The army can’t help democracy

Egypt could look to Pakistan
July 18, 2013

On 30th June, after months of unrest, millions of Egyptians turned out to protest against the leadership of Mohamed Morsi, the country’s first democratically elected president in six decades. Three days later, on 3rd July, he had been deposed by the army, almost exactly one year after he took office. This bloodless military coup was met with jubilation in Tahrir Square, where two years earlier, crowds had cheered the ousting of military dictator Hosni Mubarak.

Events have moved so quickly that it is impossible to predict what will happen next. Scores are dead after clashes between the army and supporters of Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood. Generals have established an interim government and promised to hold new elections—but can the military ever be trusted as the guardians of democracy?

The situation in Egypt presents a quandary for commentators and politicians in the west. Military takeovers are bad; democracy is good. But Islamist politics are bad; secularists are good. Where do you stand when democracy has produced the wrong kind of leader? The Brotherhood has won three consecutive elections since 2011. Yet one of the key grievances against Morsi is that he did not behave democratically, granting himself extra powers, awarding jobs to his cronies and ignoring the voices of secularists and liberals as he pushed through his own party’s Islamist agenda.

While the western governments struggle to come up with a coherent response to Egypt that allows them to stand on the side of democracy without supporting Islamism, other countries have had a simpler response. In Pakistan—no stranger to military takeovers—the news was met with cynicism. “Been there, done that & got the T-shirt,” tweeted Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, grandson of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (ousted and executed by General Zia al-Haq in 1977), as the news of Morsi’s fall came.

Pakistan’s most recent military coup was in 1999, when General Pervez Musharraf ousted Nawaz Sharif, the Prime Minister. Like Morsi, Sharif was a religious conservative with authoritarian tendencies. Like Egypt in 2013, Pakistan in 1999 saw celebration from secularists, opposition parties and social activists—although not on the same scale. Musharraf stayed in power for nearly a decade.

Comparisons, to Pakistan, Algeria and Turkey are useful only up to a point. Egyptians don’t like to be compared to Pakistan. But both countries are large, populous and Muslim. Both are home to public opinion that ranges from socially conservative Islamists to liberals who want a secular society. Both have disproportionately powerful armies.

Since the Egyptian coup, the Pakistani commentariat has been out in force, and the message is clear. “If you are looking for democracy through dictators, chances are you will be sorely disappointed,” wrote Kamal Siddiqi in the Express Tribune.

However, military rule is not universally unpopular. Earlier this year, a British Council survey of Pakistan’s youth showed that 32 per cent favoured a return to military rule and 77 per cent viewed the army positively. Last month, an avowedly left-wing youth activist told me: “Sometimes I think the only way of achieving a secular, tolerant Pakistan would be through a benign dictatorship, which would most likely come from the military.” In Pakistan, as in Egypt, the army is an institution that, despite its disproportionate hold on power, is seen as less corrupt and more trustworthy than civilian institutions.

It is an apt moment for Pakistanis to pass judgement on Egypt. Pakistan has just seen its first ever democratic transition from one elected government to another. Nawaz Sharif is back in power and Musharraf is being tried for treason. Democracy is still shaky but it is slowly growing stronger. The point is that it takes time. Egypt has been under dictatorships for decades; little wonder it is not a fully functioning democracy after 24 months.

Pakistan is hardly an example that many countries would wish to follow. But Egypt can take one lesson: calling in the army whenever a civilian leader is incompetent or unpopular sets a very dangerous precedent from which it is hard to step back.

In both Egypt and Pakistan, there are secularists and there are Islamists. Democracy is not calling in the army when these differences become unmanageable; democracy is finding a way of reconciling these radically opposed strands of public opinion and accepting that sometimes the results of elections are unpalatable.