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 former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak fell last year and remained head of its powerful, ad hoc military council after the Islamist was elected in June.
However, yesterday, 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 that 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 that 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 US$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 that 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,” the independent Al-Masry Al-Youm wrote.
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 canceled a decree issued by the military before his election that 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.
“What we saw ... in Egypt increasingly seems like a mix of a civilian counter-coup and a coordinated coup within the military itself,” Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Doha Center wrote.