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Egyptian president dismisses military chief

Updated: 2012-08-14 03:37
( China Daily)

Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi ordered the retirement of the defense minister and chief of staff on Sunday and made the boldest move so far to seize back powers that the military stripped from his office right before he took over.

Morsi has been locked in a power struggle with the military since he took office on June 30. But after militants killed 16 Egyptian soldiers a week ago at a border post with Israel in Sinai, he has sought more aggressively to assert his authority over the top generals.

He fired the nation’s intelligence chief a few days ago and made two highly publicized visits to Sinai in the company of top commanders. He also chaired several meetings with the military brass and made a point of calling himself the supreme commander of the armed forces in televised speeches.

It was not immediately clear whether Morsi’s decisions had the military’s blessing. But the appointment of outgoing Defense Minister Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi and Chief of Staff Sami Annan as presidential advisers and awarding them some of the nation’s highest honors suggested they may have agreed, perhaps grudgingly, in advance.

Egypt’s official Middle East News Agency, quoting an unnamed military official in a brief report, said on Sunday that Morsi’s moves were "deliberated and coordinated" in advance, adding that there were no "negative reactions" from within the military.

A few hours after the decisions were announced, Morsi called on Egyptians to rally behind him in the face of the nation’s many challenges.

The Egyptian media on Monday described Morsi’s move as "revolutionary", with some saying it was aimed at ending the power of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.

"Today’s decisions are not directed at certain persons or meant to embarrass certain institutions. ... I only had in mind the interest of this nation and its people," Morsi said in a televised speech on Sunday. "I want (the armed forces) to dedicate themselves to a mission that is holy to all of us and that is the defense of the nation."

Adding to the sweeping changes in the military leadership, Morsi also ordered the retirement of the commanders of the navy, air defense and air force, but named two of them to senior positions.

He appointed a senior judge, Mohammed Mekki, as vice-president. Mekki is a pro-reform judge who publicly spoke against election fraud during Mubarak’s 29-year rule.

If Morsi’s decisions go unchallenged, it could mean the end of six decades of de facto military rule since army officers seized power in a coup in 1952. But removing Tantawi and Annan does not necessarily mean that the military, Egypt’s most powerful institution, has been defeated or that it would give up decades of perks and prestige without a fight.

The president acted at a moment when the military was humiliated over a major security failure in Sinai, the deadliest internal attack on soldiers in modern history. Several days before the killings, Israel warned that an attack was imminent. The intelligence chief was sacked after it emerged in Egyptian media that he knew of the Israeli warning but did not act.

Sinai has been plunged into lawlessness and the rest of the country has seen a sharp deterioration in security while the military ruled.

The SCAF, which ruled Egypt for 17 months after Mubarak was forced out, stripped the presidency of many of its key powers before it handed the office to Morsi. Tantawi was head of the SCAF and Annan was No 2 within the council.

The two men appointed to replace them were also members of the SCAF. Abdel-Fattah el-Seisy replaced Tantawi and Sidki Sayed Ahmed replaced Annan. They were sworn in shortly after the announcement.

Noha Bakir, a professor at American University in Cairo believed that Morsi’s surprising decisions were a revolutionary solution for political disputes that is completely different with ways in former regime.

"In former president Sadat’s time, for example, the senior military officers can resign but would not be forced to retire. This is a strange decision from Morsi because he had the chance to appoint a new defense minister in the new cabinet, but the reasons for keeping Tantawi and then retired him now is implied something that is ambiguous," said Bakir.

Omar Ashour, a visiting scholar at the Brookings Doha Center who has interviewed SCAF members over the past year, said Morsi’s decisions were negotiated with several of the generals who sat on the military council.

"The military council was not going to last forever," he said. "It is a critical battle, but this is not final."