CAIRO, Egypt – Islamist president Mohamed Morsi dramatically boosted civilian-military tension on Sunday, by launching the most brazen effort yet to purge the country’s influential military council, and by cancelling an army-crafted constitutional amendment that had clipped the president’s governing authority.
The moves, which may have been made without consulting the army, demonstrate that the emboldened civilian leader is eager to challenge the old order and assert civilian control in the infancy of his county’s democracy.
Egyptians waited in anticipation of a reaction from the military. A Facebook page reportedly linked to SCAF posted late Monday that the president's actions were part of a “natural” shift in power. There was no official response, however.
Morsi ordered the retirement of Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, a defense minister who had served for two decades and headed the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF). The president also dismissed Egypt’s army chief of staff, Sami Anan, and the heads of the air force and the navy. He appointed a new minister of defense, Abdel Fattah Al Sisi, and called the reshuffle “for the benefit of nation.”
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“The army has now returned to its original role of defending the country,” said Ahmed Al Nahhas, a Muslim Brotherhood leader in Alexandria, Egypt’s second-largest city.
SCAF, made-up of a coterie of army generals, had ruled Egypt after the Tahrir Square uprising ousted former president Hosni Mubarak last year. It retained wide governing powers even after the Muslim Brotherhood’s Morsi was elected in June.
In an eleventh-hour power grab, the generals had issued a constitutional amendment in the midst of Egypt’s June presidential elections that granted SCAF wide-ranging legislative, diplomatic and policing powers.
Earlier in June, SCAF had also dissolved the Brotherhood-led parliament, leaving Morsi with little if any ability to shape policy.
“He needed full executive power to actually accomplish anything,” said Abbas Adel, creator of morsimeter.com, a website designed to track the president’s policy accomplishments.
Morsi has in fact energized his Brotherhood supporters, many of whom were persecuted by the police and army under the previous regime. Egypt’s army was a key backer of the Mubarak government, and still maintains a vast economic empire of property, factories, and other commercial holdings.
Some speculated that the militant attack that killed 16 Egyptian soldiers in the restive Sinai Peninsula last week – and that was designated as a massive intelligence failure – gave Morsi the opportunity he needed to shake-up the army leadership.
Others said it was a negotiated “safe exit” for the army leaders following the Sinai scandal.
“It's obvious SCAF can't keep up with Sinai and the political situation [at the same time],” said Cairo-based independent publisher, Hisham Kassem.
The Sinai assault, the deadliest on Egyptian soldiers since the 1973 war with Israel, prompted a massive troop deployment, currently underway, to the northern part of the Sinai Peninsula, which shares a border with both Israel and Gaza.
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Activists responded forcefully to the Sinai attack. It “reflects the existence of a failed state,” said Egyptian blogger, Wael Eskander. “It’s the ultimate symbol of the [state’s] failure, and it gives me more reason to work against them [SCAF].”
Indeed, toppling SCAF, whose generals presided over a rocky and often repressive transition period, was long a goal of Egypt’s anti-regime protestors.
Still, many activists are not comfortable with executive, legislative and constitutional powers being held by an unpredictable president, backed by the powerful and often opaque, Brotherhood.
Morsi’s surprise actions, while welcomed by some as a victory for the uprising, terrified others who now see Morsi as nothing more than a new dictator.
“His legislative power should be withdrawn immediately, or he will be the most powerful and most dangerous president Egypt has ever had,” Kassem said.
“Not even Gamal Abdel Nasser had this kind of power,” he said, referring to Egypt’s first military president in 1952, and who kicked-off 60 some years of martial rule.
Liberal and secular political forces have long decried the Brotherhood’s attempts, through the parliament, to mold the constitution as a primarily Islamist document.
The Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party currently dominates the constitution-writing committee. And if Morsi retains the current powers he usurped from SCAF, he himself will have the ability to submit disputed sections of the text to the Supreme Constitutional Court.
“[The court] also has the power to investigate the constitutionality of any legislation issued by Morsi, but whether or not they do it remains to be seen,” Kassem said.
“The country is boiling,” he said. “And unfortunately we can’t enjoy the end of military rule with a dangerous Islamist president in power.”
Heba Habib contributed reporting from Cairo, Egypt