On Friday, after a decade-long trial, Turkey sentenced 322 military officers to long sentences for the failed ‘Sledgehammer’ plot to topple the Islamist Erdogan government in 2003. After decades of dominance over the politics of the country, and repeated coups against civilian governments that dared to contest their power, Turkey’s generals had finally met their match in the Islamic AK party of Tayyip Erdogan.
On August 13, President Morsi of Egypt forced the resignation of Field Marshall Tantawi and his top generals, the de facto rulers of Egypt since the fall of Mubarak. After 60 years of regimes headed by military men, from Nasser to Sadat to Mubarak, the generals had thought to continue to rule behind the throne, and accordingly staged what amounted to a coup to strip the presidency of its powers when it became clear that the Islamist Morsi had been elected president in June. In August, Morsi made his highly risky move to reassert the powers of the civilian executive, and prevailed: Tantawi and the other top brass obeyed orders to resign.
As President Morsi boasted in an interview in the New York Times today: “The president of the Arab Republic of Egypt is the commander of the armed forces, full stop. Egypt now is a real civil state. It is not theocratic, it is not military. It is democratic, free, constitutional, lawful and modern.”
The last statement remains to be validated, but there is no denying the quantum shift in the power politics of the state of Egypt. To many, the acquiescence of the generals to Morsi’s demand for their resignation came as a surprise. But it is possible that the example of the once all-powerful generals in Turkey, on trial for their lives, served as a caution for Egypt’s generals. As they say in the Middle East, it was the lesson of the flying head of the wolf.
In the Middle Eastern fables of Kalila and Domna, from which La Fontaine derived many of his fables, the lion, who is King, is displeased with an answer the wolf gives him, and swats his head off with a blow of his paw. When it is the fox’s turn to answer the same question, the fox gives the right answer, and the Lion King asks him: “Who taught you that?” To which the fox replies: “The flying head of the wolf.”
It is also no coincidence that the civilian governments that managed to challenge the might of the military in both Turkey and Egypt are headed by avowed Islamic parties, the moderate AK in Turkey and the newly-elected Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Respected as the military traditionally is in Middle Eastern societies, the Islamists can draw on an even stronger counter claim to legitimacy with the people. Erdogan’s AK has turned out to be generally moderate and modernizing; Egypt’s Morsi and his Brethren have yet to be tested in office, in spite of the reassuring line he is espousing on his first visit, as head of state.