Military assertiveness in an era of weak civilian government

Unfolding events in Egypt since the removal of President Mohammed Morsi from office have provided a textbook example of the central role which the military plays in the political affairs of states, even in some of those countries which possess a façade of democracy.

What the removal of Morsi makes clear is that the contemporary significance of the generals in Cairo goes beyond their capacity to seize power by force. In Egypt, that began with the seizure of power by Colonel Gamel Abdel Nasseer in 1956 and ended when Hosni Mubarak, once the head of the Egyptian Air Force was removed from the office which he inherited from another military man, Anwar Sadat.

By replacing Morsi with a civilian who makes no pretence at wielding political power, the Egyptian military has demonstrated its ability to rule by proxy. Since the removal of Morsi from office it is the Head of the Egyptian armed forces who has been calling the shots from Cairo.

The entrenchment of the military as the most important political institution in Egypt is the result of a deeply divided society in which the civilian political institutions are fragile and fragmented. The military in those circumstances has become indispensible in guaranteeing some measure of stability in so far as what currently ensues in Egypt can even be remotely described as a condition of stability.

Egypt is a microcosm of a broader trend of growing military influence in states that are governed by civilian administrations. These are reminders of a period during the latter half of the twentieth century when civilian regimes in Latin America ‘ruled’ at the pleasure of the military and were replaced at the whims of the generals. In those instances, the state was mostly weak, corrupt and predisposed to human rights atrocities. Even after that era is past and gone real democratic values have struggled to take root.

Nor is Egypt an exception to what is the the contemporary rule in some places. There are current examples – most of them in Africa – of de facto military rule thinly disguised by weak and dictatorial civilian governments. These are  either  strongly linked by agreements that allow the soldiers ‘a share of power,’ or else are altogether dependent on the military for their retention of political office.

On Monday, the African state of Mali sought to elect a civilian government in the shadow of a military that had only just removed the previous one from office. Up to the time of the writing of this editorial the results of the elections were unclear. What was clear, however, is that given Mali’s unstable economic and political circumstances ‒ including an assertive Islamist insurgent army seeking to divide the country ‒ it will, in the foreseeable future, be well nigh impossible to keep the Malian military out of the country’s politics.

Another  African state, Togo, went to the polls last week to elect a civilian government though here again, the pre-eminent role of the military is not difficult to discern. In 2005 Faure Eyadema inherited the presidency of Togo from his father Gnassingbe Eyadema who, as a Colonel in the Togolese military, had engineered two military coups and had ruled Togo from 1967 until his death in 2005. Faure was directly installed by the military to succeed his father.

Zimbabwe – where President Robert Mugabe was  seeking yet another term in office when the countryvoted yesterday – is another case in point. Since his assumption to office in 1980 in the wake of the removal of white minority rule in the former Rhodesia, Mugabe has continually squandered his legitimacy chiefly on account of his retention of office through general elections deemed by his opponents  to be questionable. At 89 and reportedly not enjoying the best of health the one-time freedom fighter has retained political office by placing real power – including the country’s electoral machinery ‒ in the hands of the military.

The instances of Egypt, Mali, Togo and Zimbabwe, though very different in some of their details, clearly illustrate the role which the military continues to play in the political affairs of some states (and these are by no means the only examples that one can cite) in the post-Cold War era. Both then and now weak political institutions and inept and unpopular governments continue to provide an entry point for intervention by the generals in a manner that makes them effective sponsors of civilian regimes which dance to the waltz of the martial drumbeat. It is a disconcerting reality in an era in which the international community favours civilian democratic rule.

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