Friday, December 30, 2011

Making Sense of the Arab Spring - Part 3: Egypt's Stalled Democracy


Will Egypt's democracy activists be able to tame the military? As I mentioned in a earlier post on Egypt's Arab Spring, the main threat to Egypt's democratic transition is neither its Islamist-secular divide, nor intra-Islamist conflict between moderates and Salafis. The key impediment is the military (or what should more accurately be called the military-industrial complex) . Will the military cede power to civilian leadership? Thus far, the answer is not at all encouraging.

Two recent events underscore the power and central role of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) in post-Mubarak politics: on December 28th, SCAF announced that it was lending $1 billion to the central bank to prop up Egypt's deteriorating currency. Egypt's foreign currency reserves have been cut in half from $36 billion since political demonstrations a year ago to $18 billion at the end of this past November, threatening a balance of payments crisis. As reserves approach dangerous levels, the developing crisis threatens to devalue Egypt's currency still further and add to inflation, leading to a spike in local commodity prices that Egyptians can ill afford.

SCAF's other move was the sacking the following day of the offices of 17 civil society organizations, 3 of which are American, on the grounds of accepting foreign donations and "operating outside Egyptian law" (never mind that the military itself accepts $1.3 billion in US foreign aid each year).

Both of these developments suggest that we should not expect any meaningful democracy to develop in Egypt anytime soon. As Freedom House, one of the organizations whose computers and files were seized, noted, the attacks “come in the context of an intensive campaign by the Egyptian government to dismantle civil society through a politically-motivated legal campaign.”

SCAF's ability to lend the Egyptian government funds and suppress legitimate civil society organizations tells us two things: first, the military is really a state within a state that answers to no one but its leadership; and second, it is not serious about allowing anything more than the trappings of democracy to emerge in Egypt.

In their obsessive focus on the Islamist movement in Egypt, Western analysts continue to overlook the main roadblock to positive change, namely the SCAF. The Egyptian military has huge economic holdings that are estimated to constitute anywhere from 8% to 30% of total Egyptian GDP. Whatever the correct percentage, the question becomes whether the state controls the military or the whether the state is merely an appendage of the military.

The military is thoroughly enmeshed in Egypt's economy. It manages bakeries and gas stations, owns industrial factories that produce everything from bottled waters to tanks, and even controls toll roads inside Egypt. The military owns large amounts of land around Cairo where its members live in fashionable gated communities, complete with sod for golf courses flown in from the United States.

The Egyptian military differs from many of the armed forces in other states involved in the Arab Spring. It is not organized according to the professional model that characterizes the Tunisian military. It was never fragmented like the Libyan military which, for all intents and purposes, was thoroughly destroyed with the overthrow of Muammar al-Qaddafi. While certain cliques control the Egyptian officer corps, it is not organized along sectarian lines like the Syrian military which, if Bashar al-Asad's regime falls, will take down the Alawite dominated army with it.

The Egyptian military more closely resembles the former Kemalist military in Turkey. For decades, it too controlled a large state public sector, including banks, industry and trading companies. The Turkish military removed governments at will, especially when it thought they were infringing on its rights. It took a long time but the Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) that controls the Turkish government has finally been placed the military under civilian control. If the Turkish model provides any example, the effort to convert Egypt's military into an apolitical institution, designed to do what the armed forces are intended to do - defend the nation - will involve a long struggle indeed.

SCAF reflects more the Algerian model where, as one Arab colleague, Dr. Abdel Hamid al-Siyam, put it, the military owns a state, and that state is called Algeria. Indeed, SCAF owns a state as well and that state is Egypt.

That separating the military from its economic holdings will be extremely difficult was already evident this past November when SCAF proposed rules that would remove the military and its funding from constitutional oversight. The last thing SCAF wants to see is that its budget be made public. When nation-wide demonstrations were called to reject the military's refusal to place itself under civilian control, a brutal crackdown ensued in which 40 demonstrators were killed in a week of protests.

What then can one expect now that Egypt has held its first post-Mubarak elections? As the recent election results indicate, a new Islamist dominated government will undoubtedly be installed, but with little or no power of control over the military. While it might be allowed to implement some of its political agenda, ]such as reining in what are considered religiously inappropriate Western entertainment programming, the new government will not be allowed to infringe on the military's prerogatives.

While the SCAF might see this as an acceptable political equilibrium, the new Egyptian government will be unable to implement the economic reforms necessary to jump start the Egyptian economy or tackle the massive corruption that pervades the state apparatus unless it can gain control of military spending. As exit polls and numerous analyses of the elections have made clear, the vote for the Islamists was not a vote for a more religious society and constraints on individual freedoms, but for controlling corruption and expanding economic opportunity. If this doe not occur, the new government will lose its legitimacy.

Egypt needs to create at least 175,000 new jobs each year (some estimates put hte number at closer to 250,000) just to maintain the present high level of unemployment which hits Egyptian youth especially hard. If more jobs aren't forthcoming, more demonstrations can be expected. While many junior officers and conscripts find the military's attacks on demonstrators repugnant, the military has plenty of funds to continue to support the special security forces that it uses to suppress demonstrations.

After the first elections in Egypt since the fall of Mubarak (elections that have been compromised by irregular ballots and shifting candidate names on elections lists, just to name two problems that have surfaced), we can expect a political system that parallels those of some central American states where elected officials serve as front men for military rule, or the Pakistan model where the president and prime minister bow to the rule of the army and its security arm, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).

The United States, Europe and Turkey are wise to have begun a dialogue with the Muslim Brotherhood which will need all the support it can muster if it is to mount any type of challenge to the SCAF. While it might seem a radical step, withdrawing the US's annual $1.3 billion in foreign aid to the military and channeling it instead to local development organzaitions would send a strong message to those who control Egypt's military-industrial complex. The message is simple: either allow for substantive change, including civilian oversight of the military's budget, and tackling corruption in the state public sector, or lose US financial support.

Hopefully, the US learned by now that support for autocratic forces is no longer a viable long-term strategy in the Middle East. Only meaningful democratic change will bring stability to the region. Egyptians are a politically sophisticated people who not allow themselves to establish a radical and intolerant Islamic state. The US and its allies insult this political sophistication if they do not keep up the pressure on the SCAF to allow real democratic change

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