By Marwa Awad
CAIRO (Reuters) - Egypt's military leader has sacked the general responsible for media affairs to bolster an image tarnished by killings of protesters and accusations that the men in uniform are undermining Egypt's democratic revolution.
The change is the first in the military council since the generals took power from President Hosni Mubarak during a popular uprising last February.
Although it defused a violent confrontation by ushering Mubarak out, the military has also tried to crush subsequent protests by force, killing dozens. It has only grudgingly agreed to hand over to a civilian president by June, and tried to protect its privileges and avoid civilian oversight.
Major General Ismail Etman, 60, was "exempted from service and replaced by Major General Ahmed Abu El-Dahab, the director of the artillery division," a defense ministry source said. The decision was announced later by state media.
Since the 1973 war against Israel, Egypt's army was seen as a respected institution set above the fray. But its direct involvement in politics has exposed it to closer scrutiny.
The generals are not trusted by many young pro-democracy campaigners, who suspect they want to curtail civilian power by exploiting the fragile security situation.
Dozens died when the army tried to suppress protests on the streets of Cairo in November and December and video of soldiers mistreating injured demonstrators sparked widespread anger. The army said troops were also killed.
It has blamed the violence on "invisible hands" determined to sow chaos among Egyptians and undermine the achievements of the uprising against Mubarak.
A source close to the military council said it was concerned about its deteriorating public image.
"The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces concluded that the army's image in the media has suffered over the past year under Etman's leadership," said the source.
"The decision is intended to bring in new leadership to improve the armed forces' performance," and was decreed by Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, who heads the council, the source added.
Etman led the army department which handled a wide range of issues ranging from media relations to dealing with the concerns of military officers.
Little is known about Etman's successor, Abu El-Dahab, and it remains to be seen whether the change will alter the army's public affairs policy.
Tantawi has tried to improve the military's public image, calling on Egyptians to unite with the army and ordering the formation of a committee of generals to ensure positive media coverage, Egyptian media reported last week.
While no longer a member of the 20-member military council, Etman will however remain one of Tantawi's many advisers, positions given to officers closely tied to the army leadership, the source at the defense ministry said.
(Editing by Tom Pfeiffer and Giles Elgood)