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Change Atop Egyptian Military 'No Surprise' to US

Egyptian Field Marshal Gen. Hussein Tantawi (l) President Mohammed Morsi, center, and Armed Forces Chief of Staff Sami Anan, right, July 5, 2012.
Egyptian Field Marshal Gen. Hussein Tantawi (l) President Mohammed Morsi, center, and Armed Forces Chief of Staff Sami Anan, right, July 5, 2012.
STATE DEPARTMENT —The Obama administration says it is not surprised by Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi's move to change his country's top military leaders. The United States says what is important now is for Egypt's civilian and military leaders to complete the country's democratic transition.

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland says Secretary of State Hillary Clinton knew of ongoing discussions about a new defense team and was told during talks with President Morsi in Cairo last month that the change would be made "at an appropriate moment."

So, Nuland says, Sunday's forced retirement of Defense Minister Mohammed Hussein Tantawi and Army Chief of Staff Sami Annan was "no surprise."

"These are obviously personnel decisions for Egyptians to make. What is important to us is that the civilian leadership and the military keep working well together to advance the goals of the democratic transition in Egypt and to work through the many remaining outstanding questions about how we get to a fully democratic parliament, a constitution, etcetera," said Nuland.

Nuland says the new leaders named by President Morsi are all people with whom Washington has worked before, including many who have trained in the United States. Among those is the former senior judge and new vice president Mahmoud Mekki. Nuland says Mekki could play an important role in still-to-be-decided aspects of Egypt's transition.

"Clearly, having somebody who has got strong legal background could be helpful, could be appropriate in the context of working through these remaining constitutional issues that have to be solved there, but time will tell obviously," she said.

The military shake-up comes amid growing tensions over security in the northern Sinai following a recent attack by militants that killed 16 Egyptian soldiers. Nuland says Sinai security has a direct impact on the new government's relationship with Israel.

"Obviously there are security issues in Sinai that have to be dealt with," said Nuland. "As the Egyptians work to gain control of Sinai, the way they do it obviously has an impact on their neighbors, has an impact on the region, has an impact on their existing security and treaty relationships, and we want to see all of those things go smoothly."

President Morsi canceled a constitutional declaration that granted wide powers to senior military officers. He says Sunday's decisions "did not intend to embarrass institutions" and were taken for the benefit of Egypt and its people.

The military has not publicly reacted to the new president's move.