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When Armies Lose Their Way



By M Saeed Khalid

August 14, 2013

These are not the best of times for the Egyptian army. The Arab world’s largest military force has strayed far away from its benevolent act of overthrowing King Farouk, a rotten monarch given to all sorts of excesses who preferred to enjoy life in Monte Carlo and Capri than be bothered about the growing hunger and misery surrounding His Majesty’s opulence.

 From that pinnacle, the generals have fallen to the level of orchestrating the ouster of an elected president. It took a few days after its glorious ‘victory’ that the Egyptian high command began to realise that they had gone too far. Nobody seems to know how to get out of the mess in which the army has landed itself and the country.

 Old habits die hard. Dr Tariq Ramadan, arguably the best known Egyptian scholar – forbidden from entering Egypt for the last eighteen years – has come out with scathing criticism of the country’s army after the intervention of July 3. He has described it as the second coup after removing Mubarak, asserting that the army never really relinquished power. As it saw power slipping away from it for the first time in 60 years, it moved to arrest the elected president and installed a puppet regime, hoping to midwife the new political dispensation – to be run under its strict supervision.

 The Egyptian generals’ timing is all wrong. First, the chutzpah in organising a twenty million person march is not something that can be repeated every time the army feels insecure. Second, it probably miscalculated the Muslim Brotherhood’s capacity for resurgence and its secular supporters on a long-term basis. Third, it did not properly anticipate the international community’s reaction to such a flagrant violation of democratic norms.

 The overall situation in Egypt is potentially explosive and where the country is heading is hard to predict. But in what could be a severe reaction to the army’s coup de force in Egypt, the Turkish judges have handed very harsh sentences to a large number of former military men, parliamentarians, journalists and artists for plotting to derail democracy in Turkey. This verdict has had a stunning effect in Turkey and across the world.

 The Turkish case is likely to have ramifications for Egypt as well as Pakistan. In fact analysts are still figuring out the full impact of this event and its likely repercussions. But it is already being seen as a turning point in the protracted power struggle between the military and the civilians on the one hand, and secularists and Islamists, on the other.

 The Turkish prosecutors prepared elaborate dossiers against a group of people allegedly belonging to Ergenekon, an underground organisation plotting to create chaos to provide an opportunity to the military to overthrow the civilian government. Critics say there was not enough evidence to award such harsh sentences. The government was determined to establish civilian supremacy over the army.

 The Turkish army has repeatedly intervened to put an end to prolonged periods of instability, social unrest and target killings. The first one, led by a colonel in 1960, was particularly gruesome as it led to a summary trial and execution of then Prime Minister Adnan Menderes and his associates.

 Civilian rule was restored but it was unable to quell large-scale violence involving the leftists, the nationalist right and the Islamists. In 1971, the military forced then Prime Minister Demirel to resign and began ruling with a civilian façade. It ended with fresh polls bringing a centre-left government under Ecevit to power. He is remembered for his decision to occupy the majority Turkish inhabited part of Cyprus after a military coup there inspired by the military junta of Greece.

 The third coup took place in 1980, once again with a backdrop of daily killings involving rightist, leftist and Islamist groups. A new constitution was drafted guaranteeing Turkey’s secular status and giving the army a constitutional role in politics. That is how the generals prevented Erbakan, leader of the Islamist Refah party, from taking power. However, his second-in-command Erdogan floated a new party AKP which won the election in 2002 bringing to power the country’s first Islamist government.

 The secular military supported by the secularists tried to exert control over the AKP government but the party returned with a bigger majority. Erdogan made several changes in the military hierarchy and also instituted the conspiracy case which reached its denouement on August 5, with a life sentence for the former chief of staff and many others.

 The case is not yet over. Those sentenced have the right to appeal. Meanwhile, doubts have been expressed in Turkey and abroad about the fairness of the trial. It appears that the judges wanted to give exemplary punishment to deter the army from meddling in political matters.

 The Egyptian army has ruled the country through an arrangement where the chief or the former chief would be elected president of the country and practically run it as a party-state, with the army taking the major pie of the national wealth as well as billions in US aid. In contrast, the Turkish and the Pakistani armies staged repeated coups to clear up the mess created by the politicians. The cumulative result is that both Turkish and Pakistani generals have taken a backseat now, letting democracy muddle through. The Egyptian generals are still resorting to soft coups when direct military rule is considered passe.

 The Turkish army is probably seething from the court verdict but is in no position to challenge the civilian authority or the judiciary at this stage. As for Pakistan, the elected government may still have a chance to wade through the stormy waters of Article 6 so as not to disturb the sleeping giant only a few kilometres away.