In a country that is already deeply polarized, the latest move by Egypt’s Islamist President Mohamed Morsi to replace top military generals from the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) and take away the army’s extensive legislative and financial powers threatens to further widen the rift between his supporters and opponents.
Morsi’s decision to dismiss the powerful Defense Minister Mohamed Hussein Tantawy, the leader of SCAF – the military alliance that governed Egypt after Hosni Mubarak’s ousting – and his deputy, Chief of Staff Sami Annan, has been described as “stormy” by former regime loyalists who have urged citizens to “take to the streets to enforce their democratic will.”
Morsi also canceled the constitutional amendments passed by SCAF in June that annulled the president’s role as commander in chief of the military. He likewise assumed SCAF’s ability to create a new constituent assembly, should the current 100-member panel that is presently drafting the country's proposed Constitution fail to complete its task within two weeks.
The commanders of the navy, air force and air defense have also been replaced, and Mahmoud Mekki, a pro-reform senior judge who had been vocal in his criticism of election fraud during the Mubarak era, was named vice president. Morsi earlier fired the country’s Intelligence Chief Mourad Mowafi after an armed attack on a border post in North Sinai left at least 16 soldiers dead.
Observers say the surprise moves are an attempt by Morsi to assert his authority over the military and regain some of the powers he was stripped of before his election as president. Since taking office on June 30, Morsi has engaged in a "tug of war" for power with Mubarak-era military generals, who have been using state-controlled media to vilify the Islamist president, say analysts.
It was uncertain, however, if the military’s top commanders were dismissed after prior consultations with the generals. The appointment of Field Marshal Tantawi and Chief of Staff Sami Annan as “presidential advisors” suggests that the generals had consented to the move. An unnamed military source confirmed to Egypt's official news agency that the dismissal had been coordinated with the generals, while analysts say it was part of an earlier deal struck with the Muslim Brotherhood guaranteeing the generals a safe exit.
Some members of revolutionary forces were angered that Tantawi had been given free leave. “Morsi clearly won’t prosecute any murderers or torturers,” Gigi Ibrahim, a prominent activist, lamented on her Twitter account. Prominent Judge Tahany El Gebaly denounced the move as “unconstitutional and a coup against legitimacy that threatens to lead the country to lawlessness.”
But many Egyptians think otherwise. "Our chants of 'down with military rule' have finally been answered,” Shady Ghazaly Harb, a liberal activist, told the New York Times. Crowds of jubilant supporters held large rallies in Cairo after nightfall to celebrate the president’s decisions. Tahrir Square – the epicenter of the mass protests that toppled Mubarak – drew the biggest crowd, and loud chants of “Allahu Akbar, God is Great!” filled the air.
“Morsi has certainly proved his mettle,” Kawthar Mohamed, a protester at the square, said. “He has only reclaimed the powers that are rightfully his.” Mahmoud Ghozlan, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, was quoted by the group’s official Web site as saying that the president’s decisions had fulfilled the demands of the revolution and had come in response to popular will.
Shortly after the news was announced, Morsi assured Egyptians in a televised address that he had "the nation’s best interests at heart and wanted the armed forces to dedicate themselves to defending the nation.” He urged Egyptians to unify their ranks and rally behind him so that Egypt may overcome the serious challenges it faces. Yet many are concerned that Morsi’s latest “muscle-flexing” may be the start of an Islamist monopoly over power and a replacement of the military dictatorship by yet another authoritarian regime.
Shahira Amin is an Egyptian journalist, the former deputy head of Egyptian state-owned Nile TV and one of its senior anchors.