CAIRO — Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi on Sunday purged the nation’s military leadership in a provocative move to expand his power and push aside generals who epitomized the inner circle of deposed leader Hosni Mubarak.
The dismissals, including the forced retirement of Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, who led the military council that had ruled for more than a year, stunned a nation engulfed in months of political turmoil. The president also scrapped a constitutional declaration by the generals that had dramatically constrained his authority.
The sweeping moves, which some analysts suggested may have been partly orchestrated by other officers, appear to have been agreed to by the generals. It is unlikely that Morsi, a conservative Islamist whose fledgling government is under pressure on many sides, would have unilaterally confronted an entrenched military.
The steps by Morsi essentially give him control over the executive and legislative branches of government. It is, analysts said, a defining moment for a nation struggling to transition from autocratic rule to democracy.
The purge removes military commanders who have been close to the center of power for decades. It is a major realignment certain to have implications for the future of Egypt’s foreign policy and how swiftly Morsi can advance an emerging political Islam emanating from a Muslim Brotherhood movement the generals have vehemently opposed.
The president’s aim to diminish the vestiges of Mubarak’s regime was further highlighted Sunday in his naming of reformist judge Mahmoud Mekky as vice president. Mekky frequently called for an independent judiciary and criticized the fraud and corruption that defined elections during the former president’s rule.
The shift in military leadership signals that Morsi is a more calculating politician than was evident when he was sworn in on June 30. He has played two tracks: He has challenged the military, notably over court rulings that limited his power and dissolved the Islamist-controlled parliament. Yet Morsi has often stressed how revered the military is by a public that has long trusted the generals more than presidents and legislators, and he appeared in public more than once with Tantawi, seemingly at ease.
Tantawi, who is in his mid-70s, has been “transferred into retirement from today,” the president’s office said in a statement.
Morsi also ordered Lt. Gen. Sami Anan, the armed forces chief of staff who is close toU.S. militaryofficials, to step down. Lt. Gen. Abdel Fattah Sisi, head of military intelligence, was named to replace Tantawi as defense minister and commander of the armed forces. The heads of the air force and navy also were retired.
In an announcement that added fresh mystery to the reasons behind the staff changes, Morsi appointed Tantawi and Anan as presidential advisors, positions of unclear influence and jurisdiction.
The military did not comment on Morsi’s reshuffling. There were questions, however, of whether the president had the authority to override the constitutional declaration, which was essentially upheld by the nation’s top court. The future of the parliament was unclear and the country still lacks a constitution that spells out government powers.
Human rights advocates applauded the decision forcing Tantawi — Mubarak’s defense minister for about 20 years — to step down, but they called for Morsi to put the field marshal on trial in the deaths of protesters since February 2011.
“The moment [military] members are put in jail is the moment I cheer and celebrate,” said Heba Mahfouz, an activist. “Until then, don’t ask me to be happy when they are honored by Morsi.”
Morsi, who ran as a candidate for the Muslim Brotherhood, has been criticized by activists for not embodying the spirit of the uprising that overthrew Mubarak last year. His actions Sunday — many called the dismissals a reverse coup — may enhance his stature with revolutionaries. The military, however, has not been dislodged; it remains a potent counterweight in a power struggle with the Islamists that is predicted to unfold for years.
Hundreds of Egyptians marched to the presidential palace and Tahrir Square, chanting, “President Morsi said it strongly, Egypt is a civilian country.”
The military, like the nation itself, has changed since it took power in a 1952 coup. Fissures between young officers and the old guard had been widening even before last year’s revolution. U.S. diplomatic cables have suggested that progressive officers were critical of Tantawi and other generals who were viewed as out of step for running an army in a new century.
“This could be a move from inside the military against Tantawi and Anan. Over the past few months since the beginning of 2012 there has been a lobby building in the military against Tantawi and Anan and this seems to be the best scenario they could arrive to,” said Ziad Akl, senior analyst at Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies.
“They don’t want a disgraceful discharge for them, but at the same time this lobby, which is in communication with the Brotherhood, wants their people in power,” he said.
Tantawi and Mubarak were described in a 2008 U.S. diplomatic cable as “aged and change-resistant,” and focused on “maintaining their status quo through the end of their time. They simply do not have the energy, inclination or world view to do anything differently.”
Washington had urged Tantawi, who had grown increasingly unpopular, to loosen his hold on the civilian government. The constitutional declaration that Morsi nullified Sunday handed the military widespread authority in executive matters. The Supreme Court, dominated by judges appointed by Mubarak, further weakened Morsi by disbanding parliament.
The president fought back, but it was unclear until Sunday who would last longer in their posts: him or Tantawi.
“My intention was not to embarrass any institutions by my decisions,” Morsi said after the purge. “I want the armed forces to be devoted to securing the country.”
Tantawi’s command has faced a number of public relations setbacks. An attack by militants last week that killed 16 Egyptian police officers near the Israeli border revealed the military’s failures in bringing stability to the Sinai peninsula. The army was condemned by human rights groups in 2011 for carrying out “virginity tests” on women protesting against its rule.
Sisi, the man elevated to take Tantawi’s place, is known for his infamous interview with Amnesty International in which he admitted that virginity tests were ordered for female detainees, saying they “were carried out to protect the army against possible allegations of rape.”
Abdellatif is a special correspondent.