Officers’ Club: The Persistence of Military Regimes in Egypt

Naguib, Nasser, Sadat, Mubarak, and now Sisi. The officers’ club of Egyptian authoritarians continues to grow, but does this mean that democracy in Egypt is unattainable? History holds some clues to whether we can expect Egypt’s military to ever return to the barracks, and comparative analysis of the role of military authoritarianism in other states’ transitions to democracy has implications for the future of persistent military regimes in Egypt.

Historical Roots of the Officers’ Club

Even before the 1952 coup started a series of military-controlled authoritarian regimes in Egypt, Ottoman and Arab military officers charged with combating European colonization and Arab subjugation led popular revolts. It should then be unsurprising that the military has played a leading role in the turmoil unfolding in Egypt over the past few years. When unemployment once again became pervasive and the price of bread rose, Mubarak’s regime saw protests against the corruption and inefficiency which embodied the status quo; the lack of a meaningful opposition pushed the population to look to a new group of military officers to facilitate the transition to a new regime.

While it is clear that Islamists and democrats alike did not anticipate a return to military governance, historically it makes sense. In the past when Egypt suffered from corrupt or inefficient regimes the military provided the necessary muscle to oust the status quo government and provided the new leadership to steer the country back to economic security. This is, after all, how Naguib, Nasser, Sadat, and indeed Mubarak all gained membership in the Egyptian authoritarian officers’ club.

Club Membership in Comparative Perspective

The phenomenon of military-led coups and revolts is not particular to the Middle East and North Africa. Comparative political scientists have noted occurrences other regions as well; southern European, Latin American, and southeast Asian democratization efforts have often been spurred by military officers. Juan Linz and Alfred Stepan’s (1996) well-known volume discusses democratic transitions in Spain, Portugal, Greece, Latin American states, and Eastern European post-communist states. While the differences in process, timeline, and success are important, it should be noted that many of these comparative cases shared one factor in common: the presence of military actors at the inception of democratic transition. It should be noted that today all cases that Linz and Stepan cover, with the exception of Russia are strong, consolidated democracies despite histories of authoritarianism and military regimes. Why then do commentators continue to forecast failure of democracy where there are military dictatorships?

When elected institutions are removed by military force, past patterns show that the outcome is almost never favorable to democracy: outright military dictatorship, military-domination of politics with a civilian facade, civil war, civil unrest or a mix of all of the above. A few highlights include Spain in 1936, Iran in 1953, Chile in 1973, Turkey in 1980, Sudan in 1989, and Algeria in 1992. Dr. Omar Ashour

The problem with this logic is its temporal frame: of the six cases referenced by Dr. Ashour, half of them (Spain, Chile, Turkey) are now consolidated democracies that have been able to deal with regional separatist actions, economic crises, and domestic and international terrorism without reverting to military rule in the long run. While elements of the military were more passive and implicitly permissive in Spain (as opposed to active and explicitly instigating in Portugal) the potential of another reverse transition like what Ashour suggests was a real concern in the early years due to regional separatism. In Chile the military remained in a strong bargaining position during the transition, and despite the trials for human rights violations and other retribution against the military post-transition, Chilean democracy since 1989 has remained stable. Turkey perhaps provides the best example of the danger of the domination of domestic politics by the military that Ashour indicates, yet even Turkey has seen relative institutional democracy stability since the 1983 constitution. Despite persistent terrorist attacks, the Kurdish separatist movement, economic crises, and the return of conservative political Islam, civilian governments in Turkey have been able to govern without military intervention to change the constitution or restructure government as it has done historically (Barkey and Taspinar 2011). Additionally, a fourth case, the Iranian coup in 1953, should not be considered a military intervention in the same sense as the other five cases. Few Iranian military officers participated (they were bribed by CIA operatives) and the coup was not to create a military regime but rather to consolidate the power of the Shah. Therefore, only Sudan (1989) and Algeria (1992) really corroborate Ashour’s statement.

Is Egypt the new Turkey?

The evidence from southern Europe and Latin America especially over the past thirty years has revealed that regime stability and democratic institutions can grow from transitions influenced by military officers in countries with histories of military rule. So why does it seem that some commentators are claiming that military-led authoritarian regime persistence in Egypt at the expense of democratization is inevitable?

Again, this is a matter of temporal frame. The current view of democratization in Egypt is much the same as it was for observers of Turkey in the early 1980s. The political reach of the officer’s club in Turkey seemed to preclude any positive assessments of democratization, especially with the recency 1980 coup. The likelihood of a conservative Islamic party (AKP) controlling government and adding seats over three successive elections seemed near zero in the frame of the early 1980s. The 1983 constitution that the military put in place allowed for the rise of the AKP, and the military (despite public threats) refrained from intervention even as the government steers domestic policy dangerously close to violating the secular constitutional commandments.

The lesson here is that transitions to democracy from military rule do not happen overnight. In Egypt, the military will retain a powerful position even if free elections are allowed in the near future. Like in the Turkish experience, the officer’s club in Egypt will be reticent to embrace a democratic institutional arrangement where they have no power, especially to prevent their most coherent challenger, here the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, from usurping state power. Majority Muslim societies struggle with the tradeoff between the principles of representative democracy and the principles of political Islam. This is not to say that these concepts are incompatible, but the negotiation and compromise must take place in a setting where democrats and Islamists cannot exclude each other from the political process. In Turkey this “neutral” space was enforced by the military, who following the tradition of Turkish culture since 1920s, understand their role as guardians of the Turkish republic. In Egypt the military has an opportunity to create a “neutral” space for negotiations, but it is unclear for now if al-Sisi is playing the role of protector or el presidente.