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Egypt's Military Chiefs Dismissed By New President


Egypt's first freely elected president made history there Sunday by confronting the military power structure. Mohammed Morsi forced top military leaders into retirement and shifted the balance of power to the civilian government. Analysts called it the boldest and most unexpected move of Morsi's fledgling presidency. NPR's Leila Fadel has the story from Cairo.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Singing in foreign language)

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: Young men sing in Tahrir Square, the birthplace of Egypt's uprising. It was here that protesters forced the end of a 30-year dictatorship last year. Now, it's the place that President Mohammed Morsi supporters celebrate a new victory.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Singing in foreign language)

FADEL: We all chant against the military, they say. The reverberations of the president's announcement quickly spread through the political establishment. Even critics of Morsi hailed it as brave, the first concrete step toward the end of military rule. The ordered retirement of Egypt's top two generals, Mohammed Hussein Tantawi and Sami Annan, among others and the annulment of a constitutional decree that essentially gave control of the state to Egypt's graying military council. Following the announcement, Morsi attended an annual Ramadan ceremony at the nation's highest institute of Islamic learning, Al Azhar.

PRESIDENT MOHAMMED MORSI: (Foreign language spoken)

FADEL: The president appeared powerful in an address broadcast live on state TV.

OMAR ASHOUR: It's a step forward on the route of democratic transition.

FADEL: That's Omar Ashour, a political scientist and activist in Egypt.

ASHOUR: A step forward on the route of empowering the elected civilian over the military establishment, the first time ever in Egypt's history that an elected civilian president overrules the heads of the military establishment.

FADEL: Ashour says the military shakeup will woo back revolutionary forces who'd chastised the once-banned Muslim Brotherhood, to which Morsi belongs, for colluding with the generals.

ASHOUR: The revolutionary forces, most of the revolutionary forces will start rallying around him.

FADEL: The military council took control of the state when then president Hosni Mubarak was ousted last year. But its popularity waned through the rocky transition. Critics accuse the top generals of blocking the path to democracy to preserve their own economic and political interests. Still, some worry that this is too much power for one man. By cancelling the military decree, Morsi took both executive and legislative power. He also controls the fate of the still-unwritten constitution.

MONA EL-GHOBASHY: He's just taken power away from an unelected military. So almost by definition it makes no sense to say this is a dictatorial act.

FADEL: That's Mona el-Ghobashy, a leading Egypt expert at Barnard College. She says Morsi's move is actually an opening for democratic rule. At least he has a popular mandate. The timing is not a coincidence. Last week, militants killed 16 Egyptian soldiers in an ambush in the relatively lawless Sinai Peninsula which borders Israel and Gaza.

EL-GHOBASHY: Morsi had previous to today looked very much like a besieged civilian president who had virtually no powers. He capitalized on this crisis moment. It gave him an opening to make a move against a military that had quickly been discredited in the eyes of public opinion for failing to do its job.

FADEL: Morsi also appeared to have buy-in from at least part of the military council. The new defense minister is the former head of military intelligence. Analysts say Morsi promoted his allies from within the military council while pushing out his enemies, playing on the council's own divisions.

Leila Fadel, NPR News, Cairo.


MONTAGNE: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
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