After forcing Egypt’s top brass to retire in an unexpected power play and issuing a decree to consolidate presidential authority, President Mohammed Morsi on Sunday said the moves were made with the nation’s best interest in mind.
“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,” he said in a televised speech. “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.”
Earlier Sunday, Morsi fired Defense Minister Mohammed Hussein Tantawi and Chief of Staff Sami Anan, forcing them into retirement, and canceled the military-declared constitutional amendments that gave top generals wide powers, Egyptian state TV reported.
Morsi also ordered the retirement of the commanders of the navy, air defense and air force.
The move was seen as an unprecedented assertion of authority over the armed forces by the Muslim Brotherhood president, who has been locked in a power struggle with the country’s interim military rulers since assuming power in June.
After the moves, thousands reportedly thronged Cairo’s Tahrir Square in celebration.
Egypt’s official Middle East News Agency, quoting an unnamed military official in a brief report, said late Sunday that Morsi’s moves were “deliberated and coordinated” in advance. It said there were no “negative reactions” from within the military.
Later in the day, Morsi issued a constitutional declaration consolidating presidential authority and further defanging the military, Al Ahram reported.
The tripartite edict amended the post-Mubarak constitutional declaration which granted the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces full executive and legislative power so that, now, the president wields that authority. The president can now approve the annual budget and monitor its implementation. The executive also holds exclusive authority to approve or reject international treaties.
The New York Times noted that it was not immediately clear whether Morsi had the constitutional authority to order such changes.
Morsi also granted the presidency the power to form a new constitutional committee should the present one fail in its assignment. The new committee would be required to draft a constitution within three months, which would be subject to a national referendum a month thereafter. The measure requires that a parliament be elected two months after the constitution is approved.
Morsi struck down the constitutional addendum issued in June mandating that the head of the SCAF serve as defense minister until the drafting of a constitution.
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.”
With power now concentrated in the hands of the Muslim Brotherhood, some fear Egypt will only move from an authoritarian state to an Islamic state.
“Now the military returns to the barracks and Morsi has absolute powers,” said Abdullah el-Sinawi, a prominent political commentator and longtime supporter of the military as the guardian of Egypt’s fast-fading secular traditions.
Abdel-Rahman Youssef, a liberal popular TV presenter and a supporter of Morsi, said this is a historic opportunity for political reform in Egypt.
“Egypt is now before a real test — to have a powerful president yet to stop him from being repressive,” he said.
While Morsi’s Brotherhood is considered to be the country’s strongest political group, its base of support remains limited when compared to the respect enjoyed by the military. There is hardly an Egyptian family that does not include a member in active service or who had military experience. The military has a vast economic empire that accounts for about 25 percent of GDP.
But the military has been tainted in the 17 months they ran the country after Mubarak’s ouster, with the SCAF accused of mismanaging the transitional period and committing human rights violations.
For now, however, Morsi appeared the victor.
Hours after announcing the shake-up, a confident looking president appeared at an annual religious ceremony to hand monetary awards to young Muslims from Egypt and elsewhere who have learned the Quran, Islam’s holy book, by heart.
Mohammed Aboul-Ghar, a founder of the new Egyptian Social Democratic Party — a secular group critical of the military as well as Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood — said the power struggle has now been settled in Morsi’s favor.
“The military council was forced out of power and lost its position and this was inevitable,” he said. “In the power struggle, the military council was increasingly weakened because of its decisions” and its failure to secure a more straightforward path to democratic transition, he said.