Wanderlust…

The International Reporting (and Life) Adventures of Vivian Salama

“Military Hegemony does not a Democracy Make”

Posted by vmsalama on September 19, 2007

by Vivian Salama

POSTGLOBAL (Washington Post/Newsweek Blog) 

There are numerous countries with strong militaries that are a far cry from democracies. One factor to consider is the order in which the two develop: in other words, if democracy comes first and military strength develops later, perhaps the two can develop and coexist more harmoniously than if the opposite were true.

Let’s look back at a vintage example. When Gamal Abdel-Nasser and his Revolutionary Command Council (RCC) overthrew the Egyptian monarchy in 1952, it was, for many, a rebirth of a nation free from imperialism and on a path to self-determination and democracy. However, RCC insiders including Abdel-Nasser believed that the post-revolutionary regime was too fragile to be contested right away. Martial law was implemented and the military maintained a firm grip on the country’s internal operations. Crackdowns against dissidents – most of all the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood – grew harsh. Hundreds were sentenced to death and thousands more were imprisoned.

Fast forward more than 50 years. The country’s current President Hosni Mubarak has ruled for 26 years and many believe the elderly president, whose health has been the subject of debate in recent weeks, is prepping his elder son to take over. When Mubarak’s predecessor Anwar Sadat was assassinated in 1981, the Emergency Law was implemented and remained in effect until a recent referendum changed the law to a so-called Anti-Terrorism Law. The new law essentially puts a muzzle on most political activity and grants the military the right to flex its muscles when it sees fit. Amnesty International called the new law the “greatest erosion of human rights in 26 years.” Opponents called the referendum a “constitutional coup” by the Mubarak regime and say it has only made Egypt’s old Martial Law permanent.

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Granted, a strong military is usually required to deter conquest. But it can also increase the chances of a military coup if the leader abuses authority, and thus requires a delicate balancing act. Mubarak need not worry as he is a top US ally and any threat to his regime is taken very seriously in Washington. (It is worth noting that Egypt is the number two recipient of U.S. economic and military aid, second only to Israel.) The Muslim Brotherhood is extremely powerful and has an enormous following in Egypt, which is why the Egyptian National Guard can now be spotted on the streets in growing numbers. Many Egyptian leaders argue that the military must be mobilized to prevent a descent into chaos. Be that as it may, military hegemony does not a democracy make.

A strong military and democracy are not codependent. There are democracies around the world which function despite having less than impressive militaries. There are countries with strong militaries that exercise undemocratic practices, such as China. The United States is probably the best example of a democracy with a strong military, but democracy came long before military strength (and I would argue that when America’s military strength is put to the test, the noose tightens on democratic liberties).

Turkey is another interesting case. The military plays a dominant role in Turkish society, which has seen three coups over a span of 20 years. But the Muslim nation is certainly a democracy. Given the recent developments in Turkish politics, it would appear that the military is trying to play the role of silent actor – at least during the country’s campaign for EU integration.

The problem with governments like that of Gamal Abdel-Nasser, Pakistan’s General Pervez Musharraf, and even that of the late Saddam Hussein, is that when military power is justified as necessary for the survival of the regime, it often comes at the expense of democracy. Loss of liberty at the hand of a strong military is usually a recipe for disaster.

It reminds me of a quote by Benjamin Franklin: “Those who sacrifice liberty for security deserve neither.” If only Ben Franklin could see the world now.

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