In hindsight, it was always going to come to this: A Muslim Brotherhood president throwing down the gauntlet against the military that has dominated Egypt for 60 years by firing the leader who ushered former President Hosni Mubarak from power. But it's still, quite literally, a breathtaking development, and seems to close the book on the SCAF-led transitional era.
Or does it?
Commentators, bloggers and twitterers began parsing President Morsi's words as soon as they were uttered. His declaration that "we must remain loyal to those who were loyal" is ambiguous enough to be read as a parting compliment to Tantawi and (now former) Chief of Staff Sami Anan. On the other hand, their dismissal itself suggests that Morsi does not trust their loyalty - certainly not to an emerging political system that, beginning with him, will in fact be elected and not, whatever the pretences towards elections, largely selected as had largely been the case for much of the last generation.
"Some speculate that Morsi 'retired' Tantawi and Anan to preempt their own attempts further to delegitimise and undermine his presidency."
The number of possible permutations of what is really going on right now at the highest echelons of Egyptian power politics is difficult to calculate. On the one side, some speculate that Morsi "retired" Tantawi and Anan to preempt their own attempts further to delegitimise and undermine his presidency and perhaps even scuttle it altogether with a series of pro-SCAF/anti-Brotherhood protests that have been scheduled for later this month. Call it a presidential coup d'etat against the army - the reverse of the usual course of events.
Hamdi Qandil, the well-known television host and member of the Egyptian National Front, who is also close to former presidential hopeful Mohamed ElBaradei, described it as a "civilian coup" - a nice counterpoint to the idea of a "military coup" that some commentators believed was what in effect was being planned by Tantawi. Ironically, pro-SCAF voices had described the planned protests against Morsi as a "second revolution", while most revolutionary forces saw them and SCAF's behaviour more broadly as part of a "counter-revolution" against the rise of an elected civilian leadership that itself demanded a "second revolutionary wave" to cement the gains of the last 18 months against the ongoing power of Egypt's political and economic elite.
Who controls the 'state'?
Today, most people understand a "coup d'etat" to signify unelected officials, almost always from a country's military, security and/or intelligence institutions, seizing power from an existing government. Unlike a revolution, the "people" play little if any role in this process, although, as happened in Egypt in 1952, they are often bought into a revolutionary discourse after the fact retroactively to legitimise the new state of affairs.
But in the 17th century, when the modern nation-state was still in its early phase of development, the notion of a coup d'etat had a very different meaning, one that is very relevant to the present situation in Egypt. In this period, a coup d'etat was a normal expression of the "raison d'etat" - that is, the reason inherent in the functioning of these early modern states, whose prime directive was above all self-preservation and growth. Even as modern legal systems and the power of "law" (against the will or caprice of a previously absolute ruler) were developing, the systems of governance were developing a built-in fail-safe switch that would act out of necessity not to follow the law, but to override or suspend them when necessary in order to preserve the larger political/power system.
Of course, while political scientists, philosophers and political and military leaders like to talk about the "state" as if it is an independent organism whose preservation transcends any other concerns (certainly SCAF was want to describe itself as the protector and even saviour of both the state and the nation), the reality is that the state is much more the effect of innumerable discourses, relationships and networks created by those who have access to political and economic power, and to means of violence necessary to maintain the balance of forces within a society.
Permanent coup d'etat
In a very real sense, Egyptians have been living in a "permanent coup d'etat" for decades, as long as the country has been under emergency rule. The continuing coup since Mubarak's removal, despite several rounds of parliamentary and presidential elections, could not but fail to produce a functioning constitutional system that would lead the country towards a new political dawn, precisely because the raison d'etre of the state - or rather, the raison d'etat - continues to lie in its own survival - that is, in the survival of the existing networks of power, wealth, control and violence to maintain them.
President Morsi clearly understands this. In this context, the latest developments raise the question: Is what we are witnessing in Egypt the next phase in an ongoing revolutionary "wave"? That is, is Morsi in fact pushing out two of the main power-holders in the existing system in order to dismantle the dominant power and wealth networks in Egypt, so that a new and more evenly distributed power system can be created?
If so, what is happening is not so much a coup d'etat as it is a coup contre l'etat - against the existing Egyptian state, which was born out of a military coup d'etat-turned-revolution exactly 60 years ago, which ended the monarchy and brought Gemal Nasser to power as president of a very different, republican state. This process will no doubt be a very difficult, long, and at least intermittently violent one. Indeed, extra-legal violence has long defined the coup d'etat; when the state's legitimacy or even existence is challenged, deploying violence that exceeds what its own laws allow becomes the purest expression of the existing power structure's reason for its continued existence. There is little guarantee that Morsi has the power to succeed against a state that has proved so adept at preserving and even strengthening itself out of the seemingly gravest adversity, largely through the efficient deployment of violence.
On the other hand, the day Egyptians lost their fear of state violence and took to the streets in what became revolutionary protests was the day that the current power structure's days became numbered.
A second possibility is that Morsi's actions could hew much closer to the traditional coup d'etat - that is, the state acting to protect and preserve itself. This would be the case if it turns out that Tantawi and Anan's dismissals were in fact coordinated with the senior leadership of SCAF, who realised they would be better protected by allowing the new president to assume ostensibly full power, in exchange for ensuring they do not face prosecution for all the crimes SCAF has committed since Mubarak's ouster (such as the Maspero massacre of two dozen Copts, and the arrest, torture and military trials of untold thousands of people) and for leaving the massively corrupt economic system in place.
Indeed, there has been much evidence in the last year and a half that the Brotherhood and the military, whose economic interests and social outlook have moved closer together in the last decade, are "in bed together". If so, Morsi is not so much taking charge of the state as he is acting to preserve the interests of an expanding ruling elite that increasingly includes the Brotherhood leadership, if not the majority of its membership.
"Another possibility is that Morsi is being set up to fail by SCAF and the larger power elite it represents."
Near dictatorial power
Some of the country's most well-known activists seem to be of the second opinion, even as they hope the first is in fact what is happening. April 6 movement co-founder Asmaa Mahfouz pointed out after learning of the sacking of Tantawi and Anan that "our revolutionaries are more deserving of a safe exit" than the senior SCAF leadership.
"Our battle now is the Constitution," (ma'arakatuna al'an hiya ad-dustur) she tweeted, echoing the sentiments of most revolutionary activists who, however happy they may be to see Tantawi forced from direct power, understand that Morsi's annulling and rewording of SCAF's addendum to the interim Constitution in fact gives him near dictatorial power to act as both legislator and executor. That is - as has happened so many times in the past - the president has the power to become precisely the leader whose system he came to power to dismantle.
Another possibility is that Morsi is being set up to fail by SCAF and the larger power elite it represents: that, by allowing him to retire Tantawi, assume full control of the legislative and executive functions of an interim government, and even take direct responsibility for launching what is being reported as an extremely violent military assault in the Sinai, Morsi is being given full responsibility for the consequences of actions that he does not have enough power to carry out successfully.
If the process of writing a constitution does not move forward, the economy does not improve, the violence against the Sinai Bedouin blows back by strengthening extremists, and Morsi winds up seeming to protect foreign economic and strategic interests (the US, IMF, Israel), he will turn out to have been the victim of a brilliant strategic move by SCAF and the existing "state", who likely imagine themselves to stand a better chance long-term contending for power against the revolutionaries of Tahrir and their liberal and labour allies than the far better-organised and disciplined Brotherhood.
In the end, the most important player in this drama is neither Morsi nor SCAF, it's the Egyptian people more broadly. Only the people, coming together as a "public" to demand a full transition to democracy and a fair economic system, will succeed in dismantling structures of power, wealth and violence that have had more than half a century to enmesh themselves in the fabric of society. In a sense, the Egyptian people are in the first steps of a long-term process of national recreation.
President Morsi may or may not turn out to play the defining role in this drama, but by his actions this weekend he has at least moved the revolution out of its doldrums and into a new and pivotal phase, where the laws and institutions of a potentially new state will be written with less domination by the military than most people would have imagined only a few days ago.
Mark Levine is professor of Middle Eastern history at UC Irvine, and distinguished visiting professor at the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden and the author of the forthcoming book about the revolutions in the Arab world, The Five Year Old Who Toppled a Pharaoh.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.