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By ousting military chiefs, Egypt's Morsi shows he's a force to be reckoned with

Egyptian Presidency via AFP - Getty Images

A handout picture released by the Egyptian presidency shows Egyptian President Mohammad Morsi, right, meeting Monday with newly-appointed Egyptian Defense Minister Abdel Fattah al-Sisi at the presidential palace in Cairo.



Egyptian President Mohammad Morsi may be owed an apology.

Many observers had him pegged as the rather boring, mild-mannered sort who would not say "boo" to a goose, never mind take on the entrenched interests of Egypt's powerful military. But signs have emerged that suggest he cannot be so easily pigeonholed.

To be fair, Morsi hid his true character well.

A former leader of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, he cut an uncharismatic figure on the election trail and won by just a whisker over the army’s favored candidate.

Then his first cabinet, unveiled at the beginning of August, held few clues to the excitement ahead. The choices were unambitious, most observers agreed.

The cabinet even included Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, personification of the old regime.

It was Tantawi who ruled Egypt after his friend Hosni Mubarak was ousted in February 2011 after nearly three decades in power. Tantawi himself had served as minister of defense for 20 years.

But now Tantawi and the chief-of-staff, Gen. Sami Annan, have been shown the door.

Ahmed Youssef / EPA

Eighteen days of popular protest culminated in the downfall of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on Feb. 11, 2011.

Political pugilist?
It looks like a stunning blow to the old guard -- a move that Morsi followed by abolishing the generals' June decree that sought to curb the powers of the president’s office.

Morsi appears to be more of a fighter than anyone thought.

The armed forces had supplied Egypt's presidents for six decades, beginning with the 1952 officers' coup led by Muhammad Naguib and Gamal Abdel Nasser. The Muslim Brotherhood's political activities were tightly limited for most of those decades.

"Morsi settles the struggle for power," Reuters quoted a headline in the state-owned Al-Akhbar daily.

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"Morsi ends the political role for the armed forces," the independent Al-Masry Al-Youm wrote. Another, Tahrir, called it the "president's revolution against the military," according to Reuters.

As of Monday, the military had shown no sign of challenging Morsi’s move, the official state-run news agency reported.

But the question is: Why the sudden change?

Suspected Islamic militants have been killed in a major security crackdown by Egypt near the border with Israel. Security forces on both sides of the border are on high alert. NBC's John Ray reports.

For an answer, look to the Sinai Peninsula and the attacks by Islamist militants that took the lives of 16 Egyptian border guards before making a futile attempt to storm into Israel.

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

Blow against 'the deep state'
Still, it is a dramatic leap to then fire 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.

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Rarely, though, are things clear cut. 

Egypt's passage from revolution to democracy was in limbo on Monday, as the Muslim Brotherhood claimed victory in a presidential election while the generals who took over from Hosni Mubarak decreed it was they who would keep power for now. NBC's Richard Engel reports.

Tantawi's old job is going to the head of military intelligence – Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, 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 that ran the country after the fall of Mubarak.

So it is not yet clear whether the president has really declared war on the military. But it is clear that he will not be underestimated again.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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