Egypt Military Signals It Won’t Contest Move on Generals

Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi
Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi. Photographer: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Egypt’s military council signaled it won’t oppose President Mohamed Mursi’s decision to retire the nation’s two top generals as he seeks to cement his authority after a power struggle with the army.

The leadership change was “natural” and responsibility has shifted “to a new generation of Egypt’s sons to begin a new journey” to protect the nation, according to a statement posted yesterday on a Facebook page affiliated with the council.

Mursi, who has been locked in a tug-of-war with the military council since he took office in late June with the backing of the Muslim Brotherhood, ordered the retirement of Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi and armed forces Chief of Staff Sami Enan. He also claimed legislative powers by voiding a constitutional decree enacted by the military on June 17, further asserting his authority in a nation whose population is growing increasingly disgruntled about power cuts, security lapses and a weak economy.

“This was probably the Brotherhood’s greatest tactical success, that it was able to build strong-enough links with some members of SCAF in order to exploit personal differences and tap into opportunism rather than ideology,” Hani Sabra, Middle East analyst with the Eurasia Group, wrote in an e-mailed note. Members of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces “essentially want to benefit financially from advancing in military ranks.”

Mursi was able to convince some senior generals, such as the newly appointed Defense Minister General Abdelfatah al-Seesi that “it would be better for them to tie their fortunes to the Brotherhood and ‘democracy’ rather than the old guard,” Sabra said.

Public Support

Mursi’s decision drew hundreds into Tahrir Square yesterday for a second consecutive day, with supporters filling the plaza in central Cairo for the night-time prayer. Many said they saw his move as another step toward fulfilling the January 2011 uprising against the regime of Hosni Mubarak.

Yasser Ali, Mursi’s spokesman, told reporters the president had notified Tantawi and Enan of the decisions in advance and had coordinated with the military council. He denied reports the two men had been placed under house arrest, saying they had been given two of the nation’s highest honors and appointed military advisers to the president. Mursi also told al-Seesi to improve the living conditions of the military, Ali said.

Egypt’s Islamist president has been struggling to restore calm since being sworn in at the end of June. Daily protests and power and water cuts have further angered Egyptians already weary of the unrest of the past 18 months.

Ailing Economy

Egypt’s economy has struggled to rebound since last year’s uprising, with political infighting and security lapses creating the country’s worst economic crisis in over a decade. Foreign reserves dropped to $14.4 billion in July from about $36 billion at the end of December 2010. Meanwhile, a $3.2 billion International Monetary Fund loan sought for more than a year has yet to be approved.

Mursi’s retirement of Tantawi followed a shake-up in top security posts after militants killed 16 soldiers in Sinai on Aug. 5. The field marshal held the post under Mubarak for 20 years and was re-appointed to the defense portfolio in Prime Minister Hisham Qandil’s government.

The president’s push to bolster civilian rule may backfire if he tries to retain new powers indefinitely, said Omar Ashour, director of Middle East studies at the University of Exeter in the U.K. and a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center.

“It’s too much power, definitely, in the hands of one man,” he said in a telephone interview. “One thing is for sure: if he heads for authoritarianism, he’ll be opposed.”

A new constitution that would define the authority of the presidency has yet to be drafted.

U.S. Reaction

Newly appointed Vice President Mahmoud Mekki said Mursi was acting within the powers granted to him by the people who elected him, the state-run al-Ahram newspaper reported today.

The U.S. wasn’t surprised by Mursi’s decision to remove Tantawi and Enan, Defense Department spokesman George Little, told reporters yesterday at the Pentagon.

“We did expect at some point there to be changes in the military leadership,” he said. “We believe we’ll be able to maintain strong defense relations with Egypt. It’s important for the military and political leadership in Egypt to continue to work together to address both the economic and security challenges facing that country.”

U.S. Training

The men named by Mursi to replace the departing generals are well-known at the Pentagon and represent continuity in relations between the two nations’ militaries, according to Jon Alterman, director of Middle Eastern programs at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington policy group.

Al-Seesi, the new defense minister, attended the U.S. Army War College from 2005 to 2006, according to Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Wesley Miller, a Pentagon spokesman. The war college, which trains military leaders and is accredited to award master’s degrees in strategic studies, is based in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.

Mursi named new commanders for the navy, air defense and air force, the state-run Nile News channel reported today.

Abdul-Moneam Ibrahim Bayoumi was appointed head of the Air Defence Command, Osama Ahmed el-Gendi as leader of the navy and Younis Hamed el-Masry as head of the Egyptian air force, it said.

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