President Hosni Mubarak, in a mini-Cabinet shuffle widely seen as a move to consolidate his control over Egypt's military establishment, effectively dismissed his powerful defense minister Saturday by naming him to a heretofore ceremonial advisory post.
A brief presidential decree said that Field Marshal Abdel-Halim abu Ghazala, Egypt's minister of defense for the past eight years and the principal architect of its close military relationship with the United States, had been appointed to the post of assistant president, a post that in the past has been associated with protocol and other largely ceremonial duties.
Maj. Gen. Youssef Sabri abu Taleb, a close ally of Mubarak's who for the past six years has served as the governor of Cairo, was named to succeed Abu Ghazala as defense minister in a separate presidential decree.
While rumors of an impending Cabinet shuffle have been rife for weeks, Abu Ghazala's removal from the Defense Ministry sent a political shock wave through Egyptian government and military circles and took many foreign diplomats here by surprise.
Abu Ghazala, 59, had been widely regarded as Mubarak's heir apparent and the second-most influential man in Egypt after the president himself. His departure from the most powerful ministry in Egypt thus also raised intriguing questions about the scenario for political succession of Washington's most important ally in the Arab world.
Some diplomats cautioned that it may be premature to characterize Abu Ghazala's new appointment as a dismissal by noting other rumors that the defense minister would also be offered the vice presidency, a post that would make him Mubarak's constitutional successor.
However, most diplomats and foreign military analysts here regarded the field marshal's appointment to the lesser post of assistant president as a stunning political demotion.
"If they were going to name him vice president, they would have done it immediately. Everybody knows that once you become an assistant anything here, it's all over," said a Western military expert.
The fact that no other Cabinet changes were announced also re-enforced the speculation that the appointment was not, in one diplomat's words, "intended to further Abu Ghazala's political career."
Prime Minister Atef Sedki, whose job Abu Ghazala was reportedly offered but declined to accept last month, told reporters after the decrees were issued that the president decided to name the field marshal as his assistant because he "needs at his side someone to help him in the huge tasks he has to discharge." Sedki added that he did not expect any further Cabinet changes.
Vacant for the past three years, the post of assistant president was last held by former Prime Minister Mamdouh Salem, whose main role was to represent the president at ceremonial functions abroad.
Abu Ghazala was not immediately available for comment, but a source close to him said he did not know what the field marshal's new duties would be. "Everything is very vague right now. We don't know what he is going to do," the source said.
Abu Ghazala, appointed defense minister by the late President Anwar Sadat, is one of only a small handful of ministers remaining from Mubarak's original Cabinet. His longevity at the Defense Ministry, however, is believed by most observers to be less a consequence of his at times testy relationship with the president than a function of his considerable skill in creating an independent power base as head of Egypt's armed forces.
Through a combination of political acumen and extensive patronage, Abu Ghazala turned the Egyptian military establishment into a virtual empire unto itself, with an independent industrial, agricultural and service-oriented infrastructure that has helped to insulate the officer corps from the many economic vicissitudes of Egyptian life.
The president has tried on several occasions to take Abu Ghazala away from all that by offering him the post of vice president, which has remained vacant since Mubarak succeeded Sadat upon the latter's assassination by Muslim extremists in October, 1981. Each time, however, the field marshal has declined.
Close Ties to Washington
Another factor in Abu Ghazala's seemingly unassailable position has been his close relationship with Washington, where he served as military attache from 1976 to 1979. A strong proponent of closer military ties to the United States, Abu Ghazala was frequently referred to as "Washington's man" in Egypt.
Thus, the most interesting question raised by Saturday's Cabinet change was not why Mubarak sought to move his field marshal from the Defense Ministry but why he apparently felt he could do so now, when he has been unable to do so in the past.
Stressing they were basing their conclusions on speculation, several diplomats said they thought Mubarak finally may have moved against Abu Ghazala because of the many unproven but disturbingly persistent rumors of corruption that have come to be associated with his name.
The fact that his name has also been linked, in a case that is soon to come to court in Sacramento, Calif., to an alleged Egyptian attempt to smuggle U.S. missile technology to Egypt, may also have been a factor in the president's decision, the diplomats speculated.
"Abu Ghazala's close relationship with Washington has been an asset in the past, but if embarrassing revelations come out in court, he could turn into a liability as far as managing relations with the United States is concerned," one diplomat said.
Other analysts looked to Abu Taleb, the new defense minister, for clues about the motive behind the Cabinet shuffle.
One Western envoy noted that Abu Taleb, 60, is considered to be "very close to Mubarak" and has earned a reputation both for honesty and efficiency as governor of Cairo.