General: Egypt's Tantawi to remain defense minister

Mohamed Assar indicates newly-elected President Mursy's powers to be limited by military, who will retain prominent post.

Spraypainted faces of Mubarak, Tantawi 370 (photo credit: REUTERS/Amr Dalsh)
Spraypainted faces of Mubarak, Tantawi 370
(photo credit: REUTERS/Amr Dalsh)
Egypt's  armed forces chief will keep his post as defense minister in a new cabinet to be formed by President-elect Mohamed Mursi, a member of the military council said Wednesday night.
Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, 76, who served as defense minister for two decades under ousted leader Hosni Mubarak, will keep his post after Egypt's first Islamist president takes over, Major-General Mohamed Assar said in a rare appearance on a talk show on privately-owned CBC television on Wednesday night.
"The (new) government will have a defense minister who is head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces," he said.
Asked if this meant Tantawi would keep his defense portfolio, Assar said: "Exactly. What is wrong with that? He is the head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, the defense minister and the commander of the armed forces."
Tantawi effectively pushed the 84-year-old Mubarak aside on February 11 last year when it became clear the security forces could not contain street protests against his 30-year rule.
SCAF took charge, managing a turbulent and sometimes violent transition period in which Egypt's first free parliamentary and presidential elections have taken place.
The republic's past presidents, all drawn from the military, have had the title of supreme commander of the armed forces.
Yet Assar's assertion that Tantawi would remain in place even before Mursi has been sworn in on Saturday illustrates the limits the military seeks to set on his presidential authority.
The Muslim Brotherhood has previously said that it does not accept SCAF's June 14 decision to back a supreme court ruling dissolving parliament or its June 17 issuing of a supplementary constitutional declaration, which greatly reduces the president's powers and stipulates that the military junta retain legislative powers until the election of  a new parliament.
SCAF also established a new National Defense Council to decide defense issues, on which Mursi, as president, will sit. However, the 16-strong council, 11 of whose members will be generals, will decide issues by majority vote.
Assar insisted that Mursi, a 60-year-old U.S.-trained engineer, would have full presidential prerogatives, even as he set an apparent limit on his right to decide on war or peace.
"The president is the head of state with full powers. The president makes a decision to go to war in consultation with the military rulers," Assar said, adding that this was normal practice in other countries, including the United States.
Meanwhile, with Mursi's swearing-in ceremony just two days away, there was still no official announcement Thursday evening regarding a venue.
According to past custom, the new president should have been sworn in before parliament. With parliament dissolved, the ceremony should take place before the Supreme Constitutional Court. However, the Muslim Brotherhood has previously said that it does not accept SCAF's decree to dissolve parliament or its June 17 issuing of a supplementary constitutional declaration.
Mursi's acting media spokesman, Yasser Ali, said Thursday that the president-elect would determine that day how he was to be sworn in.
Ali said the matter of the constitutional oath was "under discussion" and that the president-elect was engaged in dialog to reach a solution "satisfactory to national powers and conforming to the rule of law."
However, as no official statement came, speculation about the swearing-in venue grew throughout the day.
On Thursday afternoon, Egyptian daily al-Masry al-Youm said Mursi would be sworn-in before the Supreme Constitutional Court on Saturday morning.
Citing an anonymous "informed army source", the paper said that after the new president was formally sworn into office, the military would hold a ceremony formally transferring power, but that SCAF would retain the powers the military junta decreed for itself in the controversial June 17 supplementary constitutional declaration.
Earlier Thursday, al-Masry al-Youm cited an anonymous official source from the Freedom and Justice Party (the Muslim Brotherhood's political arm) as saying that Shura Council speaker Ahmed Fahmy, SCAF head Tantawi, and current prime minister Kamal Ganzouri would all attend the ceremony.
Meanwhile, later on Thursday afternoon, Egypt's Union of Revolutionary Youth (URY) called on the president-elect to take his oath of office in Tahrir Square, before his supporters and "at the heart of the revolution that brought President Mohamed Mursi to the presidential palace", according to the Medan el-Tahreer news site.
Tamer al-Qadi, a spokesman for the Union of Revolutionary Youth said Thursday that if Mursi swore his oath before the Constitutional Court it would mean the president-elect "implicitly recognized" SCAFs June 17 decree, as well as the military junta's decree restricting the president's powers.
Mohammed al-Sa'id, the  union's general coordinator, said that "closed door talks" between Mursi and SCAF to negotiate his powers would undermine the president's office and "weaken confidence in the Muslim Brotherhood".
The revolutionary movement also called on Mursi's sons to relinquish their US citizenship.
Mursi was educated in the United States, and two of his sons hold US passports.
"It is not appropriate for the children of the President of the largest Arab nation and an Arab and Muslim leader to carry [US citizenship]," the Union of Revolutionary Youth said in a statement.
Meanwhile, Mursi, whose aides say he will name a woman and a Christian among six vice-presidents, has been meeting leaders of Egypt's political and religious communities ahead of his swearing-in.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who has delayed plans to visit Egypt for now, this week urged Mursi to include women, Christians and secular liberals in his government.
On Tuesday, Mursi's policy adviser Ahmed Deif, reiterated that Mursi wanted an inclusive Egypt in an interview with CNN, saying that one of the new president's first steps will be to appoint a Christian vice president and another female vice president.
Deif said that an Egyptian woman would, for the first time in history, take such a senior political role.
“Not just a vice president who will represent a certain agenda and sect, but a vice president who is powerful and empowered, and will be taking care of critical advising within the presidential cabinet," Deif told CNN.
Deif added that Mursi wanted to create a "constitutional, civil, modern state that respects and enjoyes its culture, principles and religions. Not just Islam but Islam and Christianity."
Meanwhile, later on Thursday, Mursi met with chief editors of national, political and independent newspapers and TV channels in the Heliopolis Palace northeast of Cairo.
In a statement on Mursi's official Facebook page Thursday morning, the president-elect's media spokesman said the meeting was to confirm Mursi's commitment to a free press.
During the meeting, when editors called on Mursi to reassure the country's Christian population, the president-elect said Christians and Muslims had "equal shares" in Egypt, so nobody should be concerned, according to Egyptian daily al-Wafd, the outlet of the country's liberal-democratic Wafd ('Delegation') party and considered an opposition newspaper.
According to al-Wafd, in response to a question from Saleh Abdel Maqsoud, the general secretary of the Egyptian Journalists' Union, Mursi affirmed that women's freedom would not be restricted. 
Mursi told editors that he appreciated the media's role and its emphasized freedom of expression and press freedom, saying he "welcomed constructive criticism".
In a statement before the meeting, Mursi's acting media spokesman Ali said that Mursi "believes in the institution [of the press]" and that the president-elect saw the Supreme Council of the Press as responsible for developing a "vision for the future of journalism". Mursi believed that, like the BBC, Egypt's official media should inform the people and be the voice of any political movement or the state, even though it was state-owned.
Mursi's comments come in the wake of a recent report by Cairo-based NGO The Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI), Egypt's state media reached a "crisis" after the revolution, accusing it of "misinforming the public, speaking on behalf of the political authority and lacking professional performance and credibility."
Earlier this month, before the runoff elections, ANHRI accused Egypt's official news agency MENA of being a "propaganda mouthpiece" for presidential candidate Ahmed Shafik.
There have been increasing demands to reform and state media to make it a voice for the Egyptian people, and not the state, ANRHI said.