CAIRO – In retaking key powers and shaking up the military brass, President Mohammed Morsi has sharply shifted Egypt’s balance of power overnight and transformed his public image from a weak leader to a savvy politician.
If unchallenged, the moves could end six decades of de facto military rule in Egypt. But they also raise a new concern at home and abroad: the concentration of power in the hands of Islamists.
With the military as the backbone of the Egyptian state for the past 60 years, the country’s first civilian and freely elected president must have closely coordinated his moves with top members of the military establishment to ensure their execution, according to analysts who closely monitor Egypt’s military.
That reality underlines how much care a civilian president must take if he wants to assert his authority over a military accustomed to having one of its own filling the land’s highest office.
The military sent a message of reassurance Monday about Morsi’s surprise decision to retire the defense minister and chief of staff and retake powers the generals grabbed from his office days before his June 30 inauguration.
A posting on a Facebook page known to be close to the generals said the changes, announced by Morsi on Sunday, amounted to the “natural” handing over of leadership to a younger generation. “The armed forces is a prestigious institution with a doctrine of full discipline and commitment to legitimacy,” it said.
Morsi’s move has redrawn the political map of post-Hosni Mubarak Egypt, with Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood, a fundamentalist Islamist group, gaining considerable stature from a battle not many thought it could survive, let alone win.
Morsi has been locked in a power struggle with the military since he took office. But after militants killed 16 Egyptian soldiers a week ago at a border post with Israel in Sinai – the worst attack on troops in living memory – he has more aggressively sought to assert his authority over the top generals.
He fired the nation’s intelligence chief a few days after the Sinai attack and made two highly publicized visits to Sinai in the company of top commanders. He also chaired several meetings with the military leadership and made a point of calling himself the supreme commander of the armed forces in televised speeches while seeking to project an image of himself as the army’s patron and foremost supporter.
The long-term goal of the Brotherhood is to Islamize Egypt, the most populous Arab nation. Outlawed for most of its 84 years, the group will draw much confidence from Morsi’s latest victory in his power struggle with the military as it prepares for new parliamentary elections expected before the end of the year.
Morsi, a conservative Muslim, has been careful not to push that agenda since his election, worried that he could alienate secular Egyptians, women and minority Christians. However, he made it clear while campaigning in May that Islamic Shariah law must be implemented in Egypt.
Morsi hand-picked his first prime minister last month, a devout Muslim who denies any link to the Brotherhood. On Sunday, he named Lt. Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, also known to be a devout Muslim, as defense minister, replacing Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi.
How he pulled off Sunday’s coup is the subject of intense speculation, with all parties concerned keeping mum on details.
Analysts say the shake-up could have been part of a “safe exit” deal negotiated by Morsi and the generals to shield them against prosecution for alleged crimes during the time they ruled the country. They cite the appointment of Tantawi, the outgoing defense minister, and Gen. Sami Annan, the ousted chief of staff, as presidential advisers as evidence to support their theory.
Three top generals retired by Morsi on Sunday – the chiefs of the air force, air defense and the navy– were also given senior government jobs.