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Militaries, Presidents, and the Future of Democratic Transition

Since Nasser, Egypt has enjoyed two strong institutions of power: the presidency and the military. Up until 2011, Egyptian presidents had been able to work out issues of friction and avoid direct military intervention. Both Sadat and Mubarak managed to decouple the presidential seat from the military establishment while preserving the institutional interests of the military. Sadat’s effort to extricate the military from missions of domestic control paralleled a desire by the officer corps to disengage from daily management of state affairs as it insulated them from political volatilities.60 Mubarak removed the strong minister of defense Abd al- Haleem Abu Ghazala in 1989, yet continued to support the preservation of military interests, especially the army’s control over its own budget and economic resources. He was able to maintain this balance by relying on the constitutional powers vested in the presidency61 while devoting attention to the institutional interests of the officer corps.

Morsi assumed the presidency at a tumultuous time, facing strong state actors with entrenched interests, but lacked the pol itical acumen to adopt confidence-building measures and manage compromises. There is no doubt that the scaf’s dissolution of the parliament and its last-minute constitutional addendum minimized the degree of trust between the political partners and sent mixed signals about the military’s intentions to hand over real power to the future president. Trust ensues when institutions make it far less likely that one group will be able to capture the state and take advantage of the other.62 However, the Muslim Brotherhood and President Morsi failed to diffuse crises, preempt challenges, and identify cooperative partners within the state. This has been in part due to the opportunistic behavior of the movement’s leadership and its ill-advised political tactics.

On one level, the Muslim Brotherhood lacked a clear strategy on how to dismantle corruption and introduce reform, often pursuing the status quo while adopting a populist discourse that promised more than could be delivered.63 This was most evident in its ambiguous policy that aimed at reforming the national police force. Proposals for reform by either police officers or human rights activists were ignored, and small-scale purges had limited effects given the lack of real attention to improving policing services.64 As social and political disaffection with Morsi’s performance grew, he sought the help of the unreformed Ministry of Interior and even praised the performance of its police force during the January 25 uprising.65 The Muslim Brotherhood’s security sector restructuring policy reflected an interest to infiltrate the state’s armed actors rather than reform the administration of law and order.66 The lack of direction was also manifested in the Muslim Brotherhood’s hypocritical position vis-a-vis the military. Its leadership oscillated between courting the military and encouraging a campaign to undermine its public image and decrease its institutional coherence.

On another level, the Muslim Brotherhood also fostered an environment of distrust by choosing exclusionary policies that alienated weaker players and pushed societal groups to seek military intervention. Distrust can stimulate po?litical involvement among those who feel politically efficacious.67 The transitional period shows that the military has gained politically every time it distanced itself from an unpopular president. The Muslim Brotherhood treated civilian political actors as separate entities in a noniterating game. This shortsighted policy discounted future gains. The party’s leadership failed to understand that making changes to decades-old political rules required more institutional bargaining with coplayers beyond the gains of the ballot box.68 It also failed to grasp that the fluidity of the political scene had the effect of the communicating vessels law on political relationships, enabling political coalitions between groups with historical enmities.69 The Muslim Brotherhood’s appeasement of the military while shunning weaker civilian partners during the first transitional period revealed its opportunistic behavior and resulted in the loss of revolutionary zeal the movement had tried to appropriate.

The outbreak of mass protests and the fall of the Mubarak ruling elite in February 2011 have created a critical juncture in the military-presidency relationship. While the first transitional period inserted an unprepared military into the plight of daily governance, Morsi’s presidency provided an opportunity for the military to reorganize its efforts and work to carve out a constitutionally privileged status for itself. Morsi’s failure to lead the country through the transitional period and the military’s ability to maintain public trust seem to have solidified a political culture in which military engagement in politics is accepted, if not sought after.

Military disengagement from politics is neither linear nor evolutionary; as a sociopolitical process it can be consolidated or reversed. The presence, or lack, of trust facilitates political groups’ coalitions with state institutions, whose composition is neither democratic nor civil, over mistrusted civilian movements. Despite two popular mass uprisings and a number of democratic elections, the end result of Egypt’s transition from authoritarian rule remains unclear. Egypt’s political system has come full circle since the founding of the republic in the 1950s, with the military more entrenched now than before. Democratic models of civil- military relations stress the following features of a military-civilian division of power. In a democratic regime, external defense of the state is the primary mission of the military; the military budget and appointments are submitted to civilian control, the military’s neutrality vis-a-vis political parties is maintained, and representation of ethnic, regional, religious, and tribal groups within the military is instituted.70 Some of these features have been established components of the Egyptian Armed Forces’ doctrine, but others may be stickier and hard to operationalize.71 Moreover, two issues prevent officers’ disengagement with political affairs in the near future: weakness of civilian social and political powers and a regional environment that is plagued with direct military threats from nonstate armed actors. Older political parties are fragmented and weak. Their inability to resolve sociopolitical conflicts or mobilize has led to extensive reliance on the military for protection and guidance. Nascent political parties and civil society groups in the post-Mubarak era are still in their formative years, and their ability to provide leadership for Egyptian society remains unclear.

Meanwhile, external threats and the political interests of donor countries may deepen the military’s political role. The rising threat of nonstate armed actors and the mushrooming of cross-border terrorism, combined with state collapse in neighboring countries, are bound to consolidate military influence over domestic policies and even create substantial public support for it. Regional instability may also prompt democratic donor countries to limit calls for democratic reforms. In addition, Gulf donors such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, and Bahrain are most likely to continue their support for a military-backed government, given the instability of the region.

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