Military Democracy: an Inevitable Outcome of the Arab Spring?

A political vintage poster from 1960sImage by Kodak Agfa via Flickr
The Arab Spring could spawn off a new kind of political animal: the military democracy. Egypt seems to be headed in that direction.

In spite of the summer heat, protests have recently multiplied in Cairo's famed Tahrir Square, and the usual pattern of soft response from the Egyptian Military Council has not placated the protesters. They insist they want Mubarak tried right away, that the military are taking too much time to move the country into a new democratic government, that the role of the military should be reduced and civil society given priority. As one of the protest leaders told the BBC: "We want a proper transition to democracy".

Now the military have announced they are directly participating in the drafting of the new Constitution through the adoption of a "declaration of basic principles" to govern it. It seems, according to legal experts involved in drafting these principles, that the military's expenditures would be shielded from parliamentary scrutiny. "Proposals under consideration would give the military a broad mandate to intercede in Egyptian politics to protect national unity or the secular character of the state" (see NYT article below)

To protest national unity or the "secular character" of the state? Really?

The intention is clear, the cards are finally on the table. Egypt is headed for a military democracy à la Ataturk. Because that's exactly what happened in Turkey: the new republic that displaced the Ottoman Empire was in the iron grip of a pro-Western, secular military elite. They intervened in Turkish political life everytime they deemed it necessary to defend their view on how civilian life should be run (down to details like the ban on women's head scarves). It then took 70 years and Erdogan to loosen the grip (and we still don't know with what consequences - but that's worth another post).

It has become quite clear to everybody in Egypt that the benign military, the protector of the people, is not quite so benign after all.

The military is a historic power in Egypt, and ever since the monarchy fell in 1952 and King Farouk was exiled, the military have run the show, first with Naguib, next with Nasser. Also, and an important point, the military, not only benefits from American aid to renew regularly its arsenal, but it owns directly a considerable slice of the economy - nobody knows how much, but it could be worth anywhere between 10 and 20% of GDP or more. As Matt Berman points out, "the military is in charge of constructing roads and bridges, it produces cars and clothing, it even grows and processes food". As he explains, the role of the military grew larger with every war since the 1960s: "once a peace treaty was signed, the military decided that it would be economically and socially risky to just cut loose all of its forces. So instead of just throwing its forces into the job market, the military decided to go into business."

In the Middle East, and across the world if one is to judge from the excellent BBC review of the results of the Arab Spring six months after it started (see article below), all eyes are trained on Egypt. Although the Arab Spring didn't start there (it began in Tunisia, much earlier, at the end of 2010, remember?), the ouster of Mubarak in February through peaceful demonstrations supported by the military was a historic turning point.
Egypt - the most populous country in the region, with the longest most prestigious history going back to the Pharaohs - is universally considered the bearer of the Arab Spring - the harbinger of revolution, the leader in the transition to democracy.

Will that transition happen? El Baradei, who used to head the IAEA and is now a candidate for the Egyptian presidency would like the "declaration" proposed by the military  subjected to referendum so that the role of the military in government "would have some legitimacy", as he put it.

"Some legitimacy"? That's an interesting concept: some, but not too much legitimacy...Honestly, I don't know where Egypt is headed, but this is extremely worrisome.

In my view the transition to democracy is seriously compromised. What is your opinion?





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