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Egypt's Morsi defies predictions

By Ernesto Londoño,

CAIRO — A month ago, as President Mohamed Morsi was sworn in, Egyptians who loved and loathed him could agree on one fact: The Islamist would be a relatively powerless leader.

But just weeks into his tenure, the man who was until recently widely regarded as a charmless, accidental president has cast aside rivals and consolidated power with stunning speed and shrewdness.

On Sunday, Morsi forced out the country’s two top defense chiefs and other senior military officials in a sudden and dramatic move that analysts saw as an early victory in a power struggle many Egyptians thought would remain stalemated for years. Perhaps most surprising was how little pushback the dismissals drew in a country that has been led by military men for six decades.

A statement posted by the manager of the Facebook page of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces on Monday called the shake-up a “natural change.” The statement said “responsibility has been moved to a new generation of Egypt’s sons to start a new journey in keeping Egypt’s soil and sky and seas safe.”

Analysts raised the possibility that the new military command could yet emerge as a competing power. But for the moment at least, an unusual harmony reigned: If some of the graying generals sacked Sunday were pushed out grudgingly, none voiced their displeasure on Monday.

State media coverage of the president, a former political prisoner, turned largely deferential overnight. In headlines and broadcasts, state-run papers and channels covered Morsi on Monday much as they did his three autocratic predecessors — a sharp break from the recent past, during which those outlets tended to toe the military’s line in disputes with the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist group that propelled Morsi to power.

“We continue to underestimate the magical power of the presidency in Egypt,” said Hani Shukrallah, the managing editor of al-Ahram Online, a state-run English-language news site that is largely seen as impartial.

For Morsi, it is a major gamble to decisively take the reins of power just as Egypt launches a military offensive in the restive Sinai peninsula and contends with an economic crisis. He is still viewed warily by many liberal and Christian Egyptians. Critics are planning a mass demonstration this month to condemn what they say is the Brotherhood’s poor record of governance.

“I would love to believe that this is a step in the transition toward democracy, but I’m very apprehensive,” said Nora Soliman, one of the founders of the liberal Justice Party. “They have control over most of the levers of power.”

Soliman said she was no fan of the country’s generals but saw them as a necessary evil during Egypt’s democratic transition “to get Morsi out if he did something absolutely contrary to the nature of the state.”

Analysts say the absence of Islamist rhetoric during Morsi’s time in office and the relatively few high-profile Islamists he has appointed to key jobs are reasons he has been successful in restoring the far-reaching powers of the presidency. In addition to dismissing top generals Sunday, Morsi also nullified a decree that would have substantially weakened his office by giving the military council final say over security matters.

“He has moved up people from within the organizations and people who seem well qualified for the position,” said Michele Dunne, director of the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. “It was pretty well thought out.”

But there was another reason the military chiefs who served in powerful posts under deposed leader Hosni Mubarak may have been willing to step down, said Zeinab Abul-Magd, a historian at the American University in Cairo who has studied the military and has discussed the situation with several mid-level officers over the past two days.

“There was a lot of discontent against them” in the ranks, she said, referring to the ousted military chief, Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, and his deputy, Gen. Sami Anan. “Tantawi and Anan left quietly because they made huge mistakes.”

The vaunted image of the military took a hit during the 17 months the generals ruled the country after Mubarak stepped down in February 2011. Although the armed forces remain popular, Tantawi and other military leaders who became suddenly visible were vilified in street protests and on social media.

With those figures gone, Morsi and the Brotherhood are all but certain to face increased scrutiny and criticism. Public office is a heavy burden in a country with a high unemployment rate, crippled infrastructure and a suddenly empowered, politically active population.

“They have sole control, but they will be held accountable if they don’t prove worthy,” said Rashad Abdou, a professor of finance at Cairo University who worries that the Brotherhood’s sudden consolidation of power could dissuade investors from coming to Egypt. “They could be removed in the next elections.”

If Morsi ultimately emerges as an unlikely strongman, he will be following in the footsteps of some of his predecessors. Anwar Sadat, who led Egypt from 1970 to 1981, and Mubarak, who followed him, both defied early expectations of the kind of leadership they would bring to the presidency.

“Morsi wanted his full authorities,” said Mohamed Abdul Quddus, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood who works at a journalism organization. “He doesn’t know diplomacy and is known to not accept middle-ground solutions.”

Henry Shull and Ingy Hassieb contributed to this report.

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