In a New York Times article in February 2012, the Atlantic Council’s Shuja Nawaz and Michelle Dunne asked a very pertinent question at a time when Egypt’s military forces seemed intent on maintaining direct political power in the country: Can Egypt Avoid Pakistan’s Fate?
Pakistan’s military has earned a reputation for side stepping into politics, at moments when civilian rule faltered. Since the late 1950s, this has become a tradition in Pakistan, most recently in 1999 with Pervez Musharraf’s ouster of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
A year after Egypt’s revolution, in 2012, the heavy-handedness of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which was selected to lead Egypt’s transition after Hosni Mubarak’s ouster in February 2011, raised serious concerns. Fears were high that the military would turn its temporary political role into a permanent one, and prevent a free and fair presidential election from moving forward in June of that year.
Today in 2013—after a democratically elected leader has come to power—analysts are confounded by the same question.
Ongoing protests in Egypt that began on June 30th embody anger among revolutionaries and the old guard against Morsi’s perceived authoritarianism. Mostly organized by the Tamarod (“rebel”) movement, hundreds of thousands (perhaps millions) of protesters have gathered in Tahrir Square and outside the Presidential palace, demanding that Morsi step down and hold early elections.
Several people have died, and many more have been injured in clashes between Morsi’s supporters and his opponents. Analysts worry that the military, whose power Morsi has continued to undermine, will be compelled to intervene if protests and violence continue, and the president fails to step down and call early elections.
In Pakistan, a successful transition to civilian government did not come until May 11th 2013. This was the first democratic presidential election (free from military intervention) in the country’s sixty-six year history.
After General Pervez Musharraf’s resignation in 2008, relations between the government of then-President Asif Ali Zardari and the armed forces were tense. In March 2008, head of the Armed Forces General Ashfaq Kayani said the army would stay out of politics, and, since then, his promise as seemed to hold.
Egypt’s military has declared it will intervene within 48 hours if Morsi does not meet the people’s demands. This intervention, according to an army statement, will involve an Armed Forces-imposed “ road-map for the future… with the participation of all political and national streams…” to pave the way for another transition.
In short, if the opposition continues to refuse concessions, and Morsi and Brotherhood supporters continue their to “fight to the death,” the military will intervene.
Many remain cautious about the Egyptian military, and the possibility for its direct intervention in Egyptian politics. Under SCAF-rule, the army’s reputation was plagued by accusations of human rights abuses. On top of this, Egypt’s recently drafted constitution lacks any provision bringing control of security forces into civilian hands
Nevertheless, Egypt’s military has historically enjoyed a great deal of public support, which undoubtedly influences increasing demands for its intervention According to one source, protesters in the Nile Delta city of Mahalla el Kubra chanted “Come out, el-Sissi. The people want to topple the regime.” A similar call for intervention came in the aftermath of a March 2013 ruling by an Egyptian court sentencing twenty-one defendants to death on charges of killing over seventy football fans in the city of Port Said in February 2012.
These sentiments are similar to those in Pakistan, where army rule continues to evoke nostalgia among disaffected Pakistanis.
Egypt’s military may definitely step in to stabilize the country, and there is a chance it will stay until its top brass decides Egypt is ready for civilian rule. Yet, there is also the possibility that Egypt will face Pakistan’s most recent fate: that the military will intervene, but retreat to the barracks and allow a democratically elected government to emerge.
As I mentioned in a previous Muftah article, despite its arguable popularity, Egypt’s military may not have enough legitimacy to play more than a transitional role. As Thalia Beaty also notes in Muftah, the army has recently expressed its commitment to “support” the Egyptian people. The military’s recent move may, as such, be intended solely to pressuring Morsi to heed protesters’ demands and call early elections.
Whether or not Pakistani and Egyptian history converge, both countries are united in their reliance upon U.S. military assistance, which helps undermine the development of democratic governance and stronger civilian institutions in these countries.
In May 2013, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry “quietly” allowed the Egyptian military 1.3 billion dollars of aid money, funds that some in Congress had attempted to suspend. This aid was approved despite U.S. laws conditioning these funds on the Egyptian government’s “support [for] the transition to civilian government, including holding free and fair elections, implementing policies to protect freedom of expression, association and religion, and due process of law.”
Kerry justified his decision on grounds of U.S. security interests. Shortly after the aid’s approval, on June 4, an Egyptian court convicted 43 western NGO workers operating in the country. The confluence of these two events demonstrates the United States’ commitment to financing its objectives abroad, regardless of so-called democratic objectives.
Egypt may be on the brink of another democratic transition, or it may endure an uneasy phase of military rule, a familiar reality in Pakistan. At the same time, Egypt has a revolution on its side. Regardless of what emerges in the next 24 hours, history– and the present– clearly demonstrate the Egyptian people will continue to demand their voices be heard.