CAIRO – Egypt’s Islamist President Mohamed Mursidismissed Cairo’s two top generals and quashed a military order that had curbed the new leader’s powers, in a move that further stamped his authority on the country and its army.
There had been much debate over the fate of Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, 76, who until Mursi’s election in June had ruled Egypt as head of a military council since Hosni Mubarak was toppled last year. The timing of Sunday’s announcement to replace him as armed forces head was nevertheless a surprise.
However, an embarrassing debacle for the army on the border with Israel, where 16 Egyptian troops were killed by Islamist militants a week ago, may have given Mursi the opening he needed to step up the pace in rolling back the military’s influence, pushing aside Tantawi and military chief of staff Sami Enan.
Mursi’s spokesman called it a “sovereign” decision by the head of state, and aimed at “pumping new blood” into an army that has shown signs of hoping to control the novice president. A fellow Islamist said Egypt could not go on having “two heads”.
Secular activists, wary of political Islam, nonetheless welcomed a “first step toward establishing a civilian state”.
Mursi himself later said: “The decisions I took today were not meant ever to target certain persons, nor did I intend to embarrass institutions, nor was my aim to narrow freedoms.
“I did not mean to send a negative message about anyone, but my aim was the benefit of this nation and its people,” he said, praising the work of the armed forces and saying his decision would free them to focus on their professional tasks.
The move sidelines Tantawi, Mubarak’s defence minister for two decades and whose continued presence had cast a shadow of military rule over the new democracy, and whittles away powers still held by the army, from whose ranks all Egyptian presidents for the past 60 years had been drawn until the voting in June.
A member of the military council told media that Mursi, a moderate Islamist party official popularly elected in June but with constitutional powers sharply circumscribed in advance by the generals, had consulted Tantawi and General Enan, 64, before ordering both men to retire.
But it was not clear how far the generals, members of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), actually consented to a move that reveals a reordering of Egypt’s political forces as they all wait for a new constitution, shifting more powers towards Mursi and his long-suppressed Muslim Brotherhood.
“This clash between the new president and the military council was expected – but not this fast,” said analyst Gamal Soltan. “It can be considered a restructuring of the armed forces and an end to the role of SCAF in political life.”
Thousands of Islamist supporters gathered in Cairo’s Tahrir Square and other cities to back Mursi’s decision. “President of the republic, your decree gets 100 percent,” some chanted.
Tantawi, after serving Mubarak as a minister for 20 years, helped ease the ageing dictator out of office on February 11, 2011 in the face of the mass street protests of the Arab Spring.
A senior Brotherhood official, Mahmoud Ghozlan, said the army should have returned to barracks once Mursi was elected. But it had instead sought to retain a role in politics: “The nation came to have two heads – the president and the military council,” Ghozlan said. “The president had to act to recover his full powers from the hands of the military council.”