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Cairo - Egypt's new Islamist president Mohamed Mursi dismissed Cairo's two top generals on Sunday and cancelled a military order that curbed his powers, in a dramatic move that could free him of some of the restrictions of military rule.
It was not clear how far the measures were agreed with the dismissed Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, whose Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) took over when Hosni Mubarak was deposed - nor how far they would shift the power balance between the generals and Mursi's long-suppressed Muslim Brotherhood.
A member of the military council said that Mursi, a moderate Islamist popularly elected in June but with constitutional powers sharply circumscribed in advance by the generals, had consulted Tantawi, 76, and General Sami Anan, 64, the military chief of staff, before ordering both men to retire.
However, coupled with what Mursi's spokesman described as the cancellation of the constitutional declaration issued just before Mursi's election, by which Tantawi and his colleagues curbed presidential powers, the surprise move seemed to indicate a substantial reordering of Egypt's political forces as it waits for a new constitution after six decades of unbroken army rule.
“Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi has been transferred into retirement from today,” presidential spokesman, Yasser Ali, said in a statement. In his place as armed forces chief and defence minister, Mursi appointed General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
Anan was replaced by General Sidki Sobhi. Both retirees, whose positions may have been weakened by an embarrassing military debacle last week against Islamist militants in the Sinai desert, were appointed as advisers to the president.
“The decision was a sovereign one, taken by the president to pump new blood into the military establishment in the interests of developing a new, modern state,” spokesman Ali said after making the announcement.
It was a critical decision and the members of the military council understood this because they are patriotic and General Sisi is from the new generation of the patriotic men of the armed forces. He is responsible and well respected,” said Ali.
Anan was long seen as particularly close to the US military which has been the main sponsor of Egypt's armed forces. Tantawi, Mubarak's defence minister for 20 years, then helped ease the former president out of office on February 11, 2011 in the face of mass street protests.
Tantawi's age had meant that his departure had been long expected in some form, and his appointment as an adviser to Mursi appeared to exclude the possibility he might face the kind of prosecution that saw Mubarak, now 84, jailed for life.
“This clash between the new president and the military council was expected - but not this fast,” said analyst Gamal Soltan.
The armed forces, with vast resources in Egypt's economy as well as a military strength funded in part by Washington, remain a key institution in Egypt and the process of establishing full democratic control has only just begun.
General Mohamed el-Assar, who sits on the military council, said: “The decision was based on consultation with the field marshal, and the rest of the military council.”
It was not clear, however, how far the generals had agreed.
Mursi, whose victory over a former general prompted concerns in Israel and the West about their alliances with Egypt, also appointed a judge, Mahmoud Mekky, as his vice president. Mekky is a brother of newly appointed Justice Minister Ahmed Mekky, who had been a vocal critic of vote-rigging under Mubarak.
Mekky and Sisi were shortly afterwards shown on state television with Mursi, being sworn in to their new positions.
Mursi, who has pledged to uphold democratic accountability and to stand by Cairo's treaties with Israel and other states, has shown impatience with the military following violence in the Sinai desert that brought trouble with Israel and the Palestinians' Gaza Strip enclave this month.
The president, whose own Brotherhood movement renounced violence long ago, sacked Egypt's intelligence chief last week after an attack in which Islamist militants killed 16 Egyptian border guards before trying to storm the Israeli border.
On Sunday, Egyptian troops killed five Islamist militants after storming their hideout near the isolated border with Israel, security sources and eye witnesses said.
The troops found the militants in the settlement of al-Goura, about 15km from the frontier, as they searched for jihadists who killed the 16 border guards a week ago.
The latest clash is part of a security sweep that began on Wednesday and is the biggest military operation in the region since Egypt's 1973 war with Israel was followed by a 1979 peace treaty which opened the way for massive US aid to Cairo. No one has claimed responsibility for killing the border guards. - Reuters