History in the Making: Egypt’s Military for Democracy

By Hasan Afif El-Hasan
In the last three decades, important changes have taken place in the world including new means of communications that made it possible for people to be culturally plugged into distant places and continents without leaving their homes. Far from solving their problems in isolation, nations are profoundly influenced by one another. Movements and tactics of struggle migrate across social and physical boundaries. In this world of transnational and trans-cultural contact, the merits of democratization and social movements have crossed national boundaries including those of the Arab World.

The Arab states have a public image as the land of dictatorships, presidencies for life, cronyism and corruption where capitalists get rich through exchange of favors for bribes between state and business. And in the international arena, the Arab states have become irrelevant even in dealing with life and death issues of their own national causes. Arab governments have been politically too weak to prevent the violation of the River Nile water agreement by many African states, the dismemberment of Sudan by the support and encouragement of foreign powers, the invasion, destruction and occupation of Iraq by the US, and the occupation and colonization of Palestine.

While Israel occupies the Palestinian lands, builds and expands settlements, disfranchises its Arab population and refuses the return of Palestinian refugees to their ancestral homeland, Hosni Mubarak dictatorial regime chose to be “the most valuable strategic asset for Israel” by enforcing the Israeli all-out siege on Gaza strip and starving its 1.5 million Palestinians. And Mubarak provided Mahmoud Abbas with the accommodating cover for his political blunders that included cooperation with Israel in putting end to the Palestinian resistance against occupation and assuring Israel that no matter what happened, Israeli occupation would never face any resistance even non-violent.

For too long, the autocratic and corrupt power holders who reigned and ruled in the Arab World have been claiming that they rule on behalf of the people by organizing periodic elections or plebiscites that, by virtue of fraud provided the desired vote counts. But this claim is being challenged by simultaneous popular revolutions demanding democratic, economic and social reforms. Middle class, small business and professional groups joined the unemployed and poor youth in the populist anti-authoritarian uprising. The slogan chanted by most of the protesters was “the people want to change the regime.”

Because corruption and growth cannot coexist, corruption has been a factor contributing to lack of economic growth in the Arab countries except in small oil producing states. In Mubarak’s Egypt, the country’s wealth has been squandered; there is massive unemployment, lack of opportunities, more than half the population lives in run-down neighborhoods on $2 a day or less and million homeless Egyptians live with their families in Cairo’s cemeteries.

Arab demonstrators demand political and economic reform, but the response of the ruling elites varies from one country to another based on the role of the military in this confrontation. Egypt’s peaceful revolution was so powerful and authentic that it has successfully intimidated the military leaders to intervene on behalf of the protesters, stop the bloodshed by the security forces, and declare their intent to provide the Egyptians an opportunity for transition to democracy.

Unlike Libya, Syria, Yemen or Bahrain, the Egyptian military that had aborted democracy and restricted civil liberties in 1952 is making history now by siding with the revolutionaries who are demanding democratic reforms. The Egyptian military overturned the country’s democratic constitution in 1952 and for sixty years, it supported strongmen rulers, Jamal Abdel-Nasser, Anwar al-Sadat and Hosni Mubarak. The military supported Sadat in 1977 and Mubarak in 1986 when they used brutal force to repress popular revolts demanding economic reforms.

 Egyptian revolutionaries wonder whether the post-Mubarak military regime is going to lead the country to liberal democracy. They lived under military rule and they read the history of their country. Egypt and the Egyptians have a recorded history that covers millenniums of Pharaonic dynasties, Greek, Roman, Coptic, and a multiple of Islamic periods that included Abbasid, Fatimid, Ayyobid, Mamaliks, Ottoman Turks, then French and British colonialism and finally Egyptian nationalists took over post-colonialism Egypt. Unlike the rest of the Middle East countries, Egypt national boundaries had not been drawn by the twentieth century European colonial powers. Egyptians today identify themselves as Egyptians first, Muslims or Coptics second.

The military institutions are authoritarians not democratic; the military job description is based on hierarchical lines of authority within its chain of command; orders are given by the top and compliance is expected by the subordinates. Even if the military regime is reformist, the direct involvement of the military in politics is totally at odds with its traditions and professionalism. Egypt’s 1967 war defeat was in part a result of its top military commanders’ promotions based on their political ideology and policy rather than military skills and experience. 

Generalizing about military rule is misleading and even problematic because there are profound differences among military regimes’ ideology, class alliances, policies and the way they exit. The Egyptians revolted against military rulers in the past including Napoleon in 1798, the monarchy in 1881-1882 and the British in 1919. They even revolted against the Pharaohs before democracy was invented when the state failed to provide protection and security.

Five thousand years ago, the Egyptians under the warrior-king Menes and his dynasty established the first sophisticated nation-state in the world history. A total of thirty dynasties of pharaohs ruled Egypt in the course of its ancient history; many of these dynasties ended when they lost legitimacy due to corruption or bad economies. Historians depict the corruption and voluptuary life-style of Pepy II, the last pharaoh of the 6th Dynasty and the last ruler of the Old Kingdom as a reason for Egypt’s loss of respect abroad and loyalty by his people. Some historians attribute the collapse of the 13th and 14th dynasties to the repeated flooding of the Nile River and the damage to Egypt’s agricultural economy.

Muhammad Ali, the titular military governor of Egypt in the nineteenth century on behalf of the Ottoman Empire declared himself the Khedive of Egypt and Sudan and established a dynasty that ruled Egypt until its members became corrupt and subservient to the British. In 1952, Colonel Jamal Abdel-Nasser staged a bloodless military coup that overthrew the monarchy, ended the British domination of Egypt and the control of the Suez Canal.

President Nasser created popular support for his military regime by distributing land to millions of Egyptian farmers, built the Aswan Dam and developed industrial model based on import substitution, while President Anwar al-Sadat reversed Nasser’s foreign and domestic policies, terminated the ongoing agrarian reform, governed in alliance with business interests and welcomed foreign investment. President Hosni Mubarak followed the footsteps of Sadat, institutionalized crony capitalism and the emergency laws to stifle dissent. His policy spilled over into a more general loss of confidence in the utility of any authoritarian rule.

Today, there is one fact about the military regime in Egypt that can’t be argued: the military regime was not the outcome of a coup d’état. The generals accepted the task of running Egypt while in flux when President Hosni Mubarak resigned.  They face many momentous problems: they need to establish law and order; deal with the economic crisis that Mubarak regime bequeathed to them; create conditions that allow the drafting and approval of a new constitution which would reestablish democratic institutions; surrender Egypt’s rule to a constitutionally elected civilian government; withdraw the military to their barracks and recognize their subordination to the civilian authorities. They have to assure that no group of Egyptians is excluded from the democratizing process by virtue of its peculiarities, religious confession or political positions.

The Egyptians are already experiencing the normal constraints of democracy. Unlike authoritarian rule, agreeing on constitutions takes time and justice is slow under democracy. And even after having a written constitution and democratic institutions, the Egyptians will discover inevitable gaps between the mythic constitution of their democratic society and their everyday realities. Past history suggests that after the military leaves the presidential palace, the military institution may continue to play a role in determining who rules and how, and in some cases, its power may even be enhanced after the transition. Should the Egyptian military fulfill its promises and guide the restless nation to liberal democracy, we will be witnessing history in the making.

– 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 Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.

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