The Fall of Arab Spring in Egypt illustrates the enduring allure of military government in the region: stability and protection of the people.
During the recent visit of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to the U.S., liberal media exploded with negative coverage of President Trump’s meeting with “the worst military dictator in Egyptian history.” El-Sisi was generally portrayed as more authoritarian than Muslim Brotherhood President Mohamed Morsi and his predecessor for 30 years, President and former Air Force chief, Hosni Mubarak. How, ran editorial speculation, did yet another career militarist succeed in overcoming the populist sentiment of revolutionary and conservative Islamists – and reduce the famous “Arab Spring” to an almost forgotten ellipsis in time?
Against the backdrop of Mr. Trump’s decision to bomb Syrian air facilities in retaliation for a recent chemical attack, the el-Sisi meeting and a similar favorable session with Jordan’s King Abdullah II, illustrate the conundrum facing the current U.S. administration over public policy in the Middle East. With the exception of Israel and possibly Tunisia, the entire region stretching from Morocco to Pakistan is governed by or under direct influence of military forces.
Many Middle Eastern nations succumbed to the wrath of the 2010-2011 “Arab Spring,” widely misinterpreted in the West as reflecting populist and democratic ambitions, when in fact conservative Islam and economic conditions were the root cause. Today most have reverted to military control, or rule by leaders raised in uniform and still “in tight” with their army.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), in a rare demonstration of lucidity, observes that media were self-deluded – interviewing Arab Spring spokesmen who were largely English-speaking, educated in Western universities, left-leaning and democratic. They were not the leaders. They were certainly not representative of the masses, most of whom were completely unfamiliar with the term “democracy.”
Discussions with a government insider in Egypt, who for obvious reasons must remain nameless here, shed light on the forces behind the rapid rise and fall of Arab Spring in one country, and how that experience can tilt people toward teh enduring power of military government:
- Military = Parental Authority. Egyptians are taught from an early age to respect and never question authority. Ergo, the military exercises near-total control. The military effectively controls nearly half of Egypt’s economy, and is the country’s biggest landowner. Questioning the military is a non-starter. To do so is considered highly offensive.
- Ill-Will Focused on a New Non-Military Authority. President Hosni Mubarak essentially “checked out” in 2009 after the death of his grandson. His youngest son Gamal, who had been groomed to succeed Hosni, took the reins. Gamal Mubarak had no military training or background. He was a businessman of dubious credentials who ultimately would go to trial on charges of financial corruption. Well before that time he was not well thought-of in military circles.
- Public Unrest Over the Economy. In 2008, Egypt ranked second only to Nigeria for an illicit outflow of national funds to private accounts that exceeds the entire sum of foreign aid to the country. The missing money went into the pockets of the elite, like Gamal Nasser. While Arab Spring may have begun in Tunisia in June 2010, and anger over the the death of a young Egyptian in police custody would spark revolution leading to the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak in February 2011, the seeds of dissatisfaction had nurtured for years by economic disparity.
- “The Military Protects the People.” Even as protests led to widespread criminal violence, looting, attacks on prisons, factory closings and collapse, the military surrounding the Presidential Palace refused to take action against the people. Senior military officials led by General Tantawi issued this statement: “The armed forces will not resort to use of force against our great people. Your armed forces, who are aware of the legitimacy of your demands and are keen to assume their responsibility in protecting the nation and the citizens, affirms that freedom of expression through peaceful means is guaranteed to everybody.” Billboards appeared through Cairo and Alexandria proclaiming that “the people and the army are one hand.”
- Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamad Morsi Proves Worse. Economic decline continued under the weak leadership of Morsi, an engineer with neither political skills nor military background. He was widely viewed as being obsessed with establishing political control than solving longstanding social and economic problems. When new riots erupted, the government reacted with severe crackdowns using hired thugs. Just as bad, Morsu insulted the police for being ineffective. So the police stop helping. Faced with chaos worse than the final days of Mubarak, the people again took to the streets, pleading with the military to rescue them. Morsi forced General Tantawi out and named Abdel Fattah el-Sisi his successor.
The rest of the story is well-known. After just 12 months in office, Morsi was overthrown. el-Sisi resigned his military post on assuming the Presidency. Morsi is currently in jail serving a 25-year sentence. The government has banned the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Some contend that el-Sisi’s administration is more severe than his predecessors’. We won’t enter that debate here, but simply comment that the people of Egypt got their wish: stability. That is the key benefit of military governance, and in contrast to the chaos they experienced under Arab Spring, in contrast to what it replaced, a highly desirable state of equilibrium.