The ousted military chiefs quietly stepped aside Sunday, but analysts said the move could trigger a backlash and further polarize a nation in which many are wary of the intentions of the country’s first Islamist president. Morsi ran as the candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist group that has yearned for decades to lead Egypt.
“This is a big moment of transformation in the history of Egypt,” said Zeinab Abul-Magd, a history professor at the American University in Cairo who has studied the military closely. “Now, officially, it is a Brotherhood state. Now it is official they are in full control of state institutions.”
Morsi’s election in June was hailed as a watershed for a nation that for six decades had been governed by military autocrats. But efforts by members of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces to cement their vast authority through legal maneuvers appeared to set the stage for a weak president.
The ouster of Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi — the defense minister and top military chief — and his deputy, army chief of staff Sami Anan, suggested that the Brotherhood is willing to act more quickly and assertively in taking control of key institutions than analysts had predicted.
Speaking late Sunday, Morsi said his decisions were not meant to “embarrass” any person or institution. “I want the armed forces to devote themselves to a mission that is holy to all of us, which is protecting the nation,” he said in a televised address.
Morsi on Sunday also appointed senior judge Mahmoud Mekki as his vice president. The posting could enhance the president’s ability to respond to legal challenges and court cases that could determine the direction of Egypt’s democratic transition.
Tantawi’s removal sidelines a longtime U.S. interlocutor in a country that has received tens of billions of dollars in military aid in exchange for maintaining peace with Israel. The move appeared to catch U.S. Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta and the Pentagon off guard. Panetta visited Egypt about two weeks ago and seemed to come away with the view that Tantawi and Morsi were cooperating.
“It is my view, based on what I have seen, that President Morsi and Field Marshal Tantawi have a very good relationship and are working together towards the same ends,” Panetta said.
Morsi appointed Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sissi as defense minister and commander of the armed forces, replacing Tantawi. Until his appointment, Sissi served as head of military intelligence and as a member of the supreme military council.