I am someone who believed it was time for Hosni Mubarak to go. I also believe Egypt must make the painful transition to democracy, while also being cognizant of the danger that militants could use the resulting chaos to seize power. Thus, I am of two minds about reports the Egyptian military is planning to carve out an extra-constitutional role as a defender of secularism. There is obviously a self-serving motive here: Egypt’s armed forces are a big business that control lots of companies. Generals have gotten wealthy off the resulting lucre, and they want to protect their cash cow. This exerts a considerable cost on the Egyptian economy by crowding out more productive investment and forcing entrepreneurs to pay bribes to get a piece of the action. The army should stick to its military mission and expose its perks and payoffs to greater public scrutiny.
But there is little doubt Egypt’s transition to democracy is a perilous one, and some of the perils could be mitigated if the military commits itself to being a guardian of a relatively liberal and secular state. The obvious model is Turkey, which for decades was a quasi-democracy where the military would step in from time to time to make sure that the secular principles of Ataturk were adhered to. Now we are seeing the consequences of the army’s diminished role with the Erdogan government steering the country in a more anti-Western, anti-Israeli direction. Turkey at least has some tradition of pluralism that exerts some degree of control–however minimal–over the Islamist government.
Egypt has no such tradition. It could all too easily find itself replacing one dictator for another, only this time a dictator with Islamist sympathies. The danger is especially great because elections (though moved back slightly) are still scheduled for this fall, giving the liberal parties little time to organize. The Muslim Brotherhood, by contrast, has a a built-in structure upon which to base its electioneering. The good news is the Brotherhood is hardly monolithic, and now it is splintering into various factions.
Still, big risks remain. It is hardly a bad thing if the army acts as a referee and rule-keeper for this emerging democracy. The question is whether the cost of the army’s role—in particular the cost for Egypt’s struggling economy—is worth the potential political payoff. It looks as if we’re about to find out.