Now well into its second year, the Arab Spring advanced in a surprising way this week, but not in the streets or by bloodshed.
On Sunday, Mr. Morsi sacked the top commander, Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, as well as other top officers. Many of them had long served Hosni Mubarak, the dictator who was ousted last year. They had placed threatening constraints on the young democracy, such as a veto over the writing of a constitution.
Civilian oversight of the military is a basic pillar of any democracy. Morsi’s move helps cement that concept in Egyptian society, which has been ruled by Army leaders for 60 years, starting with Gamal Abdel Nasser.
Backroom struggles with the military may continue, but the move serves as a beacon for other Arab nations whose rulers still rely on weapons for legitimacy – even though Arabs today are less fearful of standing up for civic virtues such as individual rights.
Morsi probably worked with younger officers to achieve this so-called soft coup. They have been promoted. He was also helped by the Aug. 5 attack by jihadists on a Sinai border post with Israel, in which 16 Egyptian soldiers were killed. The military looked weak.
And Morsi didn’t fully humiliate the ousted top brass. Most were given honors and jobs in security-related enterprises or as presidential advisers. This suggests the new military leaders still want some say in foreign policy, such as Egypt’s ties with Israel as well as its reception of the $1 billion in annual military aid from the United States.
The president himself, a former leader in the Muslim Brotherhood, knows well that both the military and conservative Islamists are up against a powerful force in Egypt: an awakening of the people to hold their leaders accountable. Neither the Army nor an ecclesiastical tyranny can bury this popular desire for government to be run with transparency and honesty.
With the military largely sidelined as a governing force, all eyes in Egypt are on the next steps in the country’s Arab Spring: writing the constitution, cleaning up the courts, and electing a new parliament. If the Muslim Brotherhood doesn’t use a heavy hand in these steps – and also makes progress in the economy – it may retain popular support. Its legitimacy must now come from the people and not any claim to religious authority, as in Iran.
If there has been an echo from this latest move in Egypt, as well as from events in Tunisia, it came in a press conference today by Syria’s former prime minister who defected last week. Riad Hijab called on the Syrian military to join the democratic revolution.
“I urge the Army to follow the example of Egypt’s and Tunisia’s armies – take the side of people,” he said.