Army and Ultimate Legitimacy: Unseen Danger in Egypt

As the world watches the deadly clashes between rioters and soldiers in the burning streets of Cairo, it doesn’t know that there’s another danger shaping up behind the scenes. It’s one in which the army coolly occupies the corridors of power and sets itself up as a permanent master behind a civilian presidency.

As a Pakistani citizen and a civilian military scientist, it’s a drama I have seen played out before in my home country, where the military routinely pulls the political strings. That’s not the case yet in Egypt, but it could be soon if the Egyptian military follows the example of its Pakistani brothers in arms.

So far, the Egyptian military hasn’t created the necessary partnerships and networks to ensure its interests are always protected. Had it done so, it wouldn’t have had to resort to the messy expedient of staging a coup against President Hosni Mubaraek in 2011. The Pakistani military has been smarter. It has created so many partnerships – with political parties, with the institutions of civilian society – that now everyone thinks Pakistani democracy is getting stronger, but it isn’t. Instead, the military is running things by operating through political proxies. The Egyptian military will doubtless be doing the same thing in a few years.

When I first heard that the Egyptian army had asked Mohamed Morsito step down, I had a sense of déjà vu. My country’s civilian leaders have often appointed military men to positions of power, thinking they can count on them for support, only to see the army stage a coup and grab control.

What’s particularly worrying here is that the United States has spent billions of dollars building up military capabilities in Egypt and Pakistan. That’s because one of the most dependable partners for the U.S. in the Middle East is the Egyptian military. The most dependable U.S. partner in Pakistan is the Pakistani military. Not democratic institutions, not civilian society, but the military. That’s a highly dangerous situation.

Right now, Egypt is characterized as being divided between those who are pro-Morsi and those who are anti-Morsi. But that’s not the real picture. The real divide is between liberals and Islamists, and the military is going to exploit that divide to its own ends.

The ability of the army to play on differences in public opinion is huge. While the secular liberals cheer Morsi’s ouster, the silent majority sees the bloodshed in the streets and is appalled. This is not because they don’t have principles or convictions, but because they can’t afford those principles. They end up saying, “What can we do? The army has guns.” So people are going to become increasingly silent.

The secular liberals who supported the army’s ouster of Morsi because they feared an increasingly Islamic state, don’t seem to see the bigger picture. In any army takeover there will always be people who think military action was justified. What they don’t realize is that the army will now further entrench itself in Egyptian politics. Any time the military feels threatened, it will walk in and take charge. It will continue to do so until it has put enough puppets in positions of power that it feels firmly in control.

Since Pakistan’s first military coup in 1958, every single leader — be it Nawaz Sharif, be it Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Benazir Bhutto’s father — has had the military’s patronage. This is what will happen in Egypt. If you become a leader through military patronage, you try to look after the military’s interests. 

Some kind of military watchdog organization is needed that understands how the army works and can convey that information to people so they don’t get manipulated. It’s essential to create societal frameworks that can challenge the military’s power.

Without this, the military will continue to exploit the differences in Egyptian society, as it has done in Pakistan, by pitting secular liberals against Islamists, so the army can always step in and take control when things get out of hand. The military will continue to do so until these differences become deep scars on the body politic of Egypt.

Left unattended, they can become scars that will never heal.

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