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Egypt's President Morsi fires senior general Tantawi, asserting his power

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Sherif Abd Monam/Reuters/File

(Read caption) Egypt's president Mohamed Mursi (r.) speaks with Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi this July. Mursi ordered Egypt's two top generals to retire, including Hussein Tantawi who led the nation after Hosni Mubarak was ousted, and appointed two generals in their place, the presidential spokesman announced on August 12.

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The expected showdown between Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi and the military establishment that has consistently maneuvered to preserve its own power and privilege arrived today, far sooner than almost everyone expected. 

President Morsi, from the Muslim Brotherhood, sacked Defense Minister Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, who had headed the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), the junta that ran Egypt from the time Hosni Mubarak was ousted in February 2011 until Morsi's election earlier this year. Also fired were the acting chiefs of Egypt's military branches, who all served on the council. Morsi also unilaterally annulled constitutional declarations issued by SCAF that had taken the power to legislate out of Morsi's hands.

The reaction so far from the military? None.

There have been no statements, no mobilization of troops, no evidence that they're going to stand up to Egypt's first elected civilian president. The Muslim Brotherhood, a movement that was outlawed for decades and that the security establishment of Egypt was focused on containing for over 50 years, now theoretically holds all the formal political power in the Arab world's largest country. He can legislate, nominate members of the constitutional drafting committee, set foreign policy, and apparently shuffle the senior ranks of the military at will.

Egypt's elected parliament was dissolved by a court order earlier this year backed by SCAF, and the only official balancing authority against the presidency left are the courts. But will the judges act against Morsi's moves today absent overt backing from the military? That seems unlikely, but all things are possible in a country with neither a democratic tradition nor any history of civilian political authority. 

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