The following is a guest post from Elizabeth Nugent, a PhD student in the department of politics at Princeton University who is currently in Cairo, Egypt conducting pre-dissertation research, and Princeton University political scientist Amaney Jamal, the author of Barriers to Democracy: The Other Side of Social Capital in Palestine and the Arab World (Princeton University Press, 2007).
On June 30, Egypt witnessed historic protests calling for early elections and the end of Morsi’s rule one year after he took office. The protests were planned by Tamarud, a grass-roots campaign begun in May of this year by a group of young activists, which claimed that at least 17.5 million people participated, citing military sources. However, despite the impressive numbers unified against Morsi, there was no clearly articulated plan for what happened next, and amidst continued nationwide chaos and governmental shutdowns, the Egyptian military may be about to step in. On Monday, the army gave the Morsi government a final 48 hour deadline to reach an agreement with the opposition. The statement reads as if the military has no interest in governing the country and is simply stepping in to restore some semblance of security and stability, in response to the will of the people. On June 30, the crowds of Egyptians amassed in the country’s main squares let up a cheer of support whenever the military’s Apache helicopters flew overhead and returned to the “the army and the people are one hand” chants. On Monday, Tahrir erupted in cheers as the military statement was announced. The Tamarud campaign and other leading opposition figures have also voiced support for military invention.
The question remains as to whether the Egyptian military can become a democratizing force. Traditionally, Arab militaries have not been known for their democratic tendencies. Political scientist Eva Bellin explained the persistence of authoritarianism in the Middle East through the early 2000s as the result of exceptionally muscular coercive apparatuses. Arab militaries, she argued, were willing and able to repress democratic initiatives in order to preserve repressive regimes. Variation in military willingness to repress or allow democratic initiatives hinged on whether the military’s interests were tied to those of the regime. Bellin offered a typology in which the more institutionalized – defined as being rule-bound and based on meritocratic principles, and with a clear separation between private and public realms as well as between the military and the regime in power – the military was, the more willing it was to refuse orders, disengage from power, and allow political reform to occur.
By all accounts, the Egyptian military’s (largely economic) interests are independent from the regime, qualifying it as a highly institutionalized entity. This should, in theory, allow it to behave as an autonomous actor. In addition, as the figure below demonstrates, the military is one of the most population political institutions in Egypt. 2011 Arab barometer data, collected during SCAF’s golden era in the months after Mubarak stepped side, tells us that 94.9 of those polled trusted the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, or SCAF (including 81.1 who said they trusted SCAF to a “great extent”), and 95.1 trusted the Armed Forces more generally. This was in comparison to 54.2 who trusted the police and only 23.8 who trusted political parties.
Pew recently released a report with data collected in March 2013 in which 73 percent of those polled believed the Egyptian military was having a positive effect. 67 percent believed SCAF was having a positive influence, with political parties – the Freedom and Justice Party (52), National salvation Front (45), and the Nour Party (40) – trailing behind considerably.
Yet, the history of the military’s political behavior suggests that while it is autonomous and popular, it is not always a democratic actor. In January 2011, the military defected from the Mubarak regime amidst countrywide protests – yet, as Steven Cook has written, it was complicit in the persistence of the regime for the three previous decades. In July 2013, it will be defecting from – say what you will – a democratically elected government. The Egyptian people appear to have a short term memory: SCAF ruled for the 18 months prior to Morsi’s 2012 election, and is undoubtedly responsible for some of the economic and political failures being attributed solely to his administration as well as a slew of gross human rights violations.
The obvious comparisons in this case are Algeria and Turkey, with their elected Islamist governments and history of military intervention. However, in Algeria (1991), the military stepped in after the first round of elections, before the FIS was permitted to fully win the mandate of the people and form a government. A comparison with Turkey is also fraught with misunderstanding. Indeed, Turkish democracy has developed not because of military intervention, but rather because the country has institutionalized civilian control over the military through repeated instances of military intervention. Military intervention in Egypt will be seen by supporters of the Morsi government as a coup, and by opponents as a restoration of political order. Regardless of how it is seen, military decree appears to be a central feature of Egypt’s future political trajectory.