Egypt’s military and the Latin American experience

On Friday, November 18, 2011, thousands of Egyptians rallied in Tahrir square to protest the military’s efforts to retain power. The military had recently suggested language for the constitutional convention, which would have made the military the guardian of “constitutional legitimacy.” The military has also suggested that it should choose 80% of the members of the Constitutional committee. The protest seems to have captured the growing civilian concern about emergency laws, and the Egyptian military’s influence over society. When Hosni Mubarak was overthrown, people gave credit to the military, which ultimately decided not to repress the uprising. In their current state of disillusionment with the military, Egypt’s people are not in a position dissimilar to that of many Latin Americans in the 1960s and 1970s. For this reason, it’s worth placing what is happening in Egypt now in a broader context.

Latin American militaries had come into existence, after the region achieved independence in the early nineteenth century, with a common perception that they were the “nation’s saviors.” The held this view, in part, because in many parts of Latin America, armies came into existence before the country. In other nations, such as Brazil, the army believed in political centralization, whereas elites promoted federalist policies that gave them power. For this reason, many militaries came to think of themselves as the “moderating power,” which would intervene in politics when necessary to defend the national interest. This meant that the military would often overthrow civilian presidents, but in most nations would soon turn power over to another civilian.

This changed in the 1960s and 70s. From 1964 to 1973 one democratically elected leader after another fell in Latin America. The new regimes were governed the military, which came to power with a project to remake society that was so complete that it even intended to change the way people thought. The new math was banned from the curriculum in Argentina. In Brazil, history courses ended in 1822, the year that the country gained independence from Portugal. And the military’s authority was upheld by the military intelligence agencies that led “the Dirty War.” What had changed to account for this transformation in the military’s behavior?

One of the many changes that had taken place in the mid-twentieth century was that regional militaries had come to view economic development as being central to national security. For this reason, army officers had acquired positions in an alphabet soup of state-owned corporations, and sat on numerous boards for major corporations. There they had acquired resources, which allowed them to fund not only corruption, but also private networks within the armed forces. They also built ties to civilians, and acquired expertise in non-military areas. These skills would later prove critical as officers moved into government.

Much the same process has taken place in Egypt. It is true that Egypt’s military may be the 10th largest in the world, and that it is -with South Africa- the most powerful armed forces in Africa. Egypt also receives over a billion dollars of aid from the United States each year, which includes support for the military. But the army is not only a regional force, but also an economic actor. The “Arab Organization for Industrialization” was originally created to enable Arab militaries to match Israel’s arms production capabilities. But after Egypt made peace with Israel, other countries pulled out of this body, which is now wholly owned by Egypt. It has over 16,000 employees in nine state-owned factories, which produce both military and civilian goods, as its website makes clear: “AOI focuses its main activities on supplying the needs of the Armed Forces in defense equipment and weapons systems, and uses its excess capacities for supporting community development plans in the fields of infrastructure, environmental protection, transportation projects, etc.” Much as was the case in Latin America, the technical ability of military engineers and planners led the state to turn to officers to support development. But as a result, the Egyptian military is involved in projects far from military ends, such as its role in resort management. In other words, the military is no longer isolated from society and politics. It is deeply engaged in the economy, and this reality benefits officers, and shapes how Egypt’s military views the world.

There are many lessons that Egypt could draw from looking at the Latin American experience in the 1960s and 1970s. The first is that the only movements that tend to be able to resist the military are those that either have charismatic leadership, or a strong political party, behind them. The perfect example of this was Peron in Argentina. When his military colleagues turned against him, the unions rallied and forced the military to back down. There was a great deal written in the early days of the Egyptian revolution about the new social networking capabilities that empowered the young. But Weber argued long ago that for true social change to take place, one condition was charismatic leadership. Egypt is realizing this now. Overthrowing Mubarak was one task, fundamentally changing the political order is another.

It is also unrealistic to expect an authoritarian institution, with no history of democracy, to serve as the agent of democratization. The army acts largely based on its perception of its institutional interests, which it justifies with reference to national security. In this context, the military is currently in a position of great power. The officer class has a great deal to lose, including their influence within a wide array of state run organizations, which give generals power and patronage, not to mention access to funds. The military also has a special position in the political order. It will not abandon this without a political fight.

Its also the case that every military is divided, first my branch, and then by politics. There are always factions. Currently there is very little information available about the main military factions within Egypt. But it becomes difficult for militaries to retain power unless they can use internal repression to remove military dissent. In Brazil, there was an internal purge of the military that took place before the 1964 coup, which saw officers arrested, tortured and disappeared, as I have described in my own work. When the military finally decided to abandon power in Brazil in 1985, it did so in part because its internal divisions were becoming difficult to manage. The more involved in politics the army became, the more politicized it grew as an institution. This means that the military’s current position in Egypt is dangerous to the institution itself. Doubtless, there are factions within the military that are sympathetic to the protesters. Understanding their beliefs, and crafting policies with this in mind, will be important for civilian leaders. At the same time, the civilian leadership will also have to be careful not to be seen as undermining the military from within, which could provoke a dangerous backlash, as was the case for President Goulart in Brazil shortly before the coup.

In the 1980s and 90s one military regime after another in Latin America imploded or ceded power to democratically elected leaders. In part, this was because of the militaries’ disastrous economic performance, which converted the 1980s into a “lost decade” for the region. It was also the case that these militaries had simply run out of new ideas after two decades, and were losing legitimacy. This was also the period that the Cold War was ending, and with these changes, anti-Communism lost power as a political philosophy, and the U.S. lessened its support. The United States has less influence in Egypt than it did in Latin America. But it remains a powerful regional actor, which provides a great deal of foreign aid to the country. The U.S. is concerned that the Egyptian military is retaining power, and Hillary Clinton has spoken on this issue. But the United States is also not willing to push so hard that it might damage relationships with the Egyptian military in the long term. Yet the tide of the Arab Spring is flowing against Egypt’s military, and at this moment, the United States’ clear support for civilian leaders is necessary. The international context matters, and the United States has economic leverage, as does Europe.

In the long term, it will not be enough to return the military to the barracks. They also have to be removed from the structures that gave them power -such as state agencies- so that they will focus on military tasks. The good news is that this change can take place amazingly quickly. For anyone who wishes a better understanding how this might by possible, and the challenges entailed, I would suggest Wendy Hunter’s Eroding Military Influence in Brazil and J. Patrice McSherry’s Incomplete Transition: Military Power and Democracy in Argentina. The courage of the average Egyptians who overthrew the regime was inspiring. But it wasn’t enough to truly give power to the Egyptian people. As Egypt’s people continue the struggle to democratize their country, not only the United States but also Europe has to support their efforts. As the Latin American example suggests, for all the difficulties Egypt faces, change can come astonishingly fast.

By Shawn Smallman, Portland State University

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