Is the era of the military big man back? In Egypt, where Gen Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi led a populist putsch against the elected president, prison doors are swinging.
Mohammed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood leader and freshly ousted president, languishes in one jail cell, while Hosni Mubarak, the despised autocrat who led Egypt for 30 years, has just been released from another.
The turmoil highlights the central role of the military in some post-colonial Muslim countries, where at least in the fitful early stages of democracy, it forcefully imposes itself as the self-appointed arbiter of power and the guardian of national identity.
But a look at other Muslim countries that have struggled with democratic transitions, including two other Pole Stars of the Muslim world, Pakistan and Turkey, should provide a kind of warning to el-Sissi. There, it is the generals who are now facing charges.
Last week a Pakistani court indicted the former military leader Gen Pervez Musharraf in the assassination of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto — the first time in Pakistan’s coup-strewn history that a leading general has faced criminal prosecution. In Turkey, a court recently imprisoned dozens of senior military officers on charges of plotting to overthrow the government, a punitive reminder to a military once accustomed to reasserting its authority through coups.
Although el-Sissi is riding a wave of popularity among some Egyptians and neighboring countries, notably Saudi Arabia and Israel, for cracking down on Islamists, the events in Turkey and Pakistan have shown the limits of military power. And in Egypt, that may ultimately mean allowing the Islamists a genuine role in public life.
“Gen Sissi needs an exit plan, now,” said Dr Vali Nasr, dean of Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, and a former senior State Department adviser. “Without one, he could end up like Musharraf. And his country will be left in a state that is much, much worse.”
Military and civilian leaders have been competing for power in Turkey, Pakistan and Egypt for decades. The military has exercised muscular influence in all three countries, openly or behind the scenes, due to weak civilian rule that can be traced to the foundation of the states — and, in some cases, in a bid to circumscribe Islamist influence.
Egypt’s generals ousted the monarchy and established a republic in 1952. Turkey’s first president, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, a military revolutionary, led a fierce secularization drive in the 1920s.
Pakistan’s military helped unify the country after its traumatic partition from India in 1947, and quickly established itself as the strongest arm of a weak state. Pakistani, Turkish and Egyptian generals profess to love democracy, but practice it with varying degrees of reluctance.
In both Pakistan and Egypt, analysts describe the military as the core of the “deep state.”
“The military has been very influential since the 1952 revolution,” said Hala Mustafa, editor of the Journal of Democracy in Cairo. “Even under Morsi, it had the same privileges and status as it had over the past six decades.”
How the militaries exercised that influence has varied. While Turkish and Egyptian generals ruthlessly marginalised political Islamists, Pakistan’s men in uniform co-opted them. During the 1980s, Pakistan’s Gen Mohammad Zia ul-Haq used them to both fight and to Islamize Pakistan’s national identity, a source of tension with Egypt at the time.
In all three countries, Islam is often seen as the boogeyman of democracy, Nasr said. “But that is wrong. The real struggle in the Middle East is between civilian rule and the military.”
That struggle is further complicated by the debate over how to integrate Islam into politics. For years, Turkey was the model of progress for many Muslim countries. But the military’s retreat has been driven, in part, by the country’s desire to join the European Union. And the gloss of civilian rule vanished in June when Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan violently suppressed a protest movement in central Istanbul, suggesting that one authoritarianism was being replaced with another. This month’s controversial treason trial brought out sharp divisions between secularists and Islamists, underscoring how Turkey’s nation-building model remains a work in progress.
Yet the Turkish model may still offer the best hope: The protests in Istanbul appeared aimed more at Erdogan’s hard-nosed policies than at the system of civilian rule itself.
For some Egyptians pondering their future, the dreaded outcome is to become like Pakistan. Yet there are lessons to be learned. For decades, Pakistani generals could intervene in politics at will, a fact that the current prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, appreciates better than most: His last stint in power ended in 1999 with an army coup.
But since Musharraf was ousted as president in 2008, Pakistan’s notoriously fractious politicians joined hands to give the military little room for maneuver, culminating in the recent, relatively clean election, which Sharif won with a handsome mandate. The courts have also grown bolder, highlighting military-driven vote rigging and human rights abuses (even if nobody has yet faced charges) and daring to indict Musharraf, who faces possible treason charges.
Pakistanis now view themselves as exemplars of transition politics. After Morsi’s recent ouster, which many Egyptian liberals supported, their Pakistani counterparts were quick to offer advice on the perils of military intervention.
Still, Pakistan’s generals remain strong behind the scenes, and Pakistan’s transition is far from complete. Musharraf’s trial, analysts say, could offer a weather vane of how much prestige they are willing to cede. NYT