An uneasy Egypt awaits strongman's next move

New broom … President Mursi sees off the former military commander Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, this week.
New broom … President Mursi sees off the former military commander Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, this week.

Time will tell, but for now Egyptians are left to wonder at the amazing events of this week: did their new Islamist President emulate his Turkish counterpart in neutering the military as a political player?

Or, is this just mutual back scratching, by which Mohammed Mursi becomes more dictator-like and the generals get to keep some of their power and all of their vast economic interests?

With the prospect of genuine democracies across the Middle East in the wake of the Arab Spring, Turkey is the oft-invoked example of a functioning Islamist democracy - respect for human rights, a responsible global player and more.

Particularly instructive for Cairo's new players, is the defanging by the Turkish Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, of the Turkish military, for decades a backroom arbiter on what is acceptable in the politics and policies of the nation.

The Turkish military operation was not as crude as that in Egypt and it took almost a decade in power, before Erdogan started rounding up the generals. But that was a luxury denied to Mursi; he was obliged to act just weeks after taking office.

Since the fall of the Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak early last year, the military has been thug-like in amassing power for itself - at the expense of the elected parliament. Even Mursi's June election as President was a caricature of democracy as we know it; in reality, as the world celebrated a revolution the generals had staged a coup.

All that seemed to come crashing down on Sunday when Mursi, taking advantage of the constitutional and legislative vacuum created by the generals, staged his own counter-coup. He mounted a purge - sacking the junta leadership, installed his own team from the lower ranks and snatched back for the office of president, the wide-ranging powers stolen by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.

Instead of being thrown behind bars, the senior generals were awarded the highest decorations in the land and appointed to consultative positions - and nothing has been said about the fate of the 15 per cent slice of Egypt's economic pie, which they control. Similarly, in the absence of a constitution and a functioning parliament, Mursi starts to look a bit, well … a bit too Mubarak-esque.

An act of faith is required. The secular democracy envisioned by the young leaders of last year's revolution is a pipedream: almost 70 per cent of last year's parliamentary vote went to Islamist candidates.

But Mursi, a candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood, shows signs of inclusiveness - calculated or otherwise. He has promised to appoint a Coptic Christian and a woman as vice-presidents, and among appointments this week were two renowned judicial reform activists - brothers not known for their Islamist tendencies.

Mursi and the Brotherhood face an army of sceptics among analysts, in Egypt and abroad. But even the Woodrow Wilson Centre's Aaron David Miller this week checked his pessimism, if only to this extent: ''As Spiderman says, with power comes responsibility, and with that responsibility comes accountability …"

Still puzzling days after Mursi acted, is why did the military fold so easily? The generals had been mightily embarrassed by the death of 16 of their men in an August 5 attack in the Sinai. But if you had the chutzpah to steal an entire country and its government in broad daylight, was the failure to avert that attack reason enough to seemingly give it all back?

"I think there is a minimum for the military establishment," the University of Exeter's Egyptian-born Professor Omar Ashour told The New York Times. "They [still] want a veto in sensitive foreign policy issues, including on Israel and Iran - any policy that can implicate the country in a foreign confrontation [and] they will want to negotiate the independence of their economic empire."

Mursi has the power to legislate and he controls the drafting of the new constitution, prompting the activist author Alaa al-Aswani to ask this week: "Are we looking at a president determined to dismantle the machinery of tyranny … or who is retooling the machinery of tyranny to serve his interests?"

The manner in which Mursi has taken back power from the generals who also seized it in a questionable manner, leaves him in a legal twilight zone, and ripe for picking by the Supreme Constitutional Court if, as it widely anticipated, lackeys of the former regime mount a legal challenge.

This story An uneasy Egypt awaits strongman's next move first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.