Morsi asserts his office in abrupt brinkmanship

The removal of Egypt's powerful military chief signals an assertion of the office of the president by Mohammed Morsi

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President Mohammed Morsi's dismissal of the military chief on Sunday was surprising and, as seen by many Egyptians, a very positive sign. In February 2011, when Hosni Mubarak was forced from power, he left behind a military establishment that many considered to be the real power behind the throne.

The dismissal of General Hussein Tantawi, the leader of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, was a powerful message that things have changed. Mr Morsi's declaration signifies an Egyptian president willing to assert himself against the army - and, of course, a president who is consolidating his own power.

First, the facts, which are still sketchy. After 16 Egyptian guards were killed in the Sinai Peninsula on August 5, the military was shaken by the apparent security lapse. Gen Tantawi, however, did not appear particularly vulnerable - he was, after all, reappointed as defence minister earlier this month. But on Sunday, he was replaced with another general, Abdel Fatah El Sisi, a former head of military intelligence. The chief of staff, General Sami Anan, was also replaced.

The move was widely seen as shifting the balance of power towards Mr Morsi's government, yet Scaf statements claimed that the decision had been made in consultation with the military. This raises some interesting questions. Are the generals content to fade into the background (while protecting their business interests)? Was Gen Tantawi sidelined by his colleagues, reflecting fractures at the top of the military? Are Mr Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood allies making backroom concessions to the - formerly - dominant Scaf?

Some of those answers will come in time. Regardless, Mr Morsi appears to have pulled off a deft political manoeuvre. Few would have believed that a civilian government would move so quickly to reshape the military's role in politics.

In his declaration, Mr Morsi also annulled Scaf's June decision that gave the generals sole power to appoint the constitutional assembly. Those powers were deeply troubling. Mr Morsi was correct to reverse the decision, but the way he went about it was also troubling. Egypt's politics cannot be governed by unilateral declarations, no matter who is the source.

The noted Egyptian statesman Mohamed ElBaradei stated on social media that, without a parliament, Mr Morsi holds "imperial powers". Egypt hardly needs another strongman.

So far, the military has kept tanks off the street and the next step may be decided in the courts. It will be a welcome sign when another institution - besides the military, or the presidency with its still undefined powers - proves itself to be independent in Egypt's new, complex politics.