Thursday, March 7, 2013

Egypt's army, or The Army's Egypt?

The not-very-discrete dominance of the army may be obvious to all Egyptians, but it's a delicate topic.  What follows makes a case for trying to end this domination.

Who has governed Egypt since 1952?

Nasser was an army man, but there is no doubt he governed, and not the army.   I don't know whether that can be said of Sadat or even Mubarak, but at some point in the post-Nasser era, the army emerged as a political power in its own right.   This power rests in part on popular support, and this in part derives from the army's past glories.   But to invoke these past glories is to replace current realities with an abstraction - not the army of today, but The Army.

The Institution, The Army, is esteemed for its role in the 1952 revolution - because some of its officers played that role.  But these officers are dead.  The Institution, The Army, fought admirably in the wars of 1956-1972 - because its soldiers did.    None of these soldiers, excepting some of the officer corps, are now in service.  The Army today, as an institution and a bunch of individuals, has no real connection to the glories of forty years ago.   These individuals haven't even had an opportunity to prove themselves.

There are indeed some senior officers whose careers began in the old days, but this doesn't make them heroes.    General Al-Sisi, Minister of Defence and Chairman of SCAF, has no combat experience whatever.  General Tantawi, his predecessor, had what is normally called a distinguished military career, but not, as far as I can tell, a heroic one.   He is misleadingly said to have started out as 'an infantryman' in 1956; in fact he began as a commissioned officer in the infantry.   Though he 'fought', i.e., commanded, in several wars, there don't appear to be any tales of great bravery or skill about him.   He may be deserving of respect, but not hero-worship.   Much the same must hold for virtually the entire active officer corps which has never been in any danger.   There may be a few heroes in the army, but there must be many more in the general population, veterans of Egypt's wars.

Perhaps, though, the army is venerated because it has a task fit for heroes, defending the territorial integrity of Egypt.   Here one must ask - against whom?   Egypt has only one serious potential enemy, Israel, and the army has neither the interest nor the capacity to defend against that enemy.   Because the army is wedded to the US, it can never hope to have anything remotely like military parity with Israel.   Since the army and government are well aware of this, they will never break the peace treaty, at least not in circumstances that lead to war.   So Egypt is very secure, in less than honorable circumstances, for reasons having nothing to do with military prowess.  This doesn't sit well with the army's apparently great concern for its 'honor'.

Given the current army's involvement in so many instances of cruelty and injustice, it's hard to see reasons to admire and respect it.

What then of the army's role as a political institution, and its relations with civilian politicians?

Ursula Lindsey notes that if Islamists can stretch the concept of democracy, so can the partisans of military rule.   But she would agree that appropriating a word hardly confers legitimacy.  She might also agree that not all sham democracies are created equal.   I have argued elsewhere that an Islamist 'democracy' in Egypt would be far more changeable - if not open to change - than military rule.   But today, I think, that's not the choice in prospect.  The choice seems to be between military rule in Islamist or in secularist dress.

Many have expressed outrage at Morsi's concessions to the military.  These include what one commentator, The Arabist, calls "unprecedented autonomy (in term of the history of Egypt's constitutional safeguards for the armed forces) in the constitution they backed."   But if these concessions are  new, it's because this was Egypt's first non-military presidency, and the army was confronted with the novel possibility of a government that might defy the military's will.   As for 'granted' and 'autonomy', these may not be the right words.

Morsi's 'grant' looks more like a surrender.   It involved what no leader would abandon except out of pure necessity - power over himself and any civilian successor.   It is simply inconceivable that someone would 'grant' this had he any viable alternative:   it was the price of Tantawi's retirement, and, given the circumstances, the price of Morsi remaining 'in power'.  He isn't really in power because his concessions destroyed whatever power he may have had.  The military has a stranglehold on the government because the post of defense minister must be an officer.

We have seen this before, in pre-World-War-II Japan.   There,
The Army and the Navy also had decisive say on the formation (and survival) of any civilian government. Since the law required that the posts of Army Minister and Navy Minister be filled by active duty officers nominated by their respective services, and since the law also required that a prime minister resign if he could not fill all of his cabinet posts, both the Army and the Navy had final say on the formation of a cabinet, and could bring down the cabinet at any time by withdrawing their minister and refusing to nominate a successor.
Though Egypt's government may not be formally obliged to fall if the defense cabinet post isn't filled, it could hardly survive with no minister in such an important post, especially since this would amount to the military's vote of non-confidence.  The requirement of a defence minister from the army effectively gives the army veto power over any civilian government.  Yet the opposition acts as if this informal dictatorship doesn't given the military enough supremacy.    It endorses the claim that "If Egypt is on the brink of default, if law and order is absent, [the military] has a national duty to intervene."

Egyptians are very rightly insulted when it's said that they're 'learning about democracy', but outside observers could be forgiven for recoiling at horror at something quite different, the opposition's idea of what is appropriate for the army in a serious nation.   For one thing, the idea that default should provoke military rule can only come from someone in the clutches of a colonial mentality, as if the army would now intervene like the British did in 1882!   For another, yes indeed, it is the duty of armies to intervene in certain crises of law and order.   But in nations not already under behind-the-scenes military rule, it's not the army that decides when it is time to intervene.  It's the civilian government.

That anyone could even suggest that the army should be the one to decide when it takes over the country is shocking but not unexpected in a nation where military leaders feel free to make statements for which they would instantly be cashiered elsewhere.   In so many ways, Western nations are contemptible in their management of domestic affairs, but this is one thing most of them have right.   A general has only to offer political opinions in public to end his career.   That generals should presume to call a conference on national reconciliation would be considered inconceivable insolence; that any civilian party would heed the call, pathetic.  Should a reader think I exaggerate, (s)he can consult the remarks for which US general Mcchrystal was forced into retirement - and this by one of America's most timid presidents.

You might reply that Egypt is different.  Indeed it is:  for instance, it differs in the extent to which its military imprisons and tortures its own citizens.   No doubt there are crises in Egypt, but nothing suggests that Egypt's military has either the expertise or the good will to be granted discretion over Egyptian domestic affairs.   Yet this is what it has been granted and this is what much of the opposition wants to extend.

It is a recipe for stagnation as well as subjection.  The army is a society and economy unto itself.   It's doing just fine; its future is bright.  Egypt's problems are not its problems.  Under army rule, Egypt will remain what Hamied Ansari called, in 1986, the stalled society.

Egyptians often speak of what embarrasses them about their country....


An afterthought:

Perhaps Morsi and the Brotherhood gave the Army paper supremacy in the hope that they'd be able to tear up the paper later on.  Maybe they think or thought that there is no hope of confronting the army now, but the concessions buy time during which a strong civilian government can emerge, partly through some accommodation with the National Salvation Front.  This strategy, though a long shot, would make sense to me.  However I've no evidence for it.

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