CAIRO – Egypt’s Islamist president ordered the retirement of the defense minister and chief of staff on Sunday and made the boldest move so far to seize back powers that the military stripped from his office right before he took over.
Mohammed Morsi has been locked in a power struggle with the military since he took office on June 30. But after militants killed 16 Egyptian soldiers a week ago at a border post with Israel in Sinai, he has sought more aggressively to assert his authority over the top generals.
He fired the nation’s intelligence chief a few days ago and made two highly publicized visits to Sinai in the company of top commanders. He also chaired several meetings with the military brass and made a point of calling himself the supreme commander of the armed forces in televised speeches.
It was not immediately clear whether Morsi’s surprise decisions had the military’s blessing. But the appointment of outgoing Defense Minister Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi and chief of staff Gen. Sami Annan as presidential advisers and awarding them some of the nation’s highest honors suggested they may have agreed, perhaps grudgingly, in advance.
Egypt’s official Middle East News Agency, quoting an unnamed military official in a brief report, said late Sunday that Morsi’s moves were “deliberated and coordinated” in advance. It said there were no “negative reactions” from within the military.
A few hours after the decisions were announced, Morsi called on Egyptians to rally behind him in the face of the nation’s many challenges.
“Today’s decisions are not directed at certain persons or meant to embarrass certain institutions. … I only had in mind the interest of this nation and its people,” he said in a televised speech. “I want (the armed forces) to dedicate themselves to a mission that is holy to all of us and that is the defense of the nation.”
After nightfall, thousands of jubilant Morsi supporters celebrated in Tahrir Square, birthplace of the uprising that ousted Hosni Mubarak 18 months ago. Another crowd of supporters formed outside the presidential palace in Cairo’s suburb of Heliopolis.
Adding to the sweeping changes in the military leadership, Morsi also ordered the retirement of the commanders of the navy, air defense and air force, but named two of them to senior positions.
He appointed a senior judge, Mahmoud Mekki, as vice president. Mekki is a pro-reform judge who publicly spoke against election fraud during Mubarak’s 29-year rule.
If Morsi’s decisions go unchallenged, it could mean the end of six decades of de facto military rule since army officers seized power in a coup in 1952. But removing Tantawi and Annan does not necessarily mean that the military, Egypt’s most powerful institution, has been defeated or that it would give up decades of perks and prestige without a fight.
Egypt’s first civilian president acted at a moment when the military was humiliated over a major security failure in Sinai, the deadliest internal attack on soldiers in modern history. Several days before the killings, Israel warned that an attack was imminent. The intelligence chief was sacked after it emerged in Egyptian media that he knew of the Israeli warning but did not act.