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Militaries in Politics: Intervention and Disengagement

Militaries, like other strong institutions, strive to defend their interests and minimize infringements on their areas of influence. Studies of civil-military relations show that the organizational interests of militaries remain the most crucial factor in defining their intervention in politics. As disciplined armed organizations, militaries value the cohesion of, and autonomous control over appointments within, the officer corps. Generals care about the flow of sufficient funds and budgetary allocations to their institution as much as their monopoly over decisive force in society.1 Most militaries prefer to remain outside politics as long as these interests are safeguarded. However, historical experiences show that interventions emerge out of civilian pressures to politicize the officer corps as much as they are produced by officers’ grievances.2 Factors such as the instability of the political system and civilian failure to resolve conflicts that shape the political culture of a country may produce hospitable conditions for generals’ direct engagement with politics.3

Studies on officers’ political behavior reflect little consensus with regard to how professionalism influences the decision to retreat from politics. Samuel Huntington has distinguished between professional and praetorian militaries based on their subordination to civilian rule, noting that professional militaries submit to civilian rule, while praetorian ones overtake political power.4 Yet Morris Janowitz posits that professional officers must develop political-social insights to deal with political-military issues and the ambiguous nature of the security environment.5 Examining the expanding political roles of the highly professionalized militaries in Latin America during the 1960s, Alfred Stepan finds that militaries concerned with threats of domestic revolution train their officers to acquire expertise in social, economic, and political issues, in addition to security matters.6 These experiences reflect the centrality of the principal-agent dilemma in society- military relations.7

While most studies within the transition literature adopt the view that military subordination to civilians is a main feature of democratic transformation,8 new research shows that coups could open the door to democratic governance.9

However, military disengagement from politics should not be conflated with subordination to civilians or with democratic transition. Researchers highlight two distinct trajectories of disengagement. The first is militaries’ delegation of some authority to civilians without full retreat from politics. According to this framework, the military rules indirectly—or rules but does not govern.10 The second trajectory associates military withdrawal with authoritarian breakdown. Research has shown that splits within the military prompt officers to return to the barracks and ultimately transition to democratic rule.11 Junta members may consciously extricate themselves from politics or relinquish power under popular pressure in transitions to democratic rule.12 In other cases militaries may extricate themselves temporarily from politics if the short-term costs of repression are high, and if future opportunities for their intervention are not foreclosed.13

Changes in domestic security arrangements under Sadat and Mubarak, as discussed in this chapter, demonstrate how the military retrenched from one sphere of power, particularly domestic control, and channeled more institutional energy into the economic sphere while maintaining external defense missions. Forsaking authority over domestic control is not a form of delegation, especially when decisions and policies about how, when, and whom to repress are made by another state apparatus and independently from the military. Both Sadat and Mubarak extricated the military from repressing dissent and relied more on the apparatus of the Ministry of Interior.14 This partial disengagement from politics requires delicate balancing of the multiple roles of the different armed forces and the spheres through which they operate. The mass uprisings of January 2011 broke down this balance and brought the military back into the heart of domestic control.

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