Morsi Forces Out Military Chiefs


CAIRO — President Mohamed Morsi of Egypt forced the retirement on Sunday of his powerful defense minister, the army chief of staff and other senior generals, moving more aggressively than ever before to reclaim political power that the military had seized since the fall of Hosni Mubarak last year.

Mr. Morsi also nullified a constitutional declaration, issued by the military before he took office on June 30, that had gutted the authority of his office. On Sunday, he replaced it with his own declaration, one that gave him broad legislative and executive powers and, potentially, a decisive role in the drafting of Egypt’s still unfinished new constitution.

The maneuvers by Mr. Morsi, a former leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, cemented a major shift in power that began with his election in the face of intense opposition from the military. It received a decisive push this month after 16 Egyptian soldiers were killed in northern Sinai, deeply embarrassing the generals and weakening them politically.

Still, it was unclear on Sunday whether the generals would accept Mr. Morsi’s latest moves. One top general said the reshuffle was made in “consultations” between Mr. Morsi and the military. There was no sign of a backlash by the military on Sunday night, as the president’s supporters held large rallies in Cairo. And other figures from across the political spectrum hailed Mr. Morsi’s decision.

“We had been chanting, ‘Down, down with military rule,’ ” said Shady el-Ghazaly Harb, a liberal political activist. “Today it came true.”

Officials in Washington have been closely watching the confrontation between Mr. Morsi’s civilian government and military leaders, saying that negotiations over how to share power were going on behind closed doors. Neither the White House nor the State Department offered any immediate reaction to the command shake-up ordered by Mr. Morsi.

An Obama administration official said the United States was not warned that it was coming.

In a fiery speech on Sunday at an event celebrating a Muslim holy day, Mr. Morsi said his decisions were not meant to “embarrass” the military or its leaders and that he was acting in “the best interests of this nation.”

“Today, this nation returns — this people return — with its blessed revolution,” he said.

The retirements announced on Sunday swept away the most prominent names in the military power structure. Most stunning for many observers was the retirement of Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, the defense minister. A crucial ally of Mr. Mubarak, the field marshal had served in the post for more than 20 years.

More than any other military leader, Field Marshal Tantawi was seen as the symbol, if not the architect, of the military’s bid for increasing power after the 2011 uprising. As the leader of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, known as SCAF, he was the country’s de facto leader before Mr. Morsi’s election. At 76 years old, he was expected to retire soon, though no date had been announced, and Mr. Morsi had just reappointed him as defense minister.

The army chief of staff who was forced to retire, Sami Hafez Anan, was seen by many analysts as a potential successor to Field Marshal Tantawi. Both men were kept on as presidential advisers with undisclosed roles. Mr. Morsi also pushed out the chiefs of the navy, the air force and the air defense branch.

As analysts struggled to tell whether the shake-up represented a break between Mr. Morsi and the military, or a carefully brokered deal, many looked for clues in the replacements named for the retired generals.

For two major posts, Mr. Morsi chose officers from the supreme military council, suggesting that he had possibly struck a deal with younger officers. Some saw the way that the retirements were announced — not as voluntary actions by the officers, but as referrals by the president — as evidence that they were a surprise. But that was far from clear.

For his new defense minister, Mr. Morsi chose the head of military intelligence, Gen. Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi, who was seen as close to Field Marshal Tantawi. General Sisi’s name surfaced last year when he acknowledged to Amnesty International that the military had subjected female protesters to “virginity tests.” The general defended the policy by saying it was imposed to “protect” soldiers from allegations of rape but said the tests would be stopped.

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Gen. Mohamed al-Assar, a member of the military council, was named an assistant defense minister. He told Reuters that Mr. Morsi’s decision was “based on consultation with the field marshal and the rest of the military council.”

While the retirements marked at least a symbolic end to the military’s dominant role in Egyptian politics, Mr. Morsi’s abolishment of the constitutional declaration posed a more fundamental challenge to the military. It also raised the possibility of a new confrontation with one of Egypt’s highest courts.

The military originally issued the declaration in a bid to hamstring Mr. Morsi in the event that he won the election. The military won backing for some moves, including its decision to dissolve Parliament, from the Supreme Constitutional Court, seen as a politicized body that includes judges who share the military’s mistrust of the Brotherhood.

It was not clear Sunday how the court would react to Mr. Morsi’s decision to supersede the declaration with his own. “If the military acquiesces, would the court act unilaterally?” asked Michael Wahid Hanna, a fellow at the Century Foundation. “This is extralegal. The court has essentially said that the SCAF’s road map was O.K.”

Gaber Nassar, a professor of constitutional law at Cairo University, said that Mr. Morsi has had the right to abolish the military’s declaration since the first day of his presidency. “The court has no power whatsoever in this matter,” he said.

Perhaps anticipating a fight with the courts, Mr. Morsi on Sunday appointed a senior judge, Mahmoud Mekky, as vice president. When Mr. Mubarak was president, Mr. Mekky fought for judicial independence and spoke out frequently against voting fraud.

Mr. Morsi’s aggressive steps on Sunday contrasted sharply with his lackluster image before he became president. He was the Muslim Brotherhood’s second choice as a candidate, selected after the group’s chief strategist, Khairat al-Shater, was deemed ineligible.

On Sunday, in a speech laden with religious references, he spoke of the “many challenges” facing the nation, and suggested that Egypt — and its military — needed fresh leadership.

“I never meant to antagonize anyone,” he said. “We go on to new horizons, with new generations, with new blood that has long been awaited.”

The powers Mr. Morsi assumed on Sunday allow him to select a new panel to write Egypt’s constitution, if the current panel cannot finish their work. And he has broad powers to pass laws, though he has promised to turn over that responsibility when a new parliament is elected. Still, his moves were certain to revive concerns that he and the Brotherhood were becoming far too strong. “I see the kind of power amassed in this one person, and I think it’s pretty scary,” said Mr. Hanna.

Mr. Morsi appeared to be moving confidently after a period that seemed to expose some vulnerabilities.

He came in for sharp criticism last week after he skipped the funerals for the soldiers, citing security concerns.

In response, Mr. Morsi fired his intelligence chief and other officials. Some people speculated that he moved on Sunday in part to pre-empt a planned demonstration this month by his opponents, including many Mubarak supporters. “He’s been gaining power with time,” Mr. Harb, the activist, said of Mr. Morsi, whom he had criticized in the past. “He was sending a message to whoever thinks the Mubarak regime is still able to come back: The SCAF is not going to do anything for them. A military coup is not going to happen.”

Omar Ashour, a professor at the University of Exeter who is currently in Cairo, said that for weeks, Mr. Morsi had been pursuing a careful strategy to enhance his power, appointing revolutionary figures to crucial cabinet posts to address the state’s “soft power.” With the purge of the military command, Mr. Ashour said, “he’s going after hard power as well.”

August 13, 2012 | 4 Comments »

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4 Comments / 4 Comments

  1. David Barrett Said:

    Was he capable of this?

    Why not? He has learned from Turkey that the “strong” military no longer has the power or is willing to take chances. Perhaps there was a deal that if tantawi and Enan step down they and their faimilies will not be dealt with harshly. They were made “advisors” to pres. morsi on their “retirement” I fear for Israel as the MB will be greatly emboldened and they must deliver on their promises re treaty. The focus has been towards “exercising sovereignty” in the Sinai so I expect action there and I expect it to be by surprise and big with Barak left to deal with a fait accompli. Perhaps, he will just say Israel agreed to let them put in more troops, etc to fight terrorists. Remember Barak was the one to run away from lebanon even without a military reason. I get the feeling that Israel is not ready for the type of surprises that they can come up with, that they are only ready for the obvious attacks. I hope they will be firm on no troop movements into Sinai as this creeping re militarization is an obvious approach. It is curious that no one saw this big move coming, not a good sign.

  2. what if all these infighting enemies suddenly aligned and united against Israel in an attack, all their troops will soon be mobilized under various scenarios but they can change direction: Iran,Syria, Lebanon, Turkey, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi, etc. they are all Muslims united in their hatred of the Jews. Uniting against Israel can bring them peace and respite against each other, a way out.

  3. I think this is a very worrisome development especially the surprise, the obvious chutzpah and confidence of Morsi in making this move. Israel should expect the same sort of sudden surprise moves in the diplomatic and military areas. Obviously Morsi,and or his backers are cunning. Morsi made his move and left the decision as to whether to fight his fait accompli to his adversary. He put the shoe on the other foot to make the big move. He did not blink. What if he does the same in the sinai? What if he suddenly announces he is going to move troops in? Worse,what if he suddenly moves his army into the sinai on a pretext of securing sinai security against the terrorists without annnouncement, What will barak and bibi do? Notice that Jerusalem was compaining that they were unable to get contact from Cairo. Will they make the decision to go to war with Egypt if morsi says it is not directed against Israel, if he says it was allowed under some interpretation of the agreement? Is Barak, he who avoids any confrontation, going to be in charge of the decision? Debka says the Egyptian soldiers killed by terrorists was a setup to allow these moves by Morsi: it certainly has that appearance. Will there be more setups to take Israel by surprise? I think that surprise and chutzpah from Morsi will be the name of the game, something that Israel used to do. He will now be emboldened to make quick massive putsch moves in all areas. Israel must be ready to be pre emptive, this time they will not announce themeselves. Israel is slowly being surrounded by the Jihadists like a noose around the neck