CAIRO – Egypt’s president fired his intelligence chief Wednesday for failing to act on an Israeli warning of an imminent attack days before militants stormed a border post in the Sinai Peninsula and killed 16 soldiers.
The dismissal, which followed Egyptian airstrikes against Sinai militants, also marked a bold attempt by the Islamist leader to deflect popular anger over the attack. It pointed to a surprising level of cooperation with the powerful military leaders who stripped the presidency of significant powers just before President Mohammed Morsi took office June 30.
In a major shake-up, Morsi also asked Defense Minister Hussein Tantawi to replace the commander of the military police, a force that has been heavily used to combat street protests since the ouster of Hosni Mubarak 18 months ago. Rights activists have accused the military police of brutality against protesters.
Morsi also fired the commander of his presidential guards and ordered new chiefs for security in Cairo and the police’s central security, a large, paramilitary force often deployed to deal with riots.
The decisions were announced hours after Egyptian attack helicopters fired missiles at militants in Sinai as part of what the military said was the start of an offensive, to “restore stability and regain control” over the desert territory bordering Israel and the Gaza Strip. The use of air power marked a sharp escalation in Egypt’s fight against the militants, who have become increasingly active in the mountainous terrain since last year’s uprising.
The military said the joint ground operation with police was backed by warplanes.
Morsi’s firing of senior officials was his first major assertion of authority since he succeeded Mubarak, who ruled Egypt for 29 years.
The generals who took over from Mubarak and ruled Egypt for 17 months made a major power grab just before Morsi took office, retaining many key powers for themselves including the right to legislate and control over the national budget.
The firings followed a meeting of the newly created National Defense Council, which includes Morsi, top army commanders and senior intelligence officials. The decision-making at that meeting reflected a level of cooperation between the president, a longtime leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the military leaders in the face of rising tensions over the deadliest attack ever on the military from within Egypt.
Military officers outnumber civilians on the newly created council, which takes decisions by a simple majority. That means that the generals were on board.
“The decisions are consensual and it seems that the interests (of Morsi and the military) have converged on this,” political analyst Ammar Ali Hassan said. “It was in the interest of the presidency and the generals to find a scapegoat.”