(CBS News) CAIRO - In a major power play that took the country by surprise, Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi sacked the two top-ranking military leaders and abolished the supplementary constitutional declaration put in place by top generals in June that gave them wide powers and severely curtailed the authority of the presidency.
Morsi's move effectively folds the powers wielded by top generals into his own portfolio, leaving the first Islamist, democratically elected president of Egypt with sweeping executive and legislative powers. The presidential spokesman who announced last night's decisions also claimed that Morsi has assumed the Supreme Council for the Armed Forces' (SCAF) ability to create a new constituent assembly should the one currently drafting the country's proposed constitution face "obstacles" in its work - potentially leaving the executive the opportunity to profoundly influence the shape of Egypt's future.
The military leaders - Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi and Lieutenant Gen. Sami Anan - had served as defense minister and chief of staff respectively. Tantawi occupied that position for 20 years and was widely considered a close ally of ousted President Hosni Mubarak. Both served on the SCAF - the military junta that ruled Egypt for a year-and-a-half following Mubarak's ouster - and were two of the most powerful men in the military establishment, if not the country itself. Morsi also fired the heads of three branches of Egypt's armed forces.
At least some members of the SCAF seem to have gone along with the president's decision to fire the senior military leaders and promote junior ones in their stead - which some see as an attempt bring the powerful military institution in line with the new political calculus. Analyst Dr. Omar Ashour of the Brookings Doha Center says the decision was "aimed to balance the civilian-military relations in Egypt and to enhance the power of an otherwise underdog elected civilian president who had less power than the unelected, unconstitutional Supreme Council of the Armed Forces."
Before handing over the country to civilian control, SCAF attempted to strip much of the president's powers by proclaiming a constitutional addendum last June - just 20 minutes after polls closed in the country's first democratic presidential elections. That power struggle continued over the past two months since Morsi entered office, with Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood attempting to exert greater control over the state and the military positioning itself as a bulwark against complete Islamist domination of the government.
The political tug-of-war came to a head last week following the attacks by unknown militants in the Sinai peninsula - an area considered increasingly lawless following the Jan. 25, 2011, revolution, with kidnappings of foreign nationals becoming more common. The pipeline that pumps natural gas to Israel has been attacked 15 times since.
And Monday, Egyptians woke up to headlines trumpeting the president's move against the military. The headline of leading independent newspaper al-Shorouk read: "Morsi ends military rule." Another newspaper led with the headline: "Morsi to resolve power struggle."
But the military establishment's hold on the Egyptian political scene and in the economy is still strong. It still commands a vast economic empire and will continue to have a strong say in the workings of the state, says Ashour. "The military will still be a significant player; however I think it is being undermined step by step by the elected civilians and at a faster pace then usual. ... It usually takes more time to put back the military in the box and under civilian control."
In comments broadcast live to the nation late last night during a religious ceremony celebrating the holy month of Ramadan, Morsi sought to explain his actions as not being against any particular individual or meant to "embarrass" any institution, but rather undertaken "for the good of the country and its people."
Be that as it may, the battle for political supremacy and stability in Egypt is far from over. Anti-Morsi political forces have called for street demonstrations on Aug. 24 against the president's rule. And the military, despite the firings of its top brass, remains a potent and powerful political actor.