Many a country has learned a tough lesson after its military took power on the belief that only trained officers have the discipline, patriotism, and efficiency to run government well. To generals, a civilian-run democracy often looks messy and shortsighted.
For decades, Egypt was a model for this hubris of military superiority. A string of officers – Naguib, Nasser, Sadat, Mubarak – ran Egypt, that is, until last year’s popular uprising in Cairo’s Tahrir Square created the hope of an end to military dominance.
On Sunday, however, just 20 minutes after a historic vote for president, Egypt’s transition to democracy was dealt a blow. The ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) issued a constitutional decree giving the armed forces immense powers.
The presidency will be downgraded. The generals and the military budget will be protected from civilian scrutiny. And the Army will dictate the writing of a new constitution.
The world has seen this movie before – from South Korea to Chile, from Spain to parts of Africa – and rejected it. Generals just aren’t cut out to run an economy, let alone make the political compromises necessary for progress in civilian society. Eventually they must go.
Yet the myth persists within many militaries that they know how to run things better than civilians. Their bases are efficient, subordinates follow orders, and the task of defending a nation allows them to think they know the highest good. Most of all, they get the impression that power lies in guns rather than the will of the people.
To reverse this power grab by Egypt’s military will require understanding its motives. Much of the Army owns businesses. Many officers fear being prosecuted for violence against civilians. Others enjoy the perks and prestige of being top brass. Democracy looks like trouble to them.
But the common thread in many military-run countries is simply arrogance, a trait bred by military training and a disrespect for civilian rule.
It hasn’t helped that the United States often uses its military to run other countries, such as happened after the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Such a practice would not be allowed within the US except in an extreme emergency.
The US has also had to learn that its training of foreign military officers at big American bases needs to include strong lessons in democracy and civilian control. In the past, many of these officers would return home, believing the American military ran the US, and later take part in coups.
The US has long defined its relationship with Egypt through the military. That’s why Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has been reminding Egypt’s field marshal, Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, about the need to ensure a full and peaceful transition to democracy.
A military’s culture of professional service should extend only to a defense against violence. In acting as a coercive arm of the state, the military must by nature be controlled by civilians.
Egypt’s democracy may be delayed until the military accepts this necessity. It’s a hard lesson to learn, but dozens of democracies now exist having learned it.