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Why a Democratic Egypt must Dismantle its Military Establishment

By Elvin Lim


Two contested frames are now emerging from the “chaos” in Egypt. Either the popular revolution has created chaos, including looting and the escape of inmates from prisons, or the government has constructed an image of chaos, so that its turn to emergency powers would be justified and necessary.

It is telling, and not a little sad, that both sides are courting the military – a fundamental and embedded institution of Egyptian life and politics. On the one hand, state television in Egypt depicted President Hosni Mubarak visiting an army operations center, showing that he remains the Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces. On the other, we hear numerous reports that the troops are apparently one with the demonstrators, refusing to enforce the state’s curfew. Mohamed ElBaradei, for his part, told ABC that “the first step is that he (Mubarak) has to go. The second step is a government of national salvation, in coordination with the army.”

Aye, there’s the rub. When the balance of power hangs on the approval of the military, the prospect for democratic consolidation is slim. The problem is that the military is not exactly one with the people because it is not one. The older generals are wary of ElBaradei, someone who’s enjoyed too much Western support. Others are afraid that the Muslim Brotherhood, the nation’s largest opposition party with the ultimate goal of setting up an Islamic theocracy, would gain too strong a voice in a new coalition government.

Yet the most unfortunate thing about the Egyptian military is not that its support is contingent, but that it is needed at all. Militaries in authoritarian regimes are the reason why most do not possess the vibrant civil societies equal to the task of self-governance. When jobs and resources are funneled to one interest group at the expense of all others, a state arises within a state. Presidents come and go. Mubarak will too. But the cycle of revolutions and coup d’états continue as long as the military is here to stay.

The military has been a fundamental part of Egyptian political life at least since the revolution of 1952, when Generals Muhammad Naguib, Gamal Nasser and the Free Officers overthrew Egypt’s constitutional monarchy. The Revolutionary Command Council declared the 1923 Constitution defunct and in next year, it banned all political parties. Blood, violence, and military rule accompanied Egypt’s subsequent history as they were present at her founding. Indeed, Egypt has lived under a state of emergency for most of its history since its revolution. After Anwar Sadat was assassinated in 1981, martial law was declared and parliament has voted consistently every three years to renew the emergency laws to the present day.

How many Generals in the history of the world walked away from power when the power was his to take? Not Muhammad Naguib, not Gamal Nasser, not Anwar Sadat, not Hosni Mubarak, and probably not Omar Suleiman, newly appointed Vice-President of Egypt. When the history of modern Egypt reads like military history, then democracy has gone sadly missing. So yes, the military might be sympathetic to the popular demonstrators at Liberation Square, but we should not be fooled that the military is the solution to today’s troubles. That everyone agrees that it must be part of the solution tells us that it is the problem itself. The question is not whether the United States should support Mubarak or ElBaradei, but how we can assist a leader who can stand up to the entrenched interests to guide Egypt out of the abyss of martial rule.

Elvin Lim is Assistant Professor of Government at Wesleyan University and author of The Anti-intellectual Presidency, which draws on interviews with more than 40 presidential speechwriters to investigate this relentless qualitative decline, over the course of 200 years, in our presidents’ ability to communicate with the public. He also blogs at www.elvinlim.com and his column on politics appears here each week.

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