Egypt’s Army Has Restored Its Own Power, Not Democracy

By Henry (Chip) Carey

Egyptian analysts, political actors and civil society have portrayed the coup against Mohammed Morsi, whether positively or negatively, mainly as a response to political instability and public resistance to Islamization. The narrative has been framed more or less as follows: Since Morsi was unable to ensure safety and stability, while governing undemocratically, he forfeited his democratic legitimacy. This, along with unprecedented protests, compelled the army to step in and restore stability.

Some have gone further. Speaking from Afghanistan, Secretary of State John Kerry has gone beyond official U.S. policy, which refuses to call the overthrow of the elected government a “coup,” and now claims that the Egyptian military was “restoring democracy.” The military-backed regime has killed about 80 people on each of two occasions when it evicted peaceful protestors from their sit-ins and currently threatens a third assault against the unarmed dissidents. With the restoration of important Mubarak officials in the current cabinet and increasing coercion of protestors and more arrests of Muslim Brotherhood leaders, it is difficult to take a narrative of democratization seriously, even if semi-free elections are eventually held.

The  official Egyptian narrative of the army leading a society-led revolution, used self-servingly by the generals, has taken attention away from the military’s own internal divisions and interests that motivated its decision to take power. Societal factors certainly played a role, but the coup was primarily the result of the power struggles between the elected President and the army and within the army over whether or not to support the elected government. By removing Morsi and his Peace and Justice Party from power, the coup removed Morsi’s threat to the power of the military. The coup signaled the end of demilitarizing Egyptian politics. Any future civilian government in Egypt can survive only if it recognizes the military’s interests and demands, which will postpone true democratization for the time being and risks much greater upheaval than what has already been experienced in this divided society of army-backed secularism and religious forces

The societal interpretations have generally followed the theories of the late political scientist Samuel P. Huntington, who is sometimes considered the most influential political scientist of the 20th Century. Huntington often favored military intervention in politics and perceived the army as a modernizing force, as epitomized by Kemal Ataturk, who created a “revolution from above,” in Turkey by eliminating the influence of Islam from the new state created out of the remains of the Ottoman Empire. Huntington’s view of the coup in May 2013 would have supported the military’s claim that societal opposition to the Morsi government led to its overthrow.

There is no denying that popular opposition did play a role, leading to a massive uprising and the halting of all formal political activity. Symptomatic of the deterioration of public order were the riots inside a football stadium in Port Said in February 2012, which resulted in 70 deaths. Local fans who had supported President Mubarak, attacked visiting supporters of Cairo’s Al-Ahly team, which had opposed Mubarak. When the case went to trial, only two policemen were convicted and seven acquitted, while 21 fans of Port Said’s al-Masry club were sentenced to death on January 28, 2013. This led to riots in the city, which left another 40 dead, reportedly from police shootings.

With similar events, particularly in the ‘50s and ‘60s in Turkey, Iraq and Egypt, in mind, Huntington argued that military intervention in politics should be first understood as a reflection of and response to an extreme politicization of society. Thus, the football riots in Port Said were mostly about political allegiances for or against the previous Mubarak regime. According to Huntington, no society, not even totalitarian ones, can govern when every mundane choice has political implications.

Following this ‘Huntingtonian’ narrative, the Egyptian military has claimed that its actions were the only possible response to exceptional circumstances. It used this as a justification for both the first coup to remove Mubarak, whose presence has prompted the initially unprecedented protests, and then to remove Morsi, who elicited even greater societal opposition.

Huntington argued that coups are rational and predictable because the military should decide how force would be used, not civilian politicians. He often quoted Madison in number 51 of the Federalist Papers: “If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.” In other words: put the state in control of society first, and then worry about checks and balances later. The only problem with this view is that Madison was arguing for democratic controls over society, not tyrannical, military ones, which would prevent the development of civilian, democratic institutional checks.

This Huntingtonian narrative is as simple as it is flawed. Instead of focusing on societal factors, the real motives of the Egyptian Army for the first and second coups deserve closer scrutiny.

An alternative, far more balanced approach to the events in Egypt is offered by the theories of Morris Janowitz, the sociologist of civilian-military relationships who argued that coups should be understood first by looking inside the military bureaucracy for clues to see how it attempts to establish control. In most developing countries, a politicized military that exercises authoritarian power, even under formal or nominal democratic rule, usually opts to utilize paramilitary forces. If democratic rule has failed to maintain stability, the military must rely on such force, which Janowitz refers to as "enhanced regime consolidation.”

According to Janowitz’s line of thought, Morsi’s presidency represented a power struggle. Morsi refused to involve the military in determining a strategy for establishing political order, when the army wanted to keep its central role in politics. The Egyptian army also wanted a guarantee that its use of state force be conducted with legal immunity. As the victim of decades of state repression, the president understandably did not want to even discuss such a blank check for violence, which could have amounted to terror in practice.

The Egyptian Army understood that Morsi’s threat was not introducing radical Islam—he emulated the Turkish model of political Islam. What the army really feared was Morsi’s desire to tamper with the army’s supremacy. By calling the coup a revolution from society and laying the blame squarely on the failures of Morsi, the army has diverted attention from its actual motives.

Whether or not Janowitz would have condoned the coup, he would have understood the key role that the Egyptian army played, rather than fixate on the importance of a societal impasse. He would have advocated greater negotiation between the army and the President, especially on the fundamental issue of legal immunity for the generals.

Civilian rule in Egypt was established because the army was divided on whether to continue supporting the leader – first the elected dictator Mubarak and then the elected semi-democrat Morsi. By withdrawing support for the dictatorship, the military hierarchy could unite around the goal of protecting its independence and its interests, especially its huge commercial holdings, but only if there are not uncertain 'plots' by Morsi. 

So long as civilian leadership was not perceived as threatening those authoritarian prerogatives, a transition to a semi-democracy could have proceeded with a degree of stability. The Egyptian Army staged the coup to protect its institutional interests. President Morsi respected some but not all of those military demands. If another coup is to be avoided, future civilian governments in Egypt, whether credibly elected or not, will face many new challenges and opportunities to re-establish a moderate, stable political order. It can only succeed if it manages to strike this fine balance between state and society by working with the army, which, for its US-claimed role as stabilizer and democratizer, is also a veto-player.



Henry (Chip) Carey is Associate Professor of Political Science at Georgia State University. He is editor of United Nations Law Reports and most recently, co-editor of Trials and Tribulations of International Prosecution (Lexington 2013).

[Photo courtesy of Jonathan Rashad]

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