From Egypt to Pakistan: Why are we infatuated by the Army?
After a halting transition to democracy that was hailed around the globe, Egypt is once again under military rule. The generals claim to have intervened in the national interest, citing the massive crowds who filled the streets of Cairo to protest the Islamist rule of the democratically-elected president.
This coup, coming just a year after the Arab Spring, raises a fundamental question that applies not just to Egypt but also to Pakistan. How do armies legitimise their coups?
Despite their differences, there are striking parallels between coups in Egypt and Pakistan. Take the case of Pakistan:
- The army’s maiden coup in 1958 by general Ayub was justified as a way to end the corrupt and incompetent tenure of a string of short-lived civilian governments.
- General Yahya’s ‘coup within a coup’ against field marshal Ayub in 1969 came on the heels of mass agitation against Ayub whose regime was believed to have institutionalised corruption.
- Yahya himself was deposed in 1971 by senior army and air force commanders when crowds took to the streets to condemn the army’s surrender to India in East Pakistan.
- General Zia’s coup against the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) government of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in 1977 followed a nationwide protest about electoral rigging.
- General Musharraf exploited popular sentiment that was building against Nawaz Sharif in 1999, despite the latter’s heavy mandate.
So here is the lesson; in countries with weak political institutions, the army is often the strongest and well-funded arm of the government. It arrogates to itself the right to judge what is and what is not in the national interest. Coups happen when the people accept the army’s supra-constitutional role to adjudicate political disputes.
With the re-election of Nawaz Sharif, Pakistan made its first successful transition from one elected government to another. Yet, the threat of a coup hangs in the air. If domestic politics sour, all eyes will be turned onto the army chief.
But Egypt and Pakistan are the outliers to an international trend away from military rule. For decades, juntas held sway in most Latin American countries. And military rule was the norm in Indonesia and Turkey. However, all these countries eventually transitioned to democracy. How did this salubrious outcome materialise?
While each country’s transition had its own unique elements, a common element stands out; at some point the military lost its legitimacy as the final arbiter of political disputes. The people stopped believing in a myth that their militaries had interjected into the national psyche – an enemy stood at the gates and posed a mortal threat to the nation’s survival.
The myth persists in Egypt and Pakistan. Their people believe that the army is the only institution that can ward off this existential threat. The fact that neither the army has won a war against the external threat – Israel in the case of Egypt and India in the case of Pakistan – has not helped to slay the myth.
In fact, the armies have cleverly turned their numerous defeats into strategic advantage by countering that they should be regarded as victories since a far superior enemy carried out an aggressive act against them. In other words, were it not for the army, the situation would be dire.
In Pakistan, the doctrine of necessity has been used more than once by the generals in court to cloak treason with legitimacy.
President Sadat of Egypt, a soldier himself, made peace with Israel in 1979 after he became convinced of the futility of war. Two years earlier, he had flown into Jerusalem to address the Israeli parliament with a message of peace. President Jimmy Carter brought the leaders of Egypt and Israel together at Camp David a year later, but Egyptians never bought into the peace treaty. Sadat was gunned down while reviewing a military parade, giving the army yet another excuse to stay in power.
To this day, the Arab Street has not made peace with Israel, virtually guaranteeing that the army will stay in power. If the Egyptians crowds had been patient, they would have used the parliamentary process to change their leaders.
In Pakistan, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, now in his third term, is reaching out to India, as he did back in 1999. There is no doubt that Pakistan desperately needs to make peace with India. There is no other way to reign in the militant hordes that have turned on Pakistan itself.
However, better than anyone else, Nawaz Sharif knows that he is performing the high-wire act. If he can bring the people along with him, he will succeed and democracy will find a permanent home in Pakistan.
The risk is worth taking.