Morsi's power play in Egypt: Will the military fight back?

Egypt's Islamist civilian president forces out the armed forces' top brass. Has he won the power struggle that followed the fall of Hosni Mubarak?

Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi swears in newly appointed Minister of Defense, Lt. Gen. Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, Aug. 12.
(Image credit: AP Photo/Egyptian Presidency)

In a stunning escalation of the power struggle between Egypt's civilian and military leaders, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, forced out several of Egypt's top military leaders over the weekend. The power play appeared to solidify the authority of Morsi, a member of the long outlawed Muslim Brotherhood whose election the military had opposed. Has power finally shifted from the military, which took over after Hosni Mubarak fell last year, to Egypt's newly elected leadership, or is Morsi picking a fight he's bound to lose? Here, a brief guide:

Who did Morsi force out?

He ordered the retirement of the country's defense minister and head of its armed forces, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, along with the army's chief of staff and several other top generals. Tantawi, 76, had served in his post for two decades, and was a key ally of Mubarak's. He was also the leader of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which called the shots in Egypt from the day Mubarak fell to the day Morsi took office.

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Will the military go along with the moves?

There has been no clear sign yet that Tantawi accepts Morsi's decision, although Gen. Mohamed al-Assar, a member of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, says Morsi's decision was made based on consultations with Tantawi and the rest of the military council. And it's not as if the military is now shut out of the halls of power. Tantawi and his former chief of staff are being kept on as presidential advisers, and Tantawi's replacement, Gen. Abdul Fattah al-Sissi, sat on the council as the former head of military intelligence.

Does that mean the change is symbolic?

Not necessarily — the personnel changes were only the tip of the iceberg. Morsi also canceled a constitutional declaration, issued by the military, that had limited the authority of the president just before he took office. Morsi replaced that declaration with one of his own, giving Egypt's president broad legislative and executive powers, and potentially giving Morsi greater influence over the drafting of Egypt's new constitution.

So will Morsi emerge as the country's unchallenged leader?

That remains to be seen. The military is unquestionably weakened at the moment, due to its embarrassment and the public's disgust over the killing of 16 border guards in the Sinai peninsula by Islamist militants last week. Such a "bold strike" against the military would indeed have been unthinkable just a few years ago, says Doug Mataconis at Outside the Beltway, but there might not be much blowback, as it does sound like "an understanding may have been reached between Morsi and other members of the military leadership." Don't kid yourself, says William A. Jacobson at Legal Insurrection. The military was "the primary secular counterweight to Islamist fundamentalist control of Egypt." Now that Morsi has picked his own military chief — a general who supported "virginity tests" for arrested female protesters — the Islamist takeover of Egypt's military is under way.

Sources: BBC News (2), Legal Insurrection, New York Times, Outside the Beltway

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