CAIRO — Egypt's new President Mohamed Morsi has forced out the country's top two military officers, announcing the immediate retirement of Defense Minister Mohammed Hussein Tantawi and Army Chief of Staff Sami Annan. The move comes after growing tensions over military operations in the northern Sinai, following a recent attack by militants that killed 17 Egyptian soldiers.
News that President Morsi had fired Defense Minister Tantawi and Army Chief of Staff Annan struck on a quiet summer afternoon as most Egyptians fasted for Ramadan.
The president's spokesman, Yasser Ali, announced replacements for the two top officers on state television. He said Morsi was also annulling constitutional amendments that gave military commanders sweeping powers.
He said the president has named Mahmoud Mekki as his vice president, that he is ordering Defense Minister Mohammed Hussein Tantawi to retire, along with Army Chief of Staff Sami Annan.
Morsi was shown on state TV swearing in his new Defense Minister, Abdel Fattah al Sissi.
The new defense minister said he swears to protect the nation and its presidential system and to respect the constitution and the law, to defend the people's interests and the borders of the country.
It was not immediately clear if the president's decision would provoke a constitutional crisis. Field Marshall Tantawi and top generals of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces had given themselves powers before the presidential election that some analysts compared to a “check-and-balance” system.
The unexpected moves by the president came as tensions mounted between him and top officers of the armed forces council. Photos showed Mr. Morsi and Field Marshall Tantawi tense and unsmiling as they visited the Sinai in recent days, during a government military operation against Islamist militants.
Essam Elarian, the head of President Morsi's Freedom and Justice Party, said Egyptians have been “dreaming of a fair democratic system for more than 60 years.” The Egyptian military seized power in 1952 and every leader until Morsi has belonged to it.
Defense Minister Tantawi was named to the post by former President Hosni Mubarak in 1991. A former US ambassador to Egypt once described him as “Mubarak's poodle,” according to a document leaked by the website Wikileaks.
It was not immediately clear how the Egyptian army would react to the president's decision to relieve the top commanders, or if the country's top court might attempt to reverse the decisions.