August 22, 2013
A Dismal Record
By Ayesha Siddiqa
Former Director of Naval Research, Pakistan Navy

Egypt is divided and its economy is in pieces. Ayesha Siddiqa, an expert on military rule, argues that the Egyptian military is unlikely to cede real power to civilian leaders.

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 – one in which the army coolly occupies the corridors of power and sets itself up as a permanent master behind a civilian presidency.

The Egyptian military does not yet have the same power, but it could soon if it follows the example of its Pakistani brothers in arms.

As an expert on military rule who has worked extensively in Pakistan and South Asia, I believe what’s happening in Egypt is a drama I have seen played out before in my home country of Pakistan, where the military routinely pulls the political strings. The Egyptian military does not yet have the same power, but it could soon if it follows the example of its Pakistani brothers in arms.

So far, the Egyptian military hasn’t created the partnerships and networks necessary to ensure its interests are always protected without spilling a lot of blood. Had it done so, it wouldn’t have had to resort to the messy expedient of staging a coup against then-Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in 2011.

The Pakistani military has been smarter. It has created so many partnerships with political parties and the institutions of civilian society that everyone thinks Pakistani democracy is getting stronger. In reality, 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 then-Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi to step down, I had a sense of déjà vu. Pakistan’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.

Since 1958, when Pakistan saw its first military coup, every Pakistani leader has had the military’s patronage, and has thus tried to look after the military’s interests. This is what will happen in Egypt.

What’s particularly worrying is that the United States has spent billions of dollars building up military capabilities in Egypt and Pakistan. One of its most dependable partners in the Middle East is the Egyptian military, and its most dependable partner in Pakistan is the Pakistani military. It’s a highly dangerous situation that U.S. partnerships with the Middle East tend to strengthen the military, rather than democratic institutions or civilian society.

The divide is more between liberals and Islamists, and the military is going to exploit that split to its own ends.

Right now, Egypt is said to be divided between those who are pro-Morsi and those who are anti-Morsi – but that’s not the real picture. The divide is more between liberals and Islamists, and the military is going to exploit that split to its own ends.

While the secular liberals cheer Morsi’s ouster, the silent majority sees the bloodshed in the streets and is appalled. Yet it does nothing. This is not because the people 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.” People are going to become increasingly silent.

The liberals who supported the army’s ouster of Morsi because they feared an increasingly Islamic state don’t seem to see the bigger picture. They think military action was justified, and don’t realize that the army will now further entrench itself in Egyptian politics. Whenever 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.

Egypt’s military will continue to exploit the differences in civil society – just like Pakistan’s military has done – by pitting secular liberals against Islamists. The army can always step in and take control when things get out of hand, but these differences will become deep scars on the body politic of Egypt – and, left unattended, they may never heal.

Photo credit: Amr Nabil/Associated Press

Ayesha SiddiqaAyesha Siddiqa is a Pakistani scholar specializing in military science. She was the first woman to serve as Director of Naval Research with the Pakistan Navy.