CAIRO—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 enact laws. It was not immediately clear whether he had the constitutional authority to cancel that decree.
In a news conference broadcast about 5 p.m., Mr. Morsi’s spokesman, Yasser Ali, announced the retirements of the defense minister, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, and the army chief of staff, Sami Anan. He said that both men would serve as advisers to the president, suggesting that they had acquiesced to the plan.
The president also replaced the commanders of the Navy, Air Force and air defense, and named a senior judge, Mahmoud Mekki, as his vice president. During the Mubarak era, Mr. Mekki fought for judicial independence and spoke out frequently against voting fraud.
Field Marshal Tantawi, 75, had been expected to retire, 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 prerogatives. It remained to be seen whether the shake-up was the result of an understanding between Mr. Morsi and his senior generals or an unexpected maneuver 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.
In Washington, officials have closely watched the confrontation between Mr. Morsi’s civilian government and the military leaders, and recently welcomed signs that negotiations over how to share power were underway behind closed doors. While neither the White House nor the State Department offered any immediate reaction to Mr. Morsi’s actions on Sunday, both Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta met with Field Marshal Tantawi and Mr. Morsi last month.
The changes were part of the continuing fallout from the killings of 16 Egyptian soldiers one week ago in the Sinai Peninsula, which deeply embarrassed the military and exposed shocking intelligence failures. In the aftermath of the attack, Mr. Morsi moved swiftly to assert his newfound authority, firing his intelligence chief and the governor of Northern Sinai Governorate, and replacing several other top security officials.
The changes on Sunday went much further. Field Marshal Tantawi led the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, the military leadership panel that took power after President Mubarak was toppled last year and has fought to restrict the power of Mr. Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood. Before Mr. Morsi was elected, the generals dissolved the Parliament, where Brotherhood members held about 50 percent of the seats.
While the leadership shuffle was proceeding, the Egyptian military pressed its campaign against the Islamists thought to have carried out the Sinai attack, killing at least five gunmen in a village in Northern Sinai, according to security officials and witnesses cited by Reuters. Strewn about the rubble were chemicals for making explosives, rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns, the officials said.