A new era for Arab generals forced back into the barracks

Armies are institutions that, like all others, fights for their own interests, even if these interests are at odds with those of the wider state.

Amid the confusion of the second Egyptian revolution that is playing out in Cairo's Tahrir Square, one thing is clear. Never again will the Egyptian army be seen as the protector of the revolutionaries or, as the slogan had it back in January, "the people and the army are one hand".

This bizarre alliance of young protesters and ageing generals was based more on a sentimental myth than reality, but it did have some roots in history. Unlike Syria and Libya, where the army has been a mailed fist to keep the leader and his family in power, the Egyptian armed forces have some claim to be a pillar of the nation. The army has battle honours dating from 1973. Although it was at the heart of an authoritarian regime, the main organs of repression were the various police forces.

Thus it was that the army took the initiative in February, using its armoured vehicles to protect the revolutionaries in Tahrir Square from the regime's armed police and pipe-wielding thugs. It orchestrated the removal of President Hosni Mubarak, thus avoiding civil war. Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, the chairman of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), took over as de facto head of state.

At the age of 75, the field marshal and his council of generals have proved themselves poor guides of a country in ferment. They have tried to slow down the process of reform, while clinging to authoritarian ways out of touch with the spirit of popular empowerment. The use of military tribunals to hand out summary justice to protesters has soared, while the generals have not hidden their preference for the Muslim Brotherhood and even some politicians of the old regime.

But tempers snapped when the generals endorsed a "document of constitutional principles". The document puts the armed forces above all powers in the land by giving them the ultimate authority to "defend constitutional legitimacy". The affairs of the army and the details of its budget would be off-limits for scrutiny by parliament or any other body except the SCAF.

The army having shown its hand, the crowds poured into Tahrir Square again, demanding that the SCAF step down in favour of civilian government. The new slogan is "the people want the downfall of the field marshal". By failing to re-organise or control the police, the liberals argue, the armed forces have forfeited their right to rule.

The military have clearly chosen their course. They believe the silent majority of voters are tired of unrest and fearful of the beggary that awaits Egypt from the collapse of tourism and falling investment.

This majority, they believe, would settle for a parliament dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies, with the armed forces holding the ring to ensure that there is no Islamic revolution. For the generals, the key interest is in safeguarding their privileged economic position, which relies on a lack of transparency and continuing to receive military aid from the US.

There is no question that the revolutionaries have been outsmarted by the Brotherhood over the past eight months. They have failed to create any party that is likely to challenge the Brotherhood-linked Freedom and Justice Party for popular support. In the generals' view, they are trying to sabotage the elections to cover up their expected failure to mobilise the broad masses behind them.

Beyond the politicking, the army can no longer be considered a progressive force. It is a plank of the status quo that, by some deft manoeuvring, got on the right side of the revolutionary current, only to channel it into the desert.

Despite modern appearances, there is a long history of the officer class being seen as the vanguard of progress, not only in the Arab countries but in other states confronted by the rising power of the West, from Tsarist Russia to the Ottoman Empire. It was in the army that modern techniques of organisation, discipline and the mastery of technology were introduced into traditional societies.

In the 1950s, the US was not averse to dealing with governments spawned by officers' coups. Army colonels were likely to be better leaders than the corrupt King Farouk of Egypt, or the fez-wearing Syrian politicians who stalked the parliament touting for bribes before casting their votes.

Since then the officer class of the armed forces, by the standards of their own countries, have been showered in privilege to ensure their loyalty. This has tended to turn them into a caste jealous of its prerogatives and resistant to political or social change. In Egypt some of the old prestige has clung to the army, aided by the military's censorship of free discussion of its affairs in the otherwise liberated media.

The lesson of Tahrir is that armies are an institution that, like all others, fights for its own interests, which may be inimical to those of the wider state. The best example comes from Turkey. For decades Turkish generals arrogated themselves the right to intervene to topple elected civilian governments. Only now, when the army is at last under civilian control, has Turkey seen a real blossoming of its economy and found a new confident voice in the world.

It is an open question whether Egypt is ready now for a civilian defence minister and detailed examination by parliament of its defence budget. Turkey took a long time to reach that point. There were times when civilian government did indeed fail Turkey, such as in 1980, when political gangs were fighting in the streets and the economy was racked by galloping inflation until the military stepped in.

Opposite conclusions can be drawn from the Turkish experience: the SCAF has decided that newly hatched democracies need a guiding hand until they are ready to fledge. The liberals and their revolutionary vanguard in Tahrir Square believe that real democracy comes only when the military is removed from the political process.

Ultimately there is no argument: the end point of this process is that the military have to be confined to barracks, and not only in Egypt.



Published: November 25, 2011 04:00 AM


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