By HAMZA HENDAWI, Associated Press
CAIRO (AP) — The head of Egypt's military, Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, sat with a polite smile in the front row listening to President Mohammed Morsi give a 2 1/2-hour speech defending his year in office. El-Sissi even clapped lightly as the audience of Morsi supporters broke into cheers.
It was a calculating display of cool by an army general plotting the overthrow of his commander in chief. Just over a week later, el-Sissi slid in the knife, announcing Morsi's ouster on state TV on July 3 as troops took the Islamist leader into custody.
The move was the culmination of nearly a year of acrimonious relations between el-Sissi and Egypt's first freely elected — and first civilian — president.
A series of interviews by The Associated Press with defense, security and intelligence officials paint a picture of a president who intended to flex his civilian authority as supreme commander of the armed forces, issuing orders to el-Sissi. In turn, the military chief believed Morsi was leading the country into turmoil and repeatedly challenged him, defying his orders in at least two cases.
The degree of their differences suggests that the military had been planning for months to take greater control of the political reins in Egypt. When an activist group named Tamarod began a campaign to oust Morsi, building up to protests by millions nationwide that began June 30, it appears to have provided a golden opportunity for el-Sissi to get rid of the president. The military helped Tamarod from early on, communicating with it through third parties, according to the officials.
The reason, the officials said, was because of profound policy differences with Morsi. El-Sissi saw him as dangerously mismanaging a wave of protests early in the year that saw dozens killed by security forces. More significantly, however, the military also worried that Morsi was giving a free hand to Islamic militants in the Sinai Peninsula, ordering el-Sissi to stop crackdowns on jihadis who had killed Egyptian soldiers and were escalating a campaign of violence.
"I don't want Muslims to shed the blood of fellow Muslims," Morsi told el-Sissi in ordering a halt to a planned offensive in November, retired army Gen. Sameh Seif el-Yazl told AP. Seif el-Yazl remains close to the military and sometimes appears with el-Sissi at public events.
And at root, the military establishment has historically had little tolerance for the Muslim Brotherhood, Morsi's Islamist group. The military leadership has long held the conviction that the group puts its regional Islamist ambitions above Egypt's security interests.
Its alliances with Gaza's Hamas rulers and other Islamist groups alarmed the military, which believed Gaza militants were involved in Sinai violence. The officials said the military leadership also believed the Brotherhood was trying to co-opt commanders to turn against el-Sissi.
The military has been the most powerful institution in Egypt since officers staged a 1952 coup that toppled the monarchy. Except for Morsi, the military has since given Egypt all of its presidents and maintained a powerful influence over policy. Having a civilian leader over the military was entirely new for the country.
The Brotherhood accuses el-Sissi of turning against them and carrying out a coup to wreck democracy. Since being deposed, Morsi is detained by the military at an undisclosed Defense Ministry facility.
The Brotherhood had believed that el-Sissi was sympathetic with their Islamist agenda. A senior Brotherhood official told AP that Morsi installed el-Sissi, then the head of military intelligence, as defense minister and head of the armed forces in August 2012 in part because he had been the contact man between the Brotherhood and the military junta that ruled Egypt for nearly 17 months after the February 2011 fall of autocrat Hosni Mubarak.
El-Sissi spoke of his differences with Morsi for the first time Sunday when he addressed military officers in a meeting that was partially televised.
"I don't want to count to you the number of times that the armed forces showed its reservations on many actions and measures that came as a surprise," el-Sissi said.
Along with the Brotherhood official, eight current senior officials in the military, military intelligence and Interior Ministry — including a top army commander and an officer from el-Sissi's inner circle — spoke to AP on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the events between Morsi and the military.