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Akst: Civilian control of the military in Egypt is progress

Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, right, swears in newly-appointed

Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, right, swears in newly-appointed Minister of Defense, Lt. Gen. Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, in Cairo, Egypt. Egypt's Islamist president ordered his former defense minister and chief of staff to retire on Sunday and canceled the military-declared constitutional amendments that gave top generals wide powers. (Aug. 12, 2012) Credit: AP

When Harry S. Truman removed Gen. Douglas MacArthur as the U.S. commander in the Korean War, it was a big deal. MacArthur was hugely popular, even if he did seem bent on starting a war with China, and many people were outraged. But the Army didn't run the country, and the firing stuck.

It's worth recalling that famous episode from 1951 to understand the magnitude of what just happened in Egypt. After an Arab Spring uprising began the overthrow of dictator Hosni Mubarak, the military finished the job and assumed power in Egypt. Unfortunately, the army has shown disturbing signs that it wanted to hang on to it. Days before a June presidential runoff seen as likely to deliver a new leader from the controversial Muslim Brotherhood, the armed forces dissolved parliament, took over legislative and budgeting powers, and dramatically narrowed the powers of the president.

On Sunday the country's new president, Mohamed Morsi, struck back, ousting the nation's defense minister, the army's chief of staff and other military leaders. He also rolled back the military's earlier move to narrow his authority. He did all this even though the military had effectively seized power with its earlier moves, in a nation where the army is traditionally an independent (and jealous) power center. In the Middle East, as in Latin America, the army all too often rules. So Morsi, unlike Truman, didn't have a long tradition of civilian authority behind him when he acted.

Heaven knows having the Muslim Brotherhood in charge of Egypt is nothing to be complacent about, given its historic animosity toward Israel and the United States. But Morsi was legitimately elected, the Brotherhood includes many middle-class professionals, and the army has no place running a country. Military dictatorship has been declining all over the world as an acceptable form of government, and the generals ought to go quietly in Egypt.