President Mohamed Morsi of Egypt forced the retirement on Sunday of his powerful defense minister, the army chief of staff and several senior generals, in a stunning purge that seemed for the moment to reclaim for civilian leaders much of the political power the Egyptian military had seized since the fall of Hosni Mubarak last year.
Mr. Morsi also nullified a constitutional declaration, issued by the military before he was elected, that eviscerated the powers of the presidency and arrogated to the military the right to pass laws. It was not immediately clear whether he had the constitutional authority to cancel that decree.
In a news conference broadcast at about 5 p.m., Mr. Morsi’s spokesman, Yasser Ali, announced the retirements of the defense minister, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, and the chief of staff, Sami Anan. He said that both men would serve as advisers to the president.
Field Marshal Tantawi, 75, had been expected to retire in the near future, but no timetable had been set, at least not publicly. Mr. Ali, praising Field Marshal Tantawi’s “invaluable services to the homeland,” said that the current chief of military intelligence, Abdul Fattah el-Sisi, would become the country’s new defense minister.
There was no immediate reaction from the military, which traditionally sees itself as the guardian of the Egyptian state and is a fierce defender of its own powers and perogatives. It remained to be seen whether the shakeup was the result of an understanding between Mr. Morsi and his senior generals or an unexpected attack that could draw a sharp response.
But a member of the military council, Gen. Mohammed el-Assar, told Reuters that the decision was, “based on consultation with the Field Marshal and the rest of the military council.” On Sunday, General Assar was appointed deputy defense minister.
The changes were part of the continuing fallout from the killings of 16 Egyptian soldiers one week ago in the Sinai Peninsula. In the aftermath of the attack, which exposed intelligence failures by the government, Mr. Morsi fired his intelligence chief, the governor of Northern Sinai and replaced several other top security officials.
The shakeup on Sunday went much further. Field Marshal Tantawi led the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, the military leadership panel that took power after the President Hosni Mubarak was toppled last year. The generals then fought to restrict the power of Mr. Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist group that Mr. Morsi once headed. Before Mr. Morsi was elected, the generals dissolved Egypt’s parliament, where Brotherhood members held about 50 percent of the seats.