At least since Julius Caesar came back from Gaul and made himself emperor, generals who overthrow the government have followed the same script: They take power only to make the country safe for rule by the people. Then they usually find a way to maintain their influence, even if they allow elections.
The latest generals playing this game are in Egypt. They have asked a commission of constitutional drafters to come up with a provision that will institutionalize their power, perhaps by establishing them as protectors of the secular, democratic character of the state, on the Turkish model.
On the surface, the declarations may look attractive. Voters in this fall’s national elections are likely to empower many Islamists associated with the Muslim Brotherhood. Call it the Islamic elections rule: In every Arabic speaking country where there have been even modestly free elections since 1990, Islamists have done much better than anyone expected.
It is also true that in Turkey the secular military has contributed to moderating the Islamic democrats of the ruling Justice and Development Party. They are able to do so because their threat of intervention is credible: In 1997, in what was called a “soft” or “postmodern” coup, the military overthrew a government led by the Islamically oriented Virtue Party.
Since taking power in 2002, the Justice and Development Party has moved carefully when trying to tweak Turkey’s unamendable constitutional value of secularism. For example, in 2008 Turkey’s constitutional court rejected amendments passed by the parliament that would have allowed female university students to wear head scarves. The government chose not to challenge the ruling -- in part to avoid giving the military an excuse to step in.
Bad for Egypt
Nonetheless, when it comes to Egypt, giving the military the formal power to protect secular democracy is a terrible idea. Indeed, even the Turkish model is a bit deceptive: Nothing in the written constitution of Turkey gives the military any special powers to ensure that secularism is maintained. The military’s powers are wholly self-appointed.
In recent years, the Turkish generals have mostly exercised this power wisely. But there is no guarantee that will continue. A few years ago, if prosecutors are to be believed, a secret group with roots in the military plotted a coup.
In Egypt in particular, the legacy of military takeover is a story of frustrated efforts at democracy. Hosni Mubarak, the recently deposed president, was an air force general before he became vice president under Anwar Sadat, who was also a general. And Sadat followed Gamal Abdel Nasser, the original modern Arab dictator. Nasser was a colonel in the Egyptian army and came to power via a revolution led by young officers. In each case, any promises of democratic reforms were quickly forgotten.
Just Another Dictator
The problem goes beyond Egypt or Turkey. General Pervez Musharraf was met with optimism when he took over the messy, contentious Pakistani democracy in 1999 and promised reform and a fast return to free elections. Eight years later, he had become a garden-variety dictator. It took a fresh democracy movement to bring him down -- one spearheaded by lawyers after Musharraf fired the chief justice of the Supreme Court.
The bottom line is that the military as an institution is dangerous to a developing democracy. No matter how well-intentioned the generals may be when they take over, their institutional incentive is to maximize their own power at the expense of other branches of government. In some cases, the military as an institution may balance other institutions. But when that happens, it is usually by accident -- and some other institution would always do a better job.
Army as Stakeholder
How, then, do you stop the army from overthrowing the government? Most ancient writers thought the only answer was to have no standing army at all. Some of the framers of the U.S. Constitution shared this classical republican view. We have them to thank for the Second Amendment, which guarantees the people the right to form militias and bear arms, to counterbalance the danger of an army.
Today few countries are able to protect themselves without an army -- so other answers must be possible. The most prominent answer, heard often in the U.S., is that the military’s culture should be steeped in the principle of civilian control. Teaching both officers and enlisted personnel the values of democracy -- and the importance of following legal orders -- is meant to ensure that the military will not interfere in affairs of state.
Culture matters, and so does discipline. But a major reason no one in the U.S. fears a military coup is that the interests of the military would not be served by challenging the nation’s constitutional structure. Our other institutions of government, whatever their painfully obvious limitations, are credible and legitimate.
Imagine that the Joint Chiefs of Staff announced they would take over the government unless President Barack Obama and House Republicans agreed to raise the debt ceiling before the date of financial Armageddon. The generals would not be better off than they are today. The military, like the rest of the citizenry, has much more to gain by the peaceful functioning of the government than it would be likely to gain by attempting to replace the government with something else.
The trick, then, to getting the military to respect democracy is for its members to have a large stake in the success of democratic institutions. This is made harder when the military is competing with other institutions. In Egypt, for example, the army controls a nontrivial sector of the economy, which gives the generals little incentive to share power.
The Bush administration disbanded the Iraqi army in large part because it feared the army would overthrow any elected, democratic government. The decision was wrong because it weakened the state too much, leading to a full-on insurrection.
Egypt’s army should not be disbanded. But Egypt needs its military to be less powerful, not more. The protesters who have returned to Cairo’s streets in recent weeks understand this. Egypt’s allies, including the U.S., should realize it too.
(Noah Feldman, a law professor at Harvard, is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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