Egypt's new president takes on the mighty military

Egypt's President Mohamed Mursi, defence minister Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi and Armed Forces Chief of Staff Sami Annan attend a meeting with Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. Photo: Reuters

To Mohammad Mursi, an apology.

Many had him down as the rather boring, mild-mannered sort who wouldn’t say boo to a goose, never kind take on the entrenched interests of Egypt’s mighty military.

To be fair, Mr Mursi hid his true character well.

He cut an uncharismatic figure on the election trail and won by just a whisker over the army’s favoured candidate. Then his first cabinet, unveiled at the beginning of August, arrived with what one critic called "a dull thud."

Unambitious, most agreed. It even included Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, personification of the ancient regime. It was Tantawi who ruled Egypt after his friend Hosni Mubarak was ousted.

Well, now Tantawi and the chief of defence staff Sami Annan have been shown the door.

It looks like a stunning blow to the old guard; a coup that Mursi followed by abolishing the generals’ decree that sought to curb the powers of the President’s office.

Mr Mursi appears to be more of a fighter than anyone thought. Question is; why the sudden change? For an answer, look to the Sinai desert and the attacks by Islamist militants that took the lives of 16 Egyptian border guards before a futile attempt to storm into Israel.

The murder of so many Egyptian soldiers stoked an angry public backlash, and an emboldened Mursi fired his head of military intelligence, Mourad Mowafi, and other senior security officials.

Still, it is a dramatic leap to then sack Tantawi, by far the heaviest blow struck in Egypt’s post-Tahrir Square struggle for power that pits the Muslim Brotherhood against what Egyptians call "the deep state’’ the secretive structure of security and military agencies said still to run the country.

Tantawi’s job is going to the head of military intelligence, one of the generals who defended the use of highly controversial "virginity tests" against female democracy campaigners.

And like the new chief of staff, he is a member of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, the much reviled group which ran things after the fall of Mubarak.

So it’s not year clear whether the president has really declared war on the military. It’s just that he won’t be under-estimated again.