Thousands of Egyptians gather in Tahrir Square to support President Mohamed Morsi’s decision to replace his defence minister and army chief while ordering several senior generals to retire.
President Mursi, locked in a struggle for authority with the military since taking office 30 June, also cancelled constitutional amendments issued by the military that restricted his powers and ordered commanders of the navy, air defence and air force to retire. The bold move is seen as a consolidation of power by the ruling Muslim Brotherhood.
“The people support the president’s decision,” the crowd in Tahrir Square chanted on Sunday night. The square was the base for political protests that ousted former leader Hosni Mubarak.
The sweeping changes boost President Mursi’s chances of seizing back powers the military tried to strip from the presidential office in mid-June.
The changes follow a security failure a week ago – an attack on a border patrol that left 16 soldiers dead – which opened the way for the president to aggressively assert authority over his top generals.
Several days before the killings, Israel warned an attack was imminent. The intelligence chief was sacked when it emerged in Egyptian media that he knew of the Israeli warning but did not act.
“I did not mean to send a negative message about anyone, but my aim was the benefit of this nation and its people,” the president said in a televised message to the nation on Sunday evening.
Mr Tantawi, 76, and Mr Anan, the two most powerful members of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, appeared invincible for decades. Mr Tantawi headed the SCAF, which ruled the country after Mr Mubarak was toppled in February 2011.
But President Mursi did not hide his annoyance when the military granted the army massive powers in mid-June, including legislative control.
Mr Tantawi and Mr Annan will take up roles as presidential advisers, one of Egypts’ highest honours, suggested they may have grudgingly agreed to step aside before the announcement.
Egypt’s official Middle East News Agency, quoting an unnamed military official, said the president’s moves were “deliberated and coordinated” and there were no “negative reactions” from within the military.
Abdul-Fatah al-Sessi replaces Mr Tantawi as defence minister and the general commander of the army. Lieutenant-General Sidki Sayed Ahmed is the new chief of army staff while senior judge Mahmoud Mekki was named vice-president effective immediately.
“This clash between the new president and the military council was expected – but not this fast,” said analyst Gamal Soltan. “It can be considered a restructuring of the armed forces and an end to the role of SCAF in political life.”
Mursi’s Muslim Brotherhood, a fundamentalist Islamist group, won parliamentary and presidential elections in the first free and fair votes in Egypt’s modern history.