AS MUSLIMS around the world prepared for the holiest night of Ramadan, known as the "Night of Power", Egypt's President Mohammed Morsi staked his own claim to power, putting himself on a collision course with the country's constitutional court and retiring the heads of the armed forces.
Presidential spokesman Yasser Ali announced the retirement of Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, head of the armed forces, and the chief of staff, Sami Enan, saying they have been appointed as advisers to Dr Morsi, a role in which their powers are unclear.
Dr Morsi also appointed a senior reformist judge, Mahmoud Mekki, as his Vice-President. His brother Ahmed Mekki, who also has a record as an advocate for judicial independence, is already Justice Minister. In a late-night speech, Dr Morsi said he was acting in the interests of Egypt. Although he offered no specifics behind his decision, he suggested an attack on Egyptian soldiers in Sinai last week contributed to the moves.
"There is no safety for those who don't do their jobs," Dr Morsi said. "There is no space to abandon responsibility."
Dr Morsi also cancelled a constitutional declaration issued by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), announced days before he was declared the victor in June's elections. That declaration had curbed presidential power and kept much of it in the hands of the SCAF. He decreed that fresh parliamentary elections would take place 60 days after a new constitution was ratified in a popular referendum.
"This sets up an inevitable showdown with the supreme constitutional court . . . It seems this move will require the sacking of the court if it is to stand," said Michael Hanna, a fellow at the Century Foundation, a US think tank.
Human rights advocates called for Dr Morsi to put Field Marshal Tantawi on trial for the deaths of protesters since February 2011. "The moment [military] members are put in jail is the moment I cheer and celebrate," said Heba Mahfouz, an activist. "Until then, don't ask me to be happy when they are honoured by Morsi."
Neither the White House nor the US State Department offered any immediate reaction to Dr Morsi's decisions. An Obama administration official said the United States was not warned that it was coming.
Israeli officials said there was a "sense of alarm", though several said they were ordered to remain quiet about the developments. "There is a longstanding relationship between the Israeli military and the Egyptian military that we rely upon to secure the peace," said one former Israeli defence official with longstanding diplomatic experience with Egypt. "Tantawi is a man we know, a man we have known for decades and understand. We do not know Morsi."
Field Marshal Tantawi received the highest medal in the country, the Order of the Nile, and General Enan also received a medal, which has led to speculation that this latest move comes as part of the "safe exit scenario" that would see SCAF members leave office without fear of prosecution for crimes committed against protesters during their tenure, including when army vehicles ran over Coptic Christian protesters on October 9, 2011, killing 27.
"What is happening now was planned once SCAF realised they had to make a deal with the Brotherhood anyway," said Sherif Azer, deputy director of the Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights. GUARDIAN, AGENCIES