Military coups have never been a source of comfort for democratic forces. This has been especially true in Egypt, where military rule has been entrenched for the past 60 years. In the current situation, however, fears of the military are either exaggerated or, at times, misplaced. There are legitimate reasons to be worried about the army’s temporary control of the presidency, but the threat of permanent military rule is not one of them.
The Egyptian military is unlikely to renege on its promises for constitutional amendments, free elections, and the transfer of power to a civilian government. It will be less willing however to limit its sphere of influence and diminish its privileges in Egyptian society. Even if democratic reforms are introduced, the nature of the civilian-military relationship that was woven together during Mubarak’s era can endure much longer.
Let’s start with some reasons to be optimistic about the army’s pledges so far.
First, the recent transfer of political power to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces differs in important ways from the 1952 Free Officers’ revolt. What happened in 1952 was coup led by a political group within the army, the Free Officers, against both its own leadership and Egypt’s discredited King Faruq. Revolts of this kind, led by highly politicized factions within the military known for their anti-liberal and anti-democratic tendencies, were common in the 1950s and 1960s across many newly-independent states. By contrast, the Egyptian army today is intervening as a state institution with a unified leadership. This sort of intervention, guided by a consensus within the army’s leadership, can serve to block any authoritarian tendencies within the army from crossing the boundaries the military has set for itself under the pressure of the uprising.
Second, Egypt’s military leaders do not seem opposed to a controlled version of liberal democracy. The army’s current leadership has been formed in a political context different from that of national independence. Egypt’s military leaders have been influenced by 30 years of close ties to the United States, with whom they coordinate very closely on all of their moves. It's likely that Egypt’s military leaders have come to accept that the rule of law and at least a partial liberal democracy are necessary to modernize their societies.
Third, the army holds power today as a result of pressure from a popular uprising that made Mubarak’s continued rule a liability for Egypt’s ruling bloc as a whole, including the military. This kind of military intervention resembles those in Southern Europe and Latin America in the 1970s and 1980s that were intended to facilitate transitions to democracy. From Portugal in the mid-1970s to Brazil in the late 1980s, the process of transition from authoritarian rule to democracy could not have worked without guarantees from the military–the main apparatus of state coercion that was capable of enforcing law in the face of crumbling state institutions under the grip of oligarchies and authoritarian elites. In several cases, such as Portugal, the military was even responsible for eliminating the authoritarian legacy left behind by previous military coups.
Egypt’s situation today is closer to these experiences than to military coups in times of national independence. The military is gradually trying to embrace the logic of a civil state rather than establish a coup d’état.
Nevertheless, the real problem is not that the military may go back on its pledges for political reform; it’s that the nature of military-civilian relations may remain unchanged after political reforms are achieved. The examples mentioned above teach us that the army’s guarantee for a democratic transformation does not necessarily mean it will be willing to limit its sphere of influence and diminish its privileges. In many countries, democratic forces had to struggle to dissolve the army’s influence over civilian life in order to achieve a full democratic transition.
In the Egyptian case, the military-civilian relationship is characterized by three main problems.
First, the army, deeply implicated in the authoritarian legacy of the Egyptian state, seems incapable of understanding the ongoing labor protests and other social struggles, which represent a second, more radical phase of the Egyptian uprising. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces appears determined to limit democratic transition only to constitutional reform. It presents the current wave of social protests as a deviation from Egypt's "noble” national uprising and a return to “sectoral” struggles.
Second, the army’s position towards the political forces involved in the uprising remains ambiguous–a position that likely stems from the Free Officers’ past experiences with political Islam and the radical left. Beginning the reform process by sidelining Islamists or other significant opposition forces will only reproduce the shortcomings of the existing Egyptian political system, namely the marginalization of all effective political forces and the inclusion of all marginal ones.
Third, the complex relationship between the military, capitalist free-market institutions and the oligarchs around Mubarak may present an additional obstacle to true democratic reforms. The army has a vested interest in maintaining certain laws that limit press freedoms in order to protect it against criticism in the media, which must be amended during the transitional period for real press freedom to be realized. The same applies to the restrictive laws that regulate trade union activities inside military industrial and commercial firms. Without going into much details, it suffices to say that the precedents are not encouraging at all.
The challenges presented above have developed over the course of Mubarak’s rule and will remain for a long time. While the army’s intervention was necessary to topple Mubarak, successfully confronting the long-standing problems of civilian-military relations in Egypt will depend on the popular movement’s ability to develop tactics that go beyond constant street protest in Tahrir square. These are priorities that must occupy the minds of revolutionaries in the coming period, not the exaggerated fears about a military takeover.
Amr Abdulrahman is a doctoral student at Essex University. He writes for El-Bosla magazine