Civil-Military Relations: a Potential Fault-line in Egypt’s Democracy

By Hasan Afif El-Hasan

Arab people are demanding democracy after living for decades under authoritarian regimes suffering systematic violations of their natural rights where injustice, impunity, police torture, battering and excessive use of deadly force  were the norm. Ramzy Baroud put it this way: ‘Arabs merely want to live with a semblance of dignity, free from tyranny and continuous anxiety over the future.’ Those who succeeded in toppling their tyrants have already found there is more to a meaningfully democratic society than regime change and voting, although these are necessary. Because authoritarian political culture has been prevalent in the Arab countries, transition to democracy is a big challenge. Democracy as a normative system of legitimate government strengthens the realm of liberty, personal political responsibility, deals with social and economic equity, and civil control of the armed forces.

Democracy is not a static system, it is a continuous process that should strengthen and consolidate by time the six interacting democratic arenas: a constitution, political society, civil society, economic society, rule of law, and the bureaucracy. Should the Arab countries make the transition, each will have its own form of democracy based on its unique situation: past governing experience, population make-up, external threat and its economic conditions. Professor Robert Dahl suggests that each democracy is the outcome of its unique experience. The American system, for example, has evolved to its existing form of “hybrid democracy” from aristocracy through slavery, civil war, the liberation of the ‘African Americans’, two World Wars, the Cold War, September 11 attack, “war on terror”, the Middle East oil wars, and numerous periods of economic instability. Dahl wrote that “the US democracy is not for export to others.”

In all democracies, voting is a crucial process for the expansion of citizenship by choosing political leaders who will be somewhat responsive to the preferences of ordinary citizens. Voting reveals the preference of the majority on certain issues; but the transition to liberal democracy requires structural transformation of state institutions, protection for the minority from the tyranny of the majority and a change in society’s methods of interacting with these institutions. Arab countries need to build democratic institutions from the ground up that had been completely banished as in Libya, or weakened as in Egypt by their respective authoritarian regimes. 

The Libyan people officially ended Gaddafi’s authoritarian regime on October 23, 2011 in the wake of their dictator’s violent death on the hands of the rebels, but when the rebels killed Gaddafi, they actually destroyed the only state institution they had for the last forty-four years. Al-Gaddafi was Libya’s only known institution. For transforming Libya from a tribal society into a modern democratic state, the Libyans have to create their state institutions and active civil societies from scratch and this is not an easy task.  

In transition to democracy, every effort must be made to avoid direct involvement of the armed forces in the process of governance or concentration of political or economic power in the hands of the bureaucrats, the entrepreneurs or the religious ideologues. Egypt has to face problems that in themselves raise serious concerns regarding the possibilities of effective and stable democratic governance. The future civilian government has to deal with the military politics, fragmented civil societies especially the religious and the large masses of marginal people unable to be incorporated by the local economy. As the Egyptians succeed in institutionalizing democratic politics, they should delegitimize the police abuse, the previous authoritarian regime measures of control, the disrespect of civil rights, and the criminalization of the poor. During the authoritarian period, the police practiced unsubstantiated arrests, torture and battering which they understood it was part of their duties.

The Egyptian people went to the streets and replaced Husni Mubarak and his ruling party with the same military that brought Mubarak regime to power. The civil-military relations will be a potential fault-line of the future democratic governance. Egyptian military will find it difficult to adjust to the dynamics of democracy after sixty years of having a military officer at the helm of the government, since the longer a military regime stays in power directly or indirectly, the greater its political impact. The civilian leaders of Egypt may promise to alter the political life of their country, but their capacity to effect such change is not unlimited. Egypt needs social, economic and cultural changes, and the civil components of citizenship to sustain the rule of law, besides the transformation of the political system.

The military that is not elected and has not been subject to democratic accountability must not remain a central political player after the transition. There will be no real democracy unless the military influence is rolled back, the military institution is subordinated to civilian control, and the attitudes of its members are shaped in direction more compatible with sustained democratic government.

The Egyptian military, the largest in the Middle East is responsible for the defense of the most populous Arab country that is sharing borders with the belligerent militarized Israel. Egypt and Israel signed a peace treaty in 1979, but Israel refuses to withdraw from Arab land occupied in 1967 war: the Palestinian West Bank, Jerusalem and Gaza, the Syrian Golan Heights and the Lebanese Sheba Farms. Many Egyptians perceive Israel expansion policies a threat to their country despite the peace treaty. The Egyptian military is also the country’s largest multi-facet industrial corporation in the tradition of the old Soviet Union military system. It owns and operates factories that produce essential civilian goods mostly for the local markets besides the military equipment.  

Problems may arise if and when the democratically elected civilians decide to reduce military privileges to a significantly lower level and redefine the direction of the military missions. The major interest of the military involves retaining autonomy over the areas military leaders regard as within their own domain. Besides improving its professional standing, including salaries, budgets, equipment and training that are central to modernization, the military brass may seek to maintain institutional privileges and prerogatives that diminish the authority of civilian government.

The problem arises if the armed forces regard the elected government more as a competitor for power and influence than as their legitimate civilian superior. In the initial phases of the democratic transitions the relation between the civilian public officials and the military may be plagued by uncertainty and the two sides might tend to test each other, raising the level of conflict, hopefully not to the point of challenging the transition.

– Hasan Afif El-Hasan is a political analyst. His latest book, Is The Two-State Solution Already Dead? (Algora Publishing, New York), now available on and Barnes & Noble. He contributed this article to

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