Civil-Military Relations and the New Egyptian Uprising

Clashes between protesters and police in Cairo have reportedly claimed 24 lives in the past three days.

The escalating crisis in Egypt that has pitted the military against an uneasy coalition of Islamists and liberals reveals the importance of civil-military relations and their relationship to democracy.

Long a central actor in Egyptian politics, the Egyptian military gave President Hosni Mubarak the final push to leave office in February 2011.  At the time, many of the protesters welcomed the military’s prominent role as a guarantor of stability during the transition to democracy.  But after originally promising to hand power to a civilian government by September, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) has recently announced that it will not relinquish power until a new constitution is ratified and a new president is elected, which may not happen until after 2013.  The SCAF has also provoked widespread discontent by unveiling this month “a set of ground rules for a next constitution that would have given the military authority to intervene in civilian politics while protecting it from civilian oversight.”  Specifically, the military called itself the guardian of Egypt’s “constitutional legitimacy.”  While the SCAF has backed off some of these guidelines and suggested that it would subordinate itself to civilian rule, these concessions have not placated the protesters, whose ranks have grown and who now battle soldiers and police in and around Cairo’s Tahrir Square.

Democracy requires that elected civilian officials have ultimate control over a country’s domestic and foreign policymaking.  Unelected military officers must be subordinate to the elected officials, both legally and in practice.  But in many countries at various stages of democratization–from Pakistan to Egypt to Turkey–the military has historically played a powerful independent role, stepping into politics and even removing leaders when it believes stability demands such action.  Egypt’s Islamists, led by the Muslim Brotherhood, are particularly opposed to such a role for the Egyptian military, since they believe (with good reason) that their dominance in upcoming elections and the subsequent government is exactly the sort of development the military would like to suppress.  Many U.S. officials are also concerned about an Islamist victory in next week’s parliamentary elections, which puts the U.S. in a difficult bind since its twin goals of democracy and stability in the region are apparently in conflict.

What do you think?  Are we witnessing the beginning of the second Egyptian Revolution of 2011?  Will the military bow to the demands of the protesters and accelerate the transition to civilian control, or will it remain intransigent and “double down” on its strategy of remaining the most important player in Egyptian politics?  How should Western governments, including the U.S. (which gives Egypt roughly $3 billion annually and therefore has significant leverage) respond to these developments?

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