Opinion

Egypt: Putting the guns aside

30.05.11 @ 10:39

  1. By Miguel de Corral

Since the fall of Hosni Mubarak on 11 February, Egypt's Supreme Council of the Armed Forces has been ruling the country. Field Marshall Tantawi, the chairman of this council, has been the de-facto head of state.

  • Tahrir Square earlier this year: The army has played a leading role in the revolutionary process (Photo: Iman Mosaad)

The Egyptian people, meanwhile, are waiting for their experiment in democracy to take shape. Parliamentary elections will be held in September of 2011 and a few months afterwards, presidential elections will take place.

The first set of post-transition rulers will have a tremendous responsibility to push their country in the right direction. Their struggle will not be easy, as they may need to confront the most powerful actor, the military, for power.

It is unquestionable that the security situation in Egypt is difficult. As the strongest institution in the country, the Egyptian military has the very demanding task of keeping the country stable; meaning maintaining security and recovering the weak economy, while issuing reforms that lead to the democratization the people are thirsting for. However, the military is an incredibly powerful establishment that will not easily renounce its political and economic power.

Since the Free Officer's Revolution in 1952, Egypt has been governed by the military. Naguib, Nasser, Sadat, and Mubarak all formed part of the Egyptian military. Although Mubarak is no longer in power, the institution from which he came from is still governing the country. The Egyptian military is extremely powerful due to its size, involvement in business, and public support.

According to the International Institute for Strategic Studies, as the 10th largest military in the world, Egypt boasts of having 468,000 active personnel, 479,000 reserves, and 397,000 in paramilitary forces. Also, the US gives $1.3 billion annually to Egypt in military aid.

In terms of business, the Egyptian military has considerable control of many facets of industry throughout the country. Mainly, they are involved in military equipment, food production, cement and gasoline, vehicle production and construction.

Public support is crucial for the military. The armed forces are seen as historically heroic for their involvement in the Arab-Israeli wars, especially the 1973 war, which is viewed as a victory, and in which the then commander of the air force, Hosni Mubarak, emerged as a national hero. Also, military service is mandatory, which of course means that a large percentage of the population, at one point or another, has been in a military environment.

This power has been accrued for over five decades. However, for a successful transition to democracy to take place, the power base must shift. Future leaders, and especially the first democratically elected President of Egypt, will have to walk a thin line while attempting to keep the country stable and enact significant reforms. The president will have to have vision and boldness to distance himself from the military and push them into a secondary role.

Moreover, the executive power will have to pave the road forward with patience and prudence. Changes and reform must occur, but at their adequate pace. If early on in the post-transition government the executive attempts to push away the military, then there might be a danger of a counter-revolution.

For example, such a phenomenon occurred during Spain's transition to democracy, as the military attempted a coup d'etat in 1981, as they feared that the country was sliding out of control. Thus, the eventual governmental leaders, along with youth activists and union leaders, will have to pick the right moments to push for change, all while not stirring up trouble in the country that could cause apprehension for senior military leaders.

Specific measures will have to be taken in regard to economic reforms. Aid packages will have to be carefully implemented into private industry, which of course will create employment. This point is especially significant as unemployment in Egypt is rampant, with youth unemployment at around 30 percent. It is imperative that civilian businesses take control of key sectors that the military controls, like construction and food production.

Also, the military must not be an integral part of the executive leadership. Tantawi and the Military Council must relinquish power once the elections take place and accept that Egypt is no longer a "military" state. And of course, they must abide by their promise of revoking the Emergency Law, which grants strong powers to the executive.

The judiciary has a notable role to play. In the past couple of months, many members of the previous regime, including Mubarak, have been put, or will be placed, on trial for corruption, abuses of power, and firing on demonstrators during the revolution.

However, there have been many accounts of human rights abuses by the military during the transition. Protests have been banned; demonstrators have been killed and injured, as there have been reports of live ammunition being used to disperse protestors.

Evidently, the situation is very tense in Egypt, and the military is not trained to be a police force or a governmental ruling council. Nevertheless, grave mistakes by military personnel have occurred and those responsible should be held accountable. If such equitable justice took place, then perhaps a strong checks and balances system would become institutionalised.

External actors, such as the US and the EU, can play a very important role in limiting the military's role and pushing for civilian rule that is democratic, equitable, and just.

The US can conditionally award its $1.3 billion military aid package based on the military making political reforms that lead towards a smooth transition to civilian power. Obama's recent announcement of lending $1 billion for infrastructure development and job creation and the administration's focus on establishing a strong private sector in Egypt is a very positive sign.

Furthermore, aiding civil society groups and developing basic public services such as health clinics and schools will be critical as well.

The EU can also provide conditional aid packages and temporarily lower tariffs on Egyptian goods (from private industries) entering European markets. Obama indeed mentioned his plan to "promote integration with US and European markets" as a measure to stabilise Egypt's economy.

Ultimately, in order for democracy to flourish in Egypt the military will have to step aside to their role of providing security for the Egyptian state, nothing more and nothing less. This of course means relinquishing the key industries they control and the power they hold politically. If, over time, the military loses relevance in the political and economic arenas, democratization will have a better chance to succeed.

The writer is a researcher with the Middle East Faculty of the Nato Defense College in Rome and studies international affairs at Northeastern University.The views expressed in this article are his own

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