Egypt may have elected its first Islamist president, but the country’s military is jealously guarding its political and economic prerogatives. While the Turkish model is often invoked as a precedent for military-sanctioned red lines guiding a protracted democratic transition, some analysts believe Egypt’s weak institutions make it more likely to follow the example of Pakistan’s failing state.
“The lever of real power is still with the military,” he says, raising the possibility of either an Algerian or a Pakistani scenario.
“Although they act as if they want to be like the Turkish military, to be the power behind the civilian leadership, they might do to Egypt what the Pakistani military did to Pakistan,” Melhem fears.
There were early signs of the military’s political “recrudescence” exposing the post-Mubarak illusions or revolution or regime change, writes Vali Nasr (right), dean of the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University:
When Egypt’s interim government rejected a badly needed assistance package from the International Monetary Fund, it was at the urging of the military. The IMF demanded reforms that would have impinged on the prerogatives of the military, whose enterprises account for a third of the economy.
The military also condoned the raids on pro-democracy nongovernmental organizations, initiated by Mubarak holdovers, he notes:
The military saw little reason to restrain itself. The sagging economy and fatigue with revolution produced a nostalgia for authoritarianism among many Egyptians. The international community seemed largely indifferent. That the U.S. authorized military aid to Egypt even after the NGO affair convinced the generals there would be no retribution for a power grab.
International actors can have a significant effect in determining whether Egypt becomes another Pakistan – “a weak country, infested with corruption and extremism, on the edge of instability – or an “economically strong, regionally influential country” like Turkey, writes Nasr, a former State Department official in the Obama administration and a senior fellow in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution:
While the U.S. failed to defend democracy in Pakistan from its allies in the military, the European Union obliged Turkey to agree criteria for its EU candidacy that helped ensure that “the closer Turkey got to Europe politically and economically, the weaker the military’s hand became, and the stronger civil society and the private sector grew.”
The future of democracy in Egypt will largely depend on whether Western powers respond as the U.S. did to Pakistan or as Europe did to Turkey. Accordingly, the U.S., in particular, should work to protect Egypt’s young democracy. It can do so by using its considerable leverage with the Egyptian military, achieved through decades of close connections and $1.3 billion in annual aid.
This would not mean engaging in the day-to-day grind of Egyptian politics, a futile undertaking. Rather, the U.S. should push the generals for meaningful economic reform, such as privatization, lifting trade restrictions, and encouraging direct foreign investment. These measures would clip the military’s wings while empowering civil society and the private sector.