CAIRO -- With the surprising easy removal of Egypt's top brass, Egypt's Islamist President Mohammed Morsi tapped into discontent among the military's younger officers who apparently grew frustrated with the aging generals. Significantly, the move reflects a recognition among the new generation that the military must back out of trying to rule directly and cede room for the first civilian president.
Whether this signals a decline in the political and economic influence of the military, which has been the source of Egypt's rulers for the last six decades, or is a new power-sharing arrangement with the new Islamist civilian-led administration, remains to be seen.
The new defense minister, 57-year-old Lt. Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, is 20 years younger than his sidelined predecessor and was the youngest member of the council of generals who ruled Egypt for 17 months from the fall of Hosni Mubarak until Morsi's inauguration in late June.
The inside maneuvering that led to this week's removal of the man who led the military for 20 years, Field Marshall Hussein Tantawi and his chief of staff, remain obscure. The changes have been publicly depicted as a consensus agreement between the generals and Morsi.
But there are signs it may have been in effect a palace coup by Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood figure who is eager to assert his authority, and younger officers who wanted a change from the septuagenarian leadership. Those younger officers viewed the older generals as too hide-bound and believed they hurt the military by focusing on wielding political power, opening the much-revered institution to scathing criticism and even calls for prosecution.
The opportunity for them to act came with an Aug. 5 attack by militants that killed 16 soldiers in the Sinai Peninsula near the border with Israel and Gaza, the worst death toll for the military in decades. The attack exposed the military to criticism unseen since its defeat by Israel in the 1967 war, in which Israel occupied Sinai, Gaza, the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Syria's Golan Heights.
Some politicians with inside knowledge of both the military and the Brotherhood said el-Sissi himself was critical of the top brass' handling of intelligence preceding the attack and that he made his criticisms known to Morsi – possibly providing the chance to move. The politicians spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of military issues.
"I think there was a pre-agreement between el-Sissi and Morsi," said Hossam Sweilam, a retired Egyptian army general. He said the decision was a surprise to the ruling generals and that they found themselves cornered. "Tantawi and the council couldn't object because it would have meant a civil war, a military and political confrontation with the Brotherhood and their militias."
Immediately after the Sinai attack, Morsi sacked the head of general intelligence and the leaders of the Republican Guard and arranged the removal of the military police chief. Then on Sunday, the 78-year-old Tantawi was swept away, as was his chief of staff Sami Anan. The commanders of all the branches of the armed forces were also replaced.
Morsi's bold move alarmed critics of the Muslim Brotherhood, like Sweilam, who fear that it signals the start of an attempt by Islamists to take control of the country's most powerful institution. A popular TV presenter even called el-Sissi the "Brotherhood's man in the military."
Prominent columnist Ibrahim Eissa welcomed the new leadership as a chance to reform the military, but warned that the generals must also resist Islamist influence.
"The disaster would be that we find ourselves forming an army like Pakistan's that grows beards and fights a war for implementation of Shariah," he wrote Wednesday in the daily Al-Tahrir newspaper.
But the fast changes may reflect more of a re-arranging of the relationship between the military and Morsi, recognizing that the armed forces cannot be in direct competition with an elected president. For the younger officers, it is a chance to use the new president to achieve their hopes of changes in the military. There has reportedly long been criticism among younger officers over a sharp decline in professionalism under Tantawi, who built up the military into a bloated institution and political machine that provided patronage.
"Most of the generals were of retirement age ... The difference in age between them and the troops was large, and was closing the road to them for promotions," said Mohammed Kadri Saeed, a former military man who is now an analyst with the Al-Ahram Center for Strategic and Political Studies.
"It wasn't that there was a revolt but criticism and a difference in the way of thinking," he said.
El-Sissi could bring significant changes in the military's focus.
Traditionally, the defense minister post has been held by the commander of one of the armed forces' combat branches. However, el-Sissi served as the head of military intelligence for the last two years.
The agency was long tasked with monitoring troops and their morale. But after the fall of Mubarak in February 2011, it has taken a far greater role in internal intelligence, including tracking of domestic political groups and Islamic militant groups. That task previously fell to the State Security Service, but that agency – widely hated among Egyptians – was hard hit by the anti-Mubarak uprising and has since been relegated to a behind-the-scenes player. Under direct military rule, the military intelligence appeared to have filled a big part of that role.
That makes el-Sissi highly useful for Morsi.
El-Sissi "is the man of the hour. He knows a lot and this is good for the big man," said Saeed, the military analyst.
Morsi "picked a man who would be very useful for this period. This is a period that needs much information, not a period of war. There is an internal war against terrorism, and there is also information needed for anything related to next political moves."
The United States, Egypt's top ally and provider of billions of dollars to its military, had long pushed Tantawi to turn Egypt's military toward counterterrorism. U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta spoke to el-Sissi on Tuesday and said el-Sissi promised not to allow the Sinai to become a staging ground for militants.
In a number of U.S. diplomatic cables published by Wikileaks before the uprising, U.S. diplomats said the Egyptian military was in decline, blaming Tantawi for failing to modernize and adapt to deal with new threats and continuing to focus on Israel as the enemy.
What is not clear is whether el-Sissi's elevation will mean any reduction of the military's huge economic interests and business ventures, which some say account for over a quarter of the GDP. Maj. Gen. Mahmoud Nasr, the deputy defense minister for financial affairs who earlier this year vowed the armed forces will "not allow anyone" to touch its economic interests, remains in his post.
Insiders say el-Sissi may have played an important role in the military's decision to stay on the sidelines during the 18-day uprising against Mubarak. In his capacity as military intelligence chief, el-Sissi is believed to have reported to the top generals that the middle ranks of the military would resist any order to fire at protesters.
After Mubarak's fall, el-Sissi was also among the first generals to meet with the protest leaders after the ouster of Mubarak, listening carefully to their views, according to some who met with him. He also met briefly with critics of military rule, defending the policies of the generals.
El-Sissi's apparent personal religiosity has raised questions of a hidden sympathy with the Brotherhood. Activists who met with him say he would often dot his comments with verses from the Quran.
On Wednesday, a Facebook page known to be close to the military dismissed the idea el-Sissi was close to the Brotherhood, pointing out that he rose to prominence and was repeatedly promoted under Mubarak.
"Everyone knows the animosity of the former regime to the Brotherhood," it said.