Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi on Sunday made a series of decisive moves, including forcing into retirement several members of the military, that transformed him from a weak figurehead with little say over key security and constitutional matters into a ruler whose power appears now nearly absolute.
In addition to retiring Field Marshal Mohammed Tantawi and Army Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Sami Anan, Morsi rewrote the country’s interim constitution and named a vice president.
The new appointments and changes to the constitution gave Morsi control of the country’s legislative process, all military decisions and final say over the writing of a permanent constitution.
The moves left the judiciary independent, but evoked both fear over the amount of power Morsi now has and relief that the last remnants of the regime of Hosni Mubarak have now been sidelined, 18 months after Mubarak resigned from the presidency.
The announcement of the change came in the final 10 days of Ramadan, around a period referred to as Leylet el Qadr, which roughly translates to the Night of Fate. It is considered the holiest time of the month, marking when the angel Gabriel came to Prophet Mohammed and gave him the first Quranic revelations. Some speculated that Morsi, a former top official in the Muslim Brotherhood, timed the announcement for this night.
In Tahrir Square, members of the Brotherhood began gathering in support of Morsi’s decisions, some launching fireworks and chanting.
In a late night speech, Morsi said he was acting in the interests of Egypt. He said it was time for “new blood” and peppered his speech with religious references. Although he offered no specifics behind his decision, he suggested an attack on Egyptian soldiers last week, the deadliest in nearly 40 years, contributed to the moves.
“There is no safety for those who don’t do their jobs,” Morsi said. “There is no space to abandon responsibility.”
Tantawi, who had been head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and minister of defense, and Anan will serve as presidential advisers.
A senior judge with a reputation as a reformer, Mahmoud Mekki, was named vice president. Mekki’s brother, Ahmed, is Morsi’s minister of justice. Morsi also named a new minister of military production.
Morsi also cancelled the June 17 Election Day constitutional declaration that the supreme military council had made that gave it the final say over all military matters, including whether to go to war and who should serve as generals. That same decree had given the SCAF legislative powers after a court ruling that led to the dissolution of parliament and gave the SCAF final say over who would craft a permanent constitution.
Morsi’s declaration Sunday gave those powers to the president.
U.S. officials in Washington offered no immediate reaction to the changes. Israeli officials, however, said there was a "sense of alarm" over what had taken place, though several said they had been ordered to remain quiet about the developments.
Israel’s two prime time newscasts led their broadcasts with news of Tantawi’s retirement, along with the headline "Instability in Egypt to threatens Israel," and "Muslim Brotherhood on our doorstep."
"There is a longstanding relationship between the Israeli military and the Egyptian military that we rely upon to secure the peace," said a former Israeli defense official with longstanding diplomatic experience with Egypt who was among those who said he was asked not to speak about his concerns to reporters. "Tantawi is a man we know, a man we have known for decades and understand. We do not know Morsi."
Morsi immediately swore in replacements for the dismissed officials. Abdel Fatah El-Sisi, the head of military intelligence and the youngest member of the military council became minister of defense. Sedky Sobhy, the commander of the Third Army, was appointed as chief of staff of the armed forces. A senior member of the SCAF, Maj. Gen. Mohammed el-Assar, was named assistant defense minister. Another career army officer, Lt. Gen. Reda Mahmoud Hafez, was named minister of state for military production.
Although Morsi is Egypt’s fifth president, he is the first with no military background, and his election marked the end of an understood power sharing agreement between the military and president, one where both sides shared agendas and a belief they had the best interests of the state in mind.
In the first weeks of his administration, every decision Morsi made came with the agreement of the military, often one where it appeared that the military council prevailed in matters such as naming a cabinet. It was still unclear how much that dynamic had changed.
Analysts wondered whether the decisions represented a new Egypt, where generals answer to their civilian leaders or whether they were just another backroom deal between the military and Morsi, perhaps intended to allow the generals to leave power without facing trials for the crimes committed while in office.
Either way, the killing of 16 Egyptian soldiers by Egyptian militants one week ago, the deadliest attack on troops since the 1973 war with Israel, appeared to have been a catalyst for the shake up. In the days after the attack, Morsi forced the head of intelligence to resign and fired the governor of north Sinai.
The Egyptian military, with permission from the Israelis, began moving light mechanized units, along with tanks and other heavy weapons, into northern Sinai as part of their first major offensive in years to improve security in this unruly, militant-dominated part of Egypt, a move that Morsi said he is personally directing.
In the village of al Jora, which sits less than a mile from the Israeli border, local residents debated the implications while breaking the sunset fast over a meal outdoors, all as Israel border patrol officers buzzed by.
“This is the beginning of Morsi’s influence seeping into every part of government. This process will take months,” posited Moussa el Menini.