CAIRO (Reuters) – Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi has driven back the biggest challenge to civilian rule by dismissing top generals and tearing up their legal attempt to curb his power in a bold bid to end 60 years of military leadership.
Taking the country by surprise, Mursi pushed Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi into retirement. The 76-year-old figurehead of the old order had taken charge of the biggest Arab nation when Hosni Mubarak fell last year and remained head of its powerful, ad hoc military council after the Islamist was elected in June.
Yet on Monday, the armed forces, which had supplied Egypt’s presidents for six decades after ousting the monarchy, showed no sign of challenging the move announced late on the previous day; lower-ranking generals and other officers may support a change which shifts power in the military to a new generation.
One analyst spoke of a “civilian counter-coup” coordinated with an internal putsch by more junior figures inside the army.
State media cited a military source dismissing talk of any “negative reactions” to a decision which hands Mursi, in the absence of parliament, sweeping control over the country.
Mursi and his long-suppressed Muslim Brotherhood had been expected to roll back the influence of the army, a close ally of Washington and recipient of $1.3 billion in annual military aid; but many had predicted a process that would take years of delicate diplomacy to avoid sparking a military backlash.
Instead, just six weeks after he was sworn into office and a little more than a week since a humiliating security lapse that left 16 border guards dead, Mursi announced sweeping changes on Sunday in the army command and reshaped the nation’s politics.
“Mursi settles the struggle over power,” said a headline in the state-owned Al-Akhbar daily, a newspaper that is traditionally a mouthpiece for the army-backed establishment.
“Mursi ends the political role for the armed forces,” wrote the independent Al-Masry Al-Youm. Another independent newspaper, Tahrir, added: “Revolution of the president over the military.”
Apart from some demonstrations of support for Mursi late on Sunday, there was little reaction on the streets to the president’s decision and any response on the stock market was muted, with the benchmark index rising 0.6 percent.
As well as ordering the retirement of Tantawi, the head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) and Mubarak’s defense minister for 20 years, and Chief-of-Staff Sami Enan, 64, Mursi also cancelled a decree issued by the military before his election which had curbed the power of the presidency.
Mursi appointed General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, 57, from military intelligence, to lead the army and become defense minister. Enan was replaced by General Sidki Sobhi, 56, who led the Third Field Army based in Suez, on the border with Sinai.
SUBDUED ARMY RESPONSE
“What we saw … in Egypt increasingly seems like a mix of a civilian counter-coup and a coordinated coup within the military itself,” wrote Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Doha Center.
The army’s response was subdued. General Mohamed el-Assar, who becomes deputy defense minister, told Reuters Mursi’s decision was based on “consultation” with Tantawi and the rest of the military council.
There was also little immediate public reaction from the United States, which after Egypt signed a peace deal with Israel in 1979 had been a big backer of Mubarak’s military power base.
A senior U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said it was unclear what the fallout could be. “This is an internal political matter for Egypt and it’s too soon to say what the potential implications might be,” the official said.
Tantawi and Enan were both appointed advisers and awarded medals of honor, suggesting they will not face the same fate as Mubarak, a former air force commander, jailed for life aged 84.
“I did not mean to send a negative message about anyone, but my aim was the benefit of this nation and its people,” Mursi said in a speech on Sunday night after issuing his decrees. He praised the work of the armed forces and said his decisions would free them to focus on their professional tasks.
Two other generals left for senior civilian positions heading the Suez Canal Authority and leading an industrial operation, extending a tradition honored under Mubarak of offering lucrative sinecures to top officers who retire.
“The decision was a sovereign one, taken by the president to pump new blood into the military establishment in the interests of developing a new, modern state,” presidential spokesman Yasser Ali told Reuters after he announced Mursi’s decisions.
Mursi had already shown he was ready to confront the military head on. Last month, Mursi challenged the army’s decision, based on a court ruling, to dissolve the Islamist-led parliament. Mursi’s decree was reversed by a top court.
There was no immediate sign of any legal challenge to Mursi’s latest move, which canceled a constitutional declaration by the army that had curbed the presidential powers.
By sweeping aside that declaration, Mursi, rather than the army, will hold legislative powers in the absence of parliament. It will also give the president the power to appoint an assembly to draw up a new constitution if the panel now working on it fails. That body’s composition is being challenged in court.
Some liberal and other rivals of the Muslim Brotherhood have voiced increasing alarm at the growing might of the Islamists, who swept up seats in parliament and took the presidency.
“Forget Tantawi and Enan,” one critic on Twitter, Nervana Mahmoud, wrote in English. “This is not a soft coup, but a declaration of Islamic state.”
But many liberals are equally concerned by the continuing power exerted by the army. The April 6 youth movement, which galvanized the anti-Mubarak uprising, said Mursi’s move was a “first step towards establishing a civilian state”.
Mursi, whose election victory over a former general prompted concerns in Israel and the West about alliances with Egypt, also appointed a judge, Mahmoud Mekky, as his vice president. Mekky is a brother of newly appointed Justice Minister Ahmed Mekky, who had been a vocal critic of vote-rigging under Mubarak.
Mursi, who has pledged to uphold democratic accountability and to stand by Cairo’s treaties with Israel and other states, has shown impatience with the military following violence in the Sinai desert that brought trouble with Israel and the Palestinians’ Gaza Strip enclave this month.
The president, whose own Brotherhood movement renounced violence to achieve political change in Egypt long ago, sacked Egypt’s intelligence chief last week after the attack in which Islamist militants killed the 16 Egyptian border guards before trying to storm the Israeli border.
On Sunday, officials said Egyptian troops had killed five Islamist militants after storming their hideout near the isolated border with Israel.
(Additional reporting by Yasmine Saleh, Marwa Awad Shaimaa Fayed and Ali Abdelatti; Writing by Edmund Blair; Editing by Alastair Macdonald)