A simmering power struggle between Egypt's elected civilian leader, President Mohamed Morsi, and the country's military leadership came to the fore with the latter's abrupt removal of military chief, Marshal Hussein Tantawi, and other senior commanders. Outwardly the president looks to be playing a dangerous game. The military has long been suspicious of the commitment of his party, the Muslim Brotherhood, to democracy. However, Mr Morsi seems to have struck an understanding with younger officers and appointed replacements known for their professionalism.
More telling is Mr Morsi's negation, by decree, of sections of the new Egyptian constitution. These clauses had granted the military sweeping powers in areas like foreign policy and almost complete freedom from civilian oversight. These provisions were always incompatible with genuine political reform and deserved to go. Yet, constitutional provisions should not be changed lightly. Mr Morsi's decision to make these changes without any due process is troubling and a sign that political power in Egypt still remains a consequence of manoeuvre rather than legal authority. Some expect the decrees to be challenged in Egypt's High Constitutional Court, in itself a test of the country's polity. The Muslim Brotherhood is the dominant political movement in Egypt, Jordan, Gaza and quite probably Syria. Where it has been allowed to contest elections, the Brotherhood has defined itself as a conservative Islamic party - positioning itself as different from radical Islamicists like the Salaf. It has also focused on building political institutions, governance and otherwise avoiding reasons for others to tar it with the brush of extremism. Egypt, the Brotherhood's land of origin and the largest Arab country, is the test of the movement's claims it has evolved into a normal political party, that it is not a fifth column aimed at overthrowing democracy from within.
Until his recent showdown, Mr Morsi had been a cautious political player. Even after staging a constitutional coup, by respecting the institution of the army, if not specific leaders, he is trying to maintain that image. There are still many buffers that will keep the Brotherhood's more orthodox tendencies in check. One is Egypt's fragile economy and its continuing dependence on foreign aid and overseas capital. The other is that Mr Morsi was elected with the support of just over half the electorate and cannot claim a mandate for authoritarianism. Egyptian democracy is among the most important political dramas of the present world. It can be argued that the latest act was a forward step, but with a cautionary footnote attached.