The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

The future of civilian-military relations in Egypt

This is a guest post by Rabab ElMahdi, co-editor with Philip Marfleet of Egypt: The Moment of Change.

Civilian-Military Relations in Egypt

By Rabab ElMahdi, Assistant Professor of Political Science at the American University in Cairo.

One of the clear demarcations of democratic polities is civilian control over the military. However, such control is neither automatic nor easy to attain even during periods of democratic transition. In certain cases, foundational constraints imposed by authoritarian legacies and the transition process have conferred upon the armed forces substantial influence over the nascent democratic governments. And in many cases indicators reinforce the view that there is greater continuity than discontinuity in military behavior between the pre- and post-authoritarian periods. If military have left office but not abandoned their centers of power, then the transfer of authority from military to civilian hands is more superficial than real. At worst, the formal departure of the military from power might represent, not the end of a political cycle, but rather its continuation. At best, democratic rule would be severely limited, subject to military supervision, moderation, or arbitration.

As classically defined civilian control of the military exists when “there is …subordination of an autonomous profession to the ends of policy.” It is the opposite of “praetorianism,” or military intervention in politics. In this sense the military is expected to maintain professional autonomy but not power. That is the armed forces should be able to exert control over their internal decisions and no control over ostensibly political ones, they should remain politically neutral and under the directives of the state civilian institutions.

In this regard it is crucial to differentiate ‘institutional autonomy’ from ‘political autonomy’. The first refers to the military’s professional independence and exclusivity. In the interests of its own professional development, the military asserts its corporate autonomy by maintaining a “sense of organic unity and consciousness” that set itself apart from lay institutions. Military political autonomy, on the other hand, refers to the military’s aversion towards or even defiance of civilian control. While it is part of the state, the military often acts as if it were above and beyond the constitutional authority of the government. The degree of political autonomy is a measure of the military’s determination to strip civilians of their political prerogatives and claim these for itself. As the armed forces accumulate powers, they become increasingly protective of their gains. The more valuable and entrenched their interests are, the more vigorously they will resist the transfer of control over to democratically elected officials and state institutions.

Since one of the tracks of the Egyptian revolution has been transition to a democratic political system, the issue of civilian control over the military becomes crucial. This is especially important since the revolution which demanded a democratic polity –among other things- have ironically resulted in bringing the military to the helm of political power. This is an interesting precedent in recent history unlike earlier episodes of democratic transition in Latin America or Southern Europe, where popular uprisings where directed at military rule which was clearly in power.

The Egyptian Dilemma:

The Egyptian case poses a real dilemma not only because the military took over power in light of a mass uprising not a coup d’etat, but also because pre-January 25th regime has its historical roots in a military legitimacy of 1952 popular coup d’etat and later the 1973 war. More importantly the Egyptian military establishment carries contradictory features that make civilian control more complex. On the one hand it is a corporatist institution that is not only entrenched in the economy (contributing 25-40% of GDP) but more dangerously, such economic power is translated into a social base of support. Meaning that the 400,000 military professionals and their families which can be estimated at 2 million Egyptians are direct beneficiaries of the military entrenchment. Moreover, the military establishment remains a black box with no clear information about its personnel, budget, activities, or apparatuses. Finally, as a post-colonial state and one that shares direct borders with Israel, the military establishment can and does use the broad undefined concept of ‘national security’ to justify coercive and corporatist practices.

Yet, on the other hand there are factors that provide an opportunity for Egypt for the first time to start a path of civilian control of the military — without which democracy even procedurally cannot be completed. First, the democratic transition is taking place under the pressure of mass mobilization, which is unprecedented even in earlier cases of Latin America. Hence, we are looking at a path very different from the ‘pacted transitions’ of those countries under which the military went into negotiations and managed to secure privileges. Second, preceding the January 25th revolution the military establishment has been curtailed by the rise of new ruling elite comprised of businessmen and NDP officials and the entrenchment of the internal security apparatus. Third, since the rise of military to direct governing since February 2011, it has become more exposed and its malpractices started shaking its hegemony as “protector of the nation”.

It is the play-out of these contradicting factors and the strategies put forward by democratizers that will affect the net outcome in terms of civilian control over the military. In this regard it is important to remember that at any given juncture civilian control over the military depends on a multiplicity of variables. Focusing on merely one or two of these variables can produce a seriously distorted picture. Moreover, one must realize that the dynamics of that country’s civil-military relations over time can be highly complex, for many factors can spark changes in these relations.

Understanding the evolution of the relations and potentials for changing the balance of power therefore requires an effort to identify the full array of factors that have been at work in the particular situation. These factors can be summarized in the following:

  1. Circumstances under which a regime came to power. The Egyptian regime over the past 60 years came to power through a popular coup in 1952 and hence have sustained military prerogatives. However, a clear break from that regime is posed by the January 25th evolution providing a clear window of opportunity for curtailing such prerogatives. Organized popular mobilization can provide a clear tool towards establishing civilian control over the military.
  2. Shifts in relations with outside powers. In this regard it is key to break the independent and organic relations between the U.S. and the Egyptian military establishment. And for such relations to be oversaw and managed by the civilian elected executive.
  3. Alterations in the extent of functional specialization among the upper-echelon political elite as a result of local political and economic developments. One of the few positive developments of the Egyptian political sphere over the past decades is the limitation of political elite with a military background. And while this rivalry was part of the reason the military establishment temporarily acquiesced with revolutionaries during the first days of the uprising, it is also one of the positive factors that can easy civilian control.
  4. The emergence of major factional political conflict. This is one of the biggest threats to possible civilian control of the military in Egypt. It is manifested in the huge divide between the two factions of so-called “Islamists” vs. “secularists”. So far the military establishment have successfully used this wedge to derail democratic transition, and its expected to continue using it to maintain its prerogatives even when nominal steps towards transition of government are being taken.
  5. The institutionalization of politics. Civilian control of the military does not happen in a vacuum, rather it is organically related to other changes within the political and economic structures. In that sense, one of the key factors positively impacting it is the development of independent political institutions (as opposed to personalized rule) as the core of the political system. Hence, any pressure exerted to form and strengthen institutions such as the judiciary, the parliament, and the executive is key to curtailing military power.
  6. Changes in military doctrine. In this regard Egypt has not experienced a change in its military doctrine in terms how it sees its role within society. It still perceives itself as the “protector of the nation”. With Israel sharing borders with Egypt, and the legacies of colonialism, this is not expected to change over the coming years and hence not to be a factor facilitating civilian control. Thus, the focus should be on restraining military through the institutional arrangements not ideational politics.
  7. Threats to domestic order. Threats to internal stability have typically led to an increased role in political affairs for the officer corps, whether they have sought it or not. In this regard the claimed or real lack of security in Egypt since the revolution is something the feeds into the continued interests of military-power. Hence, the restructuring and proper function of the internal security apparatus is key in establishing civilian control over the military.
  8. The institutional structure of society and the degree of corporate interests of the military. As pointed out earlier, this poses one of the biggest challenges for civilian control in Egypt. Not only because of the entrenched corporatist structure and the width of its beneficiaries but also because the current Egyptian middle-class is directly the off-shoot of the military regime established since 1952 and hence huge parts of owes allegiance to the establishment and is very susceptible to perceived/framed threats to ‘national interest’.


The scope of the opportunity structure created by a transition to democracy is determined by how much fragmentation has occurred among the armed forces, how much civilians have mobilized against the previous regime and established a consensus on democratization, and whether the political factions have a clear road map for establishing such control over the military. Hence, the upcoming constitution and re-arrangement of state institutions should be designed with four spheres in mind when it comes to the armed forces: 1) external defense, 2) internal security, 3) domestic politics, 4) state leadership. Barriers should be enforced to limit the military to the first sphere. More specifically the different political actors should seek the following:

  1. Understanding the group dynamics and internal divisions of the military establishment both vertically and horizontally. This means economic interests, recruitment patterns, career paths, promotions and professional differentiation. One of the first steps an elected president/parliament should take is to harness such information.
  2. The need to disaggregate military functions and spheres of influence. The armed forces appear to have had greater success in guarding “core” professional functions than those lying more on the “periphery.” Levels of military autonomy over functions perceived to be clearly internal to the profession are higher; levels are lower where functions are situated either in the gray zone between professional and political spheres of influence or within the political sphere itself. Whether or not civilians ultimately consolidate their power over the military also depends upon their capacity to strike the delicate balance between limiting the military’s political reach without impairing its professionalism.
  3. Making it clear to the military that discretion over a narrower set of functions sharpens the boundaries between professional and nonprofessional spheres of influence, retards civilian meddling in the internal affairs of the armed forces, and guards against military “trespassing” on government turf.
  4. While civilian control of the military is a long and complex process, which cannot be completed soon, it is successfully managed when political actors are well aware of there windows of opportunity. For example, in most Latin American cases, one of the first decisions take by newly elected-presidents was to retire key old-guard generals. The idea is to take major steps that does not destabilize the establishment but limits its power, during times when the legitimacy and power of civilian rule is at its peak.
  5. A civilian plan exists to control the armed forces. Civilian control is likely to be institutionalized only when elected officials commit themselves to its pursuit. Hence, it is key that political forces (Islamists and secularists) agree on the limits of military power.
  6. The strategic institutional choices of the transition and consolidation periods have strongly affected civil-military relations under the new regimes. For example, in Eastern Europe parliamentary systems (Hungary, Czech Republic, Slovakia) have been have been more successful in developing stable and balanced civilian control over the armed forces than presidential ones (Romania, Poland). Hence, different political forces should keep in mind how advocating a specific institution will affect this goal of civilian control over the military.