - Egypt's presidency planned to reveal on Thursday how Islamist President-elect Mohamed Mursi would be sworn in at the weekend in a ceremony whose symbolism the Muslim Brotherhood and interim military rulers have both struggled to shape.

With the oath-taking and a planned army handover of power to the president only two days away, there was still no official word on how an important moment in Egypt's transition would unfold.

Army sources said the handover segment would be delayed from Saturday, without giving a reason. They set no new date.

Mursi's office promised a statement later in the day but did not say if differences with the army had been resolved.

The Brotherhood wanted the president sworn in by parliament in line with past custom, but an army-backed court dissolved the Islamist-dominated lower house earlier this month. The generals said the same court should hear Mursi take his oath of office.

The army council that has ruled Egypt since pushing former President Hosni Mubarak aside to calm a popular uprising last year has promised to hand back control by July 1.

Yet the military has demonstrated fairly crudely that it intends to keep its hands firmly on the real levers of power.

Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, 76, who served as Mubarak's defence minister for two decades, will keep that post in Mursi's future cabinet, an army council member said on Wednesday night.

"The government will have a defence minister who is head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces," Major-General Mohamed Assar said on private CBC television.

Asked by the talk show host if this meant Tantawi would keep his defence portfolio, Assar said: "Exactly. What is wrong with that? He is the head of the SCAF, the defence minister and the commander of the armed forces."

The military council led by Tantawi has managed a turbulent and sometimes violent transition period in which Egypt's first free parliamentary and presidential elections have taken place.

Assar's assertion that Tantawi would remain in place even before Mursi has been sworn in on Saturday illustrates the limits the military seeks to set on his presidential authority.


In a statement on June 17, the generals cut a swathe through their own previous interim constitutional decree, as well as the Mubarak-era constitution, grabbing more power for themselves.

The republic's past presidents, all drawn from the military, have had the title of supreme commander of the armed forces.

Under the new decree, the SCAF said it was in charge of all military affairs and that its head, not the president, would command the armed forces until a new constitution is written.

After the Supreme Court ordered parliament dissolved on June 14, the SCAF assumed legislative powers, which Assar said it would also exercise until a new assembly is elected.

Among other actions in a package denounced by the Muslim Brotherhood as a military coup before Mursi's election win was confirmed on Sunday, the council also named a National Defence Council to run defence and foreign policies.

Although Mursi and his future prime minister will also serve on the council, they will be outnumbered by the generals in a body whose decisions will be taken by majority vote.

Assar insisted that Mursi, a 60-year-old U.S.-trained engineer, would have full presidential prerogatives, even as he outlined curbs on his right to decide on war or peace.

"The president is the head of state with full powers. The president makes a decision to go to war in consultation with the military rulers," Assar said, adding that this was normal practice in other countries, including the United States.

The United States, determined to preserve Egypt's peace treaty with Israel and U.S. access to the Suez Canal, must now deal with the Muslim Brotherhood, despite its doubts about the Islamist group's intentions, as well as with the military, even though its commitment to democracy seems at best uncertain.

"We're keeping the lines open" to all sides, said one U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The deliberate even-handedness was visible on Sunday when U.S. President Barack Obama took the rare step of calling both Mursi and losing presidential candidate Ahmed Shafik, the former air force chief and Mubarak's last prime minister.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who has delayed plans to visit Egypt for now, this week urged Mursi to include women, Christians and secular liberals in his government.

Mursi, whose aides say he will name a woman and a Christian among six vice-presidents, has been meeting leaders of Egypt's political and religious communities ahead of his swearing-in.

After Mursi received political party leaders on Thursday, the head of the hardline Salafi Islamist Nour Party, Emad Abdel Gaffour said the meeting had focused on national reconciliation.

"We also called for a restructuring of the Interior Ministry to ensure past abuses are never repeated," he told Reuters.