Maajid Nawaz

The removal of Egypt’s army chief restrains the military. Now we need to rein in Islamism

When the President of Egypt, Mohammed Morsi, announced that he had dismissed the once untouchable Defence Minister, Field Marshal Mohamed Tantawi, it was widely interpreted as the latest move in the battle between Islamists and military-backed secularists. But such judgments fall prey to the oversimplification of the political mosaic deliberately created by Hosni Mubarak to secure his own base.

Mubarak’s “me or the Islamists” mantra is exactly what made the Arab world one of the last places of safety for absolute monarchs and dictators. It was a spectacularly successful scare tactic at home and abroad.

But Egypt is far more complicated than that. Sometimes its political developments are about the old guard fighting the new. Mr Morsi’s presidential victory can be seen in this light. Many of the electorate were voting against Mubarak’s last prime minister rather than for him and the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood party that he represents.

At other times Egypt’s struggles pitch the energy of youth against the stagnation of its old rulers. It was this tension that sparked last spring’s uprising. Or they are about civilian versus military rule, which brings the country’s revolutionary youth side by side with their Islamist nemeses against military interference in politics.

And finally there is the now sharply defined division between moderate Islamists and their extreme Salafist rivals, which provided the catalyst for Mr Morsi’s bold move. The killing of 16 border guards in Sinai by suspected jihadists gave him the perfect opportunity to flex his moderate muscles and secure his support in the military hierarchy.

Mr Morsi’s move was less about Islamist civilians battling a secular army than about Egyptians of all persuasions, including army officers, struggling for civilian supremacy. It is hard to imagine the Supreme Council of Armed Forces was not involved in ousting Field Marshal Tantawi.

This was also less about Islamism versus secularism than a counter-coup by the new Egypt against the old. Field Marshal Tantawi was one of the last remnants of the Mubarak regime, while his replacement, General Abdel Latif El-Sisi, is the youngest officer in the Supreme Council. This is a triumph for the forces of international diplomacy over domestic tyranny, and it is almost impossible to imagine that it happened without backing from the US. It got rid of an old jingoistic anti-Israel “war hero” dinosaur and replaced him with a man with no previous war record.

All this is a sound reason to cheer Mr Morsi’s move, but it would be easier to do that if it had been made by a genuine democrat. With the army out of the way, the path is clear for the Muslim Brotherhood to contest new parliamentary elections and form a new Islamist-dominated constitutional assembly. Will that assembly aim to produce a constitution for all Egypt or only for the Brotherhood?

Just as the Islamist movement provided a check on army power, so Egypt now needs a check on the Islamist movement that dominates politics. Otherwise the country may find itself facing the choice between cementing one interpretation of Islam into the foundations of its post-Mubarak society or freeing Islam from the political manoeuvrings of power-hungry men. History shows that the best constitutions are not prescriptive social contracts but documents that enshrine the rights that a nation believes should be granted to all its citizens.

There was a 50 per cent fall in the votes cast for the Brotherhood between the last parliamentary elections and the presidential ones — evidence that the people of Egypt are well aware of the dangers of giving one group too much power. But they have not yet come up with a sufficiently strong alternative. Until there is a secular, democratic organised social movement, Egyptians will have to juggle the series of evils that are on offer. And hope that international pressure works on their side.

Maajid Nawaz is co-founder and chairman of the counter-extremism think-tank Quilliam and the author of Radical: My Journey from Islamist Extremism to a Democratic Awakening