PRESIDENT Hosni Mubarak's sudden removal of Egypt's powerful defense minister, Muhammad Abdel-Halim Abu Ghazala, clouds the issue of who will lead this country in the post-Mubarak era. But it does not herald immediate changes in government policy. This is the assessment of analysts here following the weekend reshuffle.
Field Marshal Abu Ghazala now becomes adviser to the President, a largely ceremonial post in the past. Some analysts take this to mean that Abu Ghazala, long considered the President's heir apparent, has fallen from favor.
Some foreign diplomats speculate that the apparent move against Abu Ghazala was connected to an illegal effort to obtain United States missile technology. US authorities arrested several Americans last June in the case. One of them, a rocket scientist named Abdel Kader Helmy, has alleged that he was personally recruited by Abu Ghazala. The trial is set to begin this summer. Defense attorneys are still trying to get the court to subpoena Abu Ghazala.
``You can't have a man as defense minister who risks arrest if he arrives on American soil,'' says a well-informed European diplomat.
Maj. Gen. Youssef Sabri Abu Taleb, governor of Cairo, was named the new defense minister. Analysts say the choice indicates that Mr. Mubarak may be asserting control over the military.
``Abu Taleb's military credentials are OK, even if they don't live up to Abu Ghazala's,'' says Tahsin Bashir, an eminent government adviser on foreign policy. ``But he has no clique of his own.''
For many years Abu Ghazala, a reputed favorite of the US, was seen as a rival to Mubarak and a power center of his own.
This image was enhanced when, in February 1986, the Army moved into the streets to quell riots by thousands of security police. Analysts say that by restoring order, Abu Ghazala established himself and the military as a power to be reckoned with.
One foreign ministry official, speaking privately, says the change would ``minimize the leverage of the military in Egypt.''
Analysts and observers predict that by early May there will be other changes, specifically the appointment of a new prime minister with the clout to enact economic reforms under the auspices of the International Monetary Fund. Officials expect to reach agreement with the IMF by June.
There had been rumors that the President wanted Abu Ghazala, who held the defense portfolio for eight years, to assume the premiership, but that Abu Ghazala declined it.
Other candidates for the premiership, according to diplomats and Egyptian officials, are the tourism minister, Fouad Sultan, and the US-educated minister for Cabinet affairs, Atef Ebeid.