Ruling But Not Governing: Militaries in the Middle East

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By Steven A. Cook
Special to washingtonpost.com's Think Tank Town
Wednesday, April 4, 2007; 12:00 AM

The heady days of the so-called "Arab Spring" seem so long ago. Since 2005, Iraq has descended into civil war, Lebanon has experienced war and political paralysis, the Palestinian Authority is on the verge of collapse, and the Egyptian leadership is narrowing, not opening, Egypt's political arena. President Bush's much ballyhooed "forward strategy of freedom" in the Middle East has become a victim of unrealistic expectations about the challenges of promoting more open political systems in the Middle East. With all the discussion in Washington over the last five years about civil society, economic development, education reform, "capacity building," and the role of religion in politics in the Middle East, one crucial, but overlooked factor is the role of the military in the political systems of a variety of countries.

Consider, for example, Egypt, Algeria, and until recently non-Arab Turkey. While men in uniform no longer govern these countries (though Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is an air force officer), they are military-dominated states. "Military-domination" suggests two important insights about several important Middle Eastern polities that have generally been lost on policymakers and analysts alike. First, while the soldiers and materiel of Middle Eastern militaries are the obvious outer perimeter of regime protection, it is actually the less apparent, multilayered institutional legacies of direct military rule that play the decisive role in regime maintenance. For example, powerful presidencies, weak legislatures, extra-constitutional security courts, and emergency laws have all -- to varying degrees -- been hallmarks of the Egyptian, Algerian, and Turkish political systems.

Second, the officers have a compelling interest in both a façade of democracy and in direct control of certain instruments of political authority -- i.e. they want to rule, but not to govern. This has the dual benefit of shielding the military from the daily problems of governing (think of the trouble that the Argentine military ran into during the early 1980s) and satisfying some demands from society for greater political participation without fundamentally altering the authoritarian nature of the political system.

From this perspective, multiple political parties, regularly scheduled elections, and a relatively freer media are less indicators of more democratic politics than parts of a strategy to protect the prevailing, non-democratic regime. In Algeria dozens of political parties vie for seats in the National People's Assembly and Egypt has experienced a proliferation of opposition newspapers in recent years, but Algeria and Egypt are neither democracies nor are they undergoing democratic transitions. Yet, in both countries, the military remains the primary defender and beneficiary of the status quo.

There are, of course, risks to ruling, but not governing. In Egypt, opposition groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and others take pseudo-democratic practices such as elections seriously. As the Brotherhood, in particular, advances its agenda and accumulates power it poses a significant challenge to Egypt's military-founded regime. Once it becomes apparent to the defenders of the regime that their façade of democracy is being exploited, the Brotherhood is systematically repressed. This is a recurrent theme in Egyptian politics and is precisely what is currently happening in Cairo. Since late 2005 when the Brotherhood secured an unprecedented 20 percent of the seats in Egypt's People's Assembly, Egypt's military-dominated leadership has postponed local elections to prevent the organization from making further gains, presided over legislation making it more difficult for the Brotherhood to attain legal status, and arrested large numbers of Brothers, referring them to military tribunals.

Yet citizens of military-dominated states are not fated to live under authoritarianism forever. Turkey seems to have broken out of a similar pathological pattern of politics and begun a transition to democracy. The conventional wisdom has long been that the powerful Turkish General Staff was staunchly secular and committed, above all else, to preserving the regime that Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and his fellow officers founded in 1923. Yet, since 2002, Turkey's Justice and Development party -- the successor to a variety of Islamist groups -- has systematically clipped the wings of the Turkish military, making it more difficult for the officers to influence the political system. The Turkish Grand National Assembly now enjoys oversight of parts of the military procurement budget and officers have been removed from civilian education and broadcasting boards. Most significant, Turkey's vaunted National Security Council, which was previously weighted in favor of the officers, now has only a single military member while the Council itself has been downgraded to an advisory body that no longer manages its own budget.

The changes in Turkey are the direct result of the role an external power -- the European Union -- has played in promoting democracy. Through a series of incentives, Brussels, which has often been duplicitous in its relations with Ankara, was able to help create an environment within Turkey conducive to reform. In 2003 and 2004, the prospect of EU membership was so popular in Turkey that the officers -- who value their public prestige -- were unable to oppose the civilian leadership's EU-inspired reform drive. Although it will take time to fully uproot Turkey's national security state, Ankara is firmly on a democratic trajectory.

The lesson for U.S. policymakers from the EU's experience with Turkey is clear. Despite protestations from some Arab intellectuals and activists, outside powers can be helpful, even decisive, in promoting political change. Yet, the United States is unlikely to advance political change in the Arab world through force or punitive measures. Turkey's relatively smooth transition from a military-dominated, semi-authoritarian political system to an emerging democracy is a function not of coercion, but rather incentives.

Steven A. Cook is the Douglas Dillon Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of Ruling But Not Governing: The Military and Political Development in Egypt, Algeria, and Turkey (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007).


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