Egypt president’s firing of generals seen as ‘soft coup’

CAIRO — Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi’s firing of the nation’s top generals was interpreted by analysts Monday as a politically engineered strategy to significantly broaden his powers as economic and political pressures mount in a country that still lacks a new constitution.

The purge of the nation’s military commanders on Sunday sharpened Morsi’s authority as leader of the Arab world’s most populous nation while proving him a better political tactician than many had believed. The generals, including Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, in effect acquiesced to their forced retirements.

The president’s decision to appoint Lt. Gen. Abdel Fattah Sisi to replace Tantawi as defense minister and chief of the military was regarded as a “soft coup” against Egypt’s old-guard establishment. It was also the latest move by Morsi, a conservative Islamist, to put his stamp on the fledgling government.

“It’s not a shock that a young officer such as Sisi rose to new ranks. Any president in an authoritarian, patriarchal nation such as Egypt would want a younger administration that he can condition with people that could look up to him,” said Nabil Abdel Fattah, advisor at Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies.

Morsi’s move was widely viewed as part of a deal struck with the former ruling military council. Many believe the agreement was meant to allow the generals a graceful exit. Activists and observers have repeatedly urged Morsi to try the ruling military elite in the deaths of scores of protesters since last year’s overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak.


“It is likely that such critical decisions were discussed beforehand, because this is not a spur-of-the-moment move,” Abdel Fattah said. “It is politically engineered.”

The administrator of the military council’s Facebook page issued this statement: “The transition, one of the hardest battles that we’ve fought, was a challenge of great magnitude.”

Morsi’s spokesman denied rumors Monday that Tantawi and dismissed armed forces chief of staff Lt. Gen. Sami Anan were under house arrest, saying both would act as presidential advisors.

The rumors highlighted the mood in Egypt, which is still adjusting to the prospect that the military, which has been at the nexus of power for six decades, is being reshaped in an erratic transition to democracy.

The military still holds enormous sway and could move to block the president later. But by firing the generals and rejecting a constitutional declaration that limited his clout, Morsi now holds legislative and executive powers, including the authority to dissolve the assembly drafting a new constitution. That document has become the central battle between secularists and Islamists over how deeply religion will influence the government and civil rights.

Morsi’s move drew praise but also concern about whether he will use his newfound latitude to implement the much-needed economic and social changes he promised.

Analysts and activists warned that the president’s expanded powers could lead to the monopolization of Egypt for the benefit for his allies and to further the political agenda of the Muslim Brotherhood. They compared the scenario to the hold Mubarak and his cronies from the now-dissolved ruling party had over the country.

Some of Egypt’s revolutionaries said they saw new dangers: “Mubarak in his prime could not take such drastic decisions alone. Before there was a state that you could revolt against; now there is no state, just Morsi and the Brotherhood,” said Dalia Ziada, director of the Ibn Khaldun Center for Democratic Studies.

Giving credence to the fears surrounding Morsi’s new authority, Egypt’s general prosecutor referred to court the cases of ultraconservative talk show host Tawfik Okasha and Islam Afifi, the editor in chief of the independent newspaper Al Dustour, for broadcasting and publishing information defaming the president.

Okasha, whose show was canceled after the charges brought against him, is known to be a pro-Mubarak and old-regime loyalist. Al Dustour had published scathing criticism of Morsi and the Brotherhood.

The paper’s most notorious public service announcement was published a day before Morsi was announced the winner of the presidential race in late June. The paper, quoting unnamed sources, alleged the Muslim Brotherhood would react violently if its candidate lost to former military colonel Ahmed Shafik, a close ally of Mubarak.

“What Morsi did was just not logical, especially after these shows and newspapers were shut down for criticizing the president and the Brotherhood,” said Ziada.

Abdellatif is a special correspondent. Times staff writer Jeffrey Fleishman in Tunis, Tunisia, contributed to this report.