Military in Politics: Some Things Never Change

Posted on July 1, 2013 by


The Egyptian army has threatened to intervene if the present unrest is allowed to continue. The military has given political parties 48 hours to open a dialogue with the protesters that are filling the streets of Cairo day after day, calling upon Mohammed Morsi to resign. Today the Cairo headquarters of Morsi’s political party, The Muslim Brotherhood, were ransacked- an incident in which 8 people were killed.

In response to the continuing unrest the Egyptian army issued an ultimatum: they would intervene and “announce a road map for the future” if the government did not address the people’s concerns. “The Armed Forces repeat their call for the people’s demands to be met and give everyone 48 hours as a last chance to shoulder the burden of the historic moment that is happening in the nation”. The meaning of this is clear, if the political parties do not resolve the situation then the army will resolve it for them.

So, by responding to the demands of the people, the army are supporting democracy, right? Not necessarily. Indeed any intervention by military personnel in mainstream politics has shaky democratic justification at best. On top of this the motives behind such an intervention are unclear. In its ultimatum the army professes its commitment to the Egyptian people and to democracy. The last time the army were in charge, immediately after the resignation of Hosni Mubarak, there was controversy over their commitment to the transition and accusations that changes were not being implemented as quickly as they could have been.

The involvement of the armed forces in Middle East politics is nothing new. As colonial rule came to an end the various newly-independent states had to fend for themselves. The widespread lack of solid political institutions meant that these new countries were often unstable and relied on their military forces to ensure peace. The 20th century in the Middle East was marked by hundreds of military coups, some successful and others not. The regimes that arose from these takeovers were often just as unstable as those they overthrew. Pre-Saddam Hussein era Iraq is a good example, which experienced multiple coups in the 1950s and ’60s. The resulting regimes resorted to repression by military force in order to maintain control.

So what does this mean for modern-day Egypt? The army is unlikely to go so far as to seize power in a coup d’état, but any intervention will still be significant. Morsi looks unlikely to resign. It will be interesting, then, to see how he treats the armed forces after this challenge. Will he take a similarly ruthless attitude to how he dealt with the judiciary? Will he implement a purge?

Whatever happens, the protests in the streets of Cairo and the army’s ultimatum reveal an age-old weakness that still permeates Middle Eastern politics today: the military still see a role for themselves in government. They still have an influence over the running of the state and are unwilling to give that influence up.