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Egypt's Morsy: 'Imperial' president or step forward for revolution?

By Josh Levs, CNN
updated 10:02 AM EDT, Tue August 14, 2012
  • Demonstrations for and against Morsy's moves take place in Cairo
  • The new Egyptian president replaced top military leaders
  • ElBaradei says Morsy now "holds imperial powers"
  • Analysts say reducing military's power is step toward democracy

(CNN) -- Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy's surprising move to amass substantially more power has triggered demonstrations on both sides and accusations that he is effectively anointing himself with "imperial" authority.

But some analysts say that in weakening the military's grip over the country, Morsy has pushed the country toward democracy.

Assessing the news on Monday, those who track the intricacies of the Egyptian government were split over just what Morsy's newfound strength means for the revolution that paved the way for his presidency. One called it "a huge step forward" for civilian governance. Another called it a sign that "the revolutionary promise of Tahrir Square has not been met."

Morsy shook up the country's powerful military leadership Sunday when he removed its leader, Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, and chief of staff Lt. Gen. Sami Anan. Both were then named as advisers to Morsy, the country's first freely elected president. The commanders of Egypt's navy, air force and air defense force were sent into retirement as well, promoting others within the military to take those posts, said Morsy spokesman Yasser Ali.

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Tantawi has led the military council governing Egypt since last year's popular uprising toppled the government of President Hosni Mubarak.

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In addition, Morsy reversed a constitutional decree from the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces that gave the military legislative authority until a new parliament could be sworn in later this year.

"He's clearly done his homework and clearly cultivated another group of officers that has allowed him to do this," said Steven Cook, senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations." It seems that neither Tantawi nor Anan have recourse."

Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Institution's Doha Center, described it on Twitter as "a mix of a civilian counter-coup and a coordinated coup within the military itself."

"If he can make this stick, it's a very important moment in Morsy's effort to consolidate his own political power," Cook said. "And it's a very significant change in the politics in Egypt, where the military has long been dominant since the coup of 1952."

"In theory," that's a "more healthy place for Egypt to be in a democratic transition," he said. "But you have to raise questions about the democratic credentials of the Muslim Brotherhood."

Morsy resigned from the brotherhood, his Islamist party, after winning the presidential election, saying he will represent all Egyptians. But many in Egypt are concerned that the Islamist leader may not follow through on his promises to stand for women's rights and minority participation in government.

Morsy now "assumes legislative and executive power," Cook said. "He is extraordinarily powerful."

Mohamed ElBaradei, an Egyptian reform leader who ran a failed campaign for the presidency, tweeted Monday: "With military stripped of legislative authority & in absence of parliament, president holds imperial powers. Transitional mess continues."

A constitutional court backed by the military dissolved the parliament.

"So Egypt now has an almost all-powerful president -- and no parliament," Jane Kinninmont, senior research fellow at the policy research institute Chatham House, said on Twitter.

Last week, Morsy sacked the head of military police, the head of intelligence, and the governor of North Sinai, where battles have been raging between Egyptian forces and Islamists, including Palestinian militants.

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On Sunday he promoted Maj. Gen. Abdul Fatah Khalil al-Sisi, the head of military intelligence, to defense minister and head of Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, with the rank of field marshal, state-run Nile TV reported. He also named Mahmoud Mekki as his vice president, and he reversed a June constitutional decree by the Supreme Council that claimed to retain legislative authority until a new parliament could be sworn in near the end of the year, Ali said.

The country has been operating without a constitution since Mubarak's ouster.

The Muslim Brotherhood demonstrated Sunday night in Tahrir Square in support of his moves. Protesters, meanwhile, gathered in front of the ministry of defense.

Some are calling for a mass demonstration against Morsy and the Muslim Brotherhood on August 24.

"The decisions that were made today were not directed at certain people, and I didn't mean to embarrass institutions," Morsy said Sunday night at Al-Azhar University in Cairo. "My goal is not to narrow down the freedom of those who were created free by God."

Omar Ashour, visiting scholar at the Brookings' Doha Center, said Morsy's move "will enter history as a significant shift in civil-military balance of power towards the civilian side. This is the first time in Egypt's political history that an elected civilian politician overrules the decisions of the heads of the military establishment."

Violence in the Sinai is playing a key role, Ashour said.

"For at least the sixth time in Egypt's modern history, periphery Sinai alters the fate of leading generals and Egypt's high politics."

Angus Blair, head of the Signet Institute, a Cairo-based political and economic think tank, agrees that events in the Sinai are playing a central role. Morsy "has used the Sinai crisis to enforce his legitimacy and take back powers from the military to the president," Blair said.

The shakeup in the military should bring "more visible accountability," he added.

"Egypt's revolution and its move to civilian governance just took a huge step forward," Blair said. But, he added, the Muslim Brotherhood taking more power could prove to be a downside.

Cook, of the Council on Foreign Relations, said, "Clearly, the revolutionary promise of Tahrir Square has not been met. And I don't think the revolutionaries who came out in Tahrir Square expected either a political system that was dominated by the military or a political system that was dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood.

"What they wanted was freedom, democracy, a just political system where the rule of law prevailed. Eighteen months since the uprising, that hasn't materialized. And people should rightly be concerned about the accumulation of power of one group at the expense of others."

Egypt president's tricky game of power

CNN's Ian Lee and Journalist Mohamed Fadel Fahmy contributed to this report.

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