Egypt's new Islamist president Mohammed Mursi dismissed Cairo's two top generals yesterday 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 Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, whose Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) had taken over when Hosni Mubarak was deposed - nor how far they would shift the balance of power between the generals and Mursi's long-suppressed Muslim Brotherhood.
A member of the military council said Mursi, a moderate Islamist popularly elected in June but with constitutional powers sharply circumscribed in advance by the generals, had consulted Tantawi and General Sami Enan, the military chief of staff, before ordering both men to retire.
But 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 reordering of Egypt's political forces as it waits for a new constitution after six decades of army rule.
"[Tantawi] has been transferred into retirement from today," presidential spokesman Yasser Ali said. "The decision was … [made] to pump new blood into the military establishment for the sake of developing the new, modern state."
Appointed in Tantawi's place as armed forces chief and defence minister is General Abdellatif Sisi. Enan, meanwhile, was replaced by General Sidki Sobhi.
Enan, long seen as close to the US military, which has been the main sponsor of Egypt's armed forces, and Tantawi, who was Mubarak's defence minister for 20 years before helping ease him out in the face of street protests 18 months ago, were both appointed as Mursi's advisers.
The changes were effective immediately, Ali said.
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."
Mursi, whose victory over an ex-general prompted concerns in Israel and the West about their alliances with Egypt, also appointed 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.
"This clash between the new president and the military council was expected but not this fast," said analyst Gamal Soltan.
Mourad Ali, a senior official with the Freedom and Justice Party which fielded Mursi in the May to July election, said the time was right for changes to be made within the military. "He is a strong president and he is exercising his authority," he said.
Mursi, who has said he will stand by Cairo's treaties with Israel and others, has shown impatience with the military following violence in the Sinai desert that brought trouble with Israel and the Palestinians' Gaza Strip this month.
The president 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.
Yesterday, Egyptian troops killed five Islamist militants after storming their hideout near the isolated border with Israel, security sources and eyewitnesses said.
The troops found the militants in Al-Goura, about 15 kilometres from the frontier, as they searched for jihadists who killed the border guards a week ago. No one has claimed responsibility for the killings.
The latest clash is part of a security sweep that began last Wednesday and is the biggest military operation in the region since 1973, when Egypt went to war with Israel. Years later in 1979, a peace treaty opened the way for massive US aid to Cairo.
Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse