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Lessons from Pakistan

February 13, 2011

WHAT a topsy-turvy world we inhabit. Some time ago, the burning question was whether Pakistan would be the next Egypt, wracked by popular uprising. Now, after a military council has taken over from Hosni Mubarak with the full support of jubilant protesters, one has to ask whether Egypt will be the next Pakistan.

The answer to the latter question lies in a dynamic that threatens to stay the same: the relationship between the Egyptian military and the US. To its credit, the Egyptian military pulled off a superb balancing act during the protests. It stayed neutral on the street, separating protesters and Mubarak loyalists, but refusing to enter the fray.

This neutrality earned the respect of the public, even while military men moved into senior government positions in an effort to stabilise Mubarak’s regime. Similarly, after Mubarak’s noncommittal Thursday night address, the military allowed protesters to swarm the presidential palace, even while implicitly supporting his decision to remain in power until scheduled elections in September.

This multilateral pandering continued even after Mubarak resigned. The military council insisted that it could not substitute for legitimate government, but refused to lift the 30-year-old emergency law until that nebulous time when circumstances permit.

Accepting control of the country, the council praised Mubarak and the ‘martyrs’ who had lost their lives during the protests in the same breath. If this goes on much longer, the military’s neutrality will transmute into mystery about its intentions for Egypt’s future.

As a Pakistani, I can’t help but be cynical of military councils that promise to “sponsor the legitimate demands of the people” and usher in a glorious era of democracy at the end of an indefinite transition phase. Perhaps Egypt can learn from our mistakes, and ensure the hard-won gains of the past two weeks are not subsumed by further military — or military-micromanaged — rule.

As a start, Egyptians should not let the military develop a saviour complex. In the final hours before Mubarak’s resignation, too many protesters called on the army to finish the job. Even opposition leader Mohamed El Baradei posted a message on Twitter asking the “army [to] save the country now.”

The Egyptian military already sees itself as the guarantor of state stability, having played a significant role in quelling political unrest on two previous occasions: in 1977, it controlled riots following former president Anwar Sadat’s decision to cut food subsidies; in 1986, it stepped in when central security forces looted across Cairo to demand higher pay. Allowing the military to take partial credit for Mubarak’s deposition would be a disservice to young Egyptians who risked everything for their freedom.

As memories from Tahrir Square fade, Egyptians should remember that the fate of their country lies in their hands, not those of the military.

Democracy doesn’t come easy, and Egyptians should shake the habit of relying on military arbitration or intervention.

One way to circumvent a saviour complex is to seriously investigate allegations of human rights violations by military personnel. The Guardian recently reported that the Egyptian military had detained hundreds of protesters, many of whom were tortured through severe beatings and even electric shocks. Such intimidation campaigns are a hallmark of Egypt’s dreaded state security intelligence, so it is essential to determine and highlight whether the military too is prone to using coercive techniques to ensure stability.

Drawing from Pakistan’s history, Egyptians should also remember that militaries tend to prioritise their institutional interests above all else — national interest included. Under Mubarak, the political influence of military leaders was curtailed, but this trend should not breed complacency.

The Egyptian military demonstrated its willingness to meddle in politics mere days ago, replacing the Egyptian prime minister with a former air force commander and the deputy prime minister with Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, now head of the Higher Military Council. Lest we forget, Mubarak himself was a product of the military.

Army officers flirt with politics when their interests seem uncertain. In Egypt’s case, the military has plenty to lose in democratic transition: about $1.5bn in annual military aid from the US; access to modern weapons and sophisticated training, again thanks to the US; and lucrative defence contracts for well-positioned military officers. Indeed, Egyptian officers manage military-owned industries that represent five to 15 per cent of the economy.

Here’s where the US comes in. In coming months, it will no doubt leverage the Egyptian military’s institutional demands for aid, weapons and training in hopes of maintaining the status quo. After all, it too has much at stake: continued peace between Egypt and Israel; access to the Suez Canal and Egyptian airspace; relations with other Muslim allies such as Saudi Arabia and Jordan that will take cues from the new government in Cairo; and a regional ally to maintain pressure on Tehran.

Again, taking a cue from Pakistan, Egyptians will see that the US has repeatedly proved its willingness to dump dictators, but it is far more reluctant to abandon the armies that prop them up in the first place. The best way to ensure that Egypt does not enter the civil-military tussle that has plagued Pakistan for decades is to demand absolute transparency and accountability in any dealings between the military and external actors.

History need not repeat itself in Egypt. This revolution is noteworthy for the absence of charismatic leadership, therefore setting the stage for truly representative, multi-party rule. One hopes that a more democratic Egypt will emphasise economic growth in response to the factors that triggered protests. But whatever policies a representative government chooses to pursue, no one, least of all the Egyptians themselves, should let the military or anyone else get in the way of Egypt’s democratic adventure.

The writer is the Pakistan Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Centre in Washington, DC.