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Modernising but Non-Democratising Armies? Part II

January 27, 2014 at 11:45 am

In the first part of this two-part series, a comparison was drawn between the Turkish and Egyptian armies. This comparison highlighted potential pitfalls that could occur before civilian control is achieved in Egypt. I also showed that these armies preyed on their own people instead of protecting their societies from external dangers – their reason for existence. In the second and final part, the overall argument of this series will be developed: contrary to what some would like us to believe, the Turkish and Egyptian armies may have partly contributed to social modernisation of their countries, yet they cannot be credited with much when it comes their countries democratisation. They have rather been the major obstacles.

The first to be modernised, modernises the rest?

It has become commonplace to say that military was the first institution subject to modernisation efforts by the Ottoman Empire. In order to ward off Western encroachment and for the Empire to survive, the Ottoman army, before everything else had to modernise and stand up to its enemies. If there was another army in the Middle East that followed the same path, it was Egypt. The Egyptian army was the centre of Muhammad Ali Pasha’s efforts to modernise the country. Aware of their superior conditions and opportunities and seeing themselves as the shepherd of their nations, the Egyptian and Turkish armies happily assumed the role of modernizers.

Armed forces use the most modern machinery and employ the latest technology for the fledgling Egyptian and Turkish nations. Turkey’s entrance into NATO in 1952 and the resulting flow of military aid helped a great deal. In Egypt, the Free Officers’ coup-turned-revolution helped the military to reserve enough legal, political and economic prerogatives for the military to access the best machinery and largest opportunities. Turkish military academies and schools prided themselves with the better facilities they could offer to their cadets and officers.

Turkish and Egyptian armies were attributed with a modernising character, from the outside they were regarded as a “force for revolution and reform.” According to John Campbell, “modernisation of society, instituting social reform, raising the living standards of the lower classes, and wiping out the privileges of the upper (class) are also integral parts of their (Middle Eastern armies) program”. And military rule, in Turkey, Egypt or elsewhere, it was alleged, led to greater honesty, less corruption, injected more discipline into public life and gave people sense of duty.1

Indeed, it was highly fashionable in the decades after the 1950s to claim that ‘armies in preindustrial and industrialising societies invariably become agents of economic, social, and political modernisation.’ This claim rested on the premise that the skills developed in the care, use, repair of modern weapons were transferable to non-military economic and social purposes in society at large…military investments in road construction, harbour improvement, airport development and the introduction of new communication systems also served non-military purposes.’2 This view was closely related to the modernisation paradigm that reigned supreme. As Elizabeth Picard says, armed forces with a penchant for modern technology and industrialisation were thought to be future-agents of encouraging secularism and political participation.3 Modernisation, secularisation and democratisation were considered to be successive steps in a linear chain.

It is highly likely that military service helped raise the literacy rate in Turkey. As Ergun Özbudun pointed out, with little opportunity for lycee and university education in Turkey for most of the second half of the 20th century, “professional military schools, which provided free board, clothing, and other basic needs, are virtually the only place a poor boy or even a middle-class son from a remote part of Turkey to obtain an education beyond the elementary school level.”4 Sydney Fisher concurs, “Still, there were not enough schools and only the fortunate could choose. Hence, a poor boy or a middle class son from a more remote part of Anatolia might be able to obtain an education only in a professional military school”5.

Thanks first to the mandatory military service and second to the fact that the Turkish army drew its officers from across different segments of the society, boys from less privileged families had a chance to permanently or temporarily access the superior facilities armed forces provided. As Daniel Lerner mentioned, ‘young men from the countryside acquired skills to maintain and operate modern machinery. Many of them became literate in the military. They now witnessed new habits of dress, cleanliness and teamwork…The military corps became, in this decade, major agencies of social change precisely because it spread among this key sector of the population a new sense of identity – and new skills and concepts as well as new machines.”6 Anybody familiar with Turkish politics and society would know that the Turkish military nurtured this role later as well. For instance, teachers completed their military service as teacher-soldiers, they taught in schools with little to no teachers in distant corners of the country near their barracks.

Did the Egyptian armed forces not embrace a similar role? According to P Vatikiotis, “the military power elite, in Egypt, at least, has chosen since July 1952 to play the role of innovator, seeking to transform Egypt and Syria from a traditional agricultural society to a modern industrial one, to be the supreme educator of Egyptian society; and to act as the benevolent father guiding a traditionally divided and fragmented people to greater political cohesion and achievement.”7 It is well known, for example that “After 1952 revolution, Free Officers regime redid the entire educational system; they wanted to eradicate illiteracy and tie education policy to the needs to the country, to national goals.”8

The agricultural reform after the 1952 coup also helped the peasants and was a step towards modernising the country. When the armed forces build roads, they were referred to as “gifts to the people of Egypt”. In the Nasser era, propaganda murals showed soldiers marching into the future hand in hand with peasants, workers, teachers and intellectuals. Today similar posters show a soldier in combat gear cradling a baby that is meant to represent the people.”9 Although the extent to which the Egyptian army became as successful as their Turkish counterparts in this modernisation mission remains arguable, yet their assumed role and intention as well as their limited contribution remained consistent.

No Contribution to Democratisation

The most obvious way the Egyptian and Turkish armies hampered the development and consolidation of democracies in both countries was their continuous intervention in civilian politics, thus destroying chances of meaningful representation of the people’s demands. Could however, Vali Nasr be right, that militaries helped the rise of ‘Muslim Democracies’ such as the AK Party in Turkey by moderating the radicals with an iron fist? That’s what Nasr says, “Military involvement in politics had three notable effects. First, it limited the Islamists’ room to manoeuvre. Second, it gave all parties an incentive to avoid confronting the military while angling for advantage within the democratic process. Finally, the military’s meddling in politics led to increased elections, political realignments, and shifts in coalitions, accelerating and intensifying experimentation with new political formulas. Interestingly, the net effect of all this (was) a boost for Muslim Democracy.”10

Yet, the Egyptian army looks more like it is hell-bent on wiping out the Muslim Brotherhood than creating new structures and an arena for different political parties including the Muslim Brotherhood. More importantly, Nasr forgets that Turkey succeeded to control the military, break the tutelary regime and took revolutionary democratisation steps despite the military, not thanks to it. Where real democracy is concerned, not just democracy in forms and appearances, Egyptian and Turkish armies acted only as obstacles.

It has also been claimed that Turkish generals intervened in politics because they wanted “rational democracy” in the country when undermining civilian governments they were trying to “readjust democracy to make it more rational”.11 The soldiers, it has been claimed, do not want politicians to bicker amongst themselves, they want politicians to think and work for the interests of the nation, not for their particular group interests. If this interpretation is right and taken in its face value, it looks like Turkey’s generals simply did not understand what democracy is. There is no such thing as a “rational democracy” in our age.

Assuming that they have such an idealist conception of democracy Turkey’s generals could not be expected to contribute to democracy to in any meaningful way. Take into account one instance when officers in Egypt could have helped democracy to develop in the country; the 1956 constitution. According to George Kirk, the preamble and the first 192 articles of the 1956 constitution, were admirably democratic in form but the final section of the document, “Transitory and Final Rules” in five articles provided that only those candidates nominated by a Council of National Union, which will be determined by the President of the Republic, would be elected to the National Assembly. The outcome was a bolstered authoritarian regime behind a democratic facade.12

Is there any reason to think that after ousting the legitimate civilian President of the country the Egyptian army will encourage or allow any new Egyptian constitution or existing and new institutions to facilitate real democracy? There is every reason to think that a tutelary democracy is in the offing in Egypt. As this analyst also observes, “Egypt may be in for something like the old-fashioned Turkish model in which the government was nominally democratic but the military would step in periodically to make ‘corrections’.”13

Future Prospects and Recommendations:

  1. The chances for democratisation in Egypt look dim; not only is the public support not yet strong enough behind any civilian actor to enable action against the military’s corporate interests, but Egypt also lacks an international anchor to do so. Egypt needs an EU-like anchor but instead has the U.S. Yet, the Middle East has not been among America’s favourite regions in which to promote democracy. The consensus among analysts and scholars now is that the Justice and Development Party government in Turkey benefited greatly from the EU membership bid as it, rhetorically, trapped the Turkish military. When the Turkish government carried out EU-demanded reforms in civil-military relations, the military could not oppose them.
    Egypt does not yet have a regional incentive; the Arab League would probably be the last institution to help any country’s democratisation on earth. The OIC is still a crippled institution. This leaves Egypt still surrounded by a ring of autocracies at worst, autocracy-wishers at best. Turkey remains the only country with democratic credentials to support democratisation in the region. However, Turkey cannot yet be seen as an exporter, because it is not yet a magnet.
  2. In civil military relations, the basic motive behind civilian control is the ‘armed’ forces. The fact that the military has arms makes it the most powerful actor among all. Yet, in Egypt the military has both arms and bread. What needs to be done is clear; the power that the military wields in domestic politics needs to be curbed. The crux of the matter is how? Whoever curbs the military’s power, must manage the economy well (a daunting task), perhaps build a broad civilian coalition against the military’s stronghold on the regime, strengthen the civilian government’s legitimacy over time, build a firm societal power base, maybe draw closer to the EU rather than the U.S. (perhaps seeking a privileged partnership of sorts similar to Israel) and know their armed forces well (know that they are focused on their material interests rather than an ideology – unlike the Turkish armed forces.)

The author is a doctoral candidate at Bilkent University,Turkey


  1. John C. Campbell, “The Role of the Military in the Middle East: Past Patterns and New Directions” in The Military in the Middle East (Columbus, Ohio State University Press, 1963), p. 109-111.
  2. Hurewitz, “The Beginnings of Military Modernization in the Middle East: A Comparative Analysis”, Middle East Journal 22 (2), (Spring 1968), p. 157-158.
  3. Elizabeth Picard, “Arab Military in Politics: from Revolutionary Plot to Authoritarian State” in The Arab State, Giacomo Luciani (ed.) (Routledge: 1990), p. 190.
  4. (Ergun Özbudun, The Role of the Military in Recent Turkish Politics, Harvard University Center for International Affairs, Occasional Papers in International Affairs, Number 14 (November 1968), p. 28.
  5. Sydney Nettleton Fisher, “The role of the Military in Society and Government in Turkey” in The Military in the Middle East (Ohio State University Press, Columbus, 1963), p. 29.
  6. Daniel Lerner and Richard D. Robinson, “Swords and Ploughshares: The Turkish Army as a Modernizing Force”, World Politics 13 (1), (October 1960), p. 32.
  7. P.J. Vatikiotis, The Egyptian Army in Politics ; Pattern for New Nations? (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1961, p. Xv.
  8. P.J. Vatikiotis, Modern History of Egypt (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, c1969), p. 421.
  9. “Egypt’s Army: Ambitious Men in Uniform”, The Economist, August 3, 2013
  10. Vali Nasr, “The Rise of Muslim Democracy” Journal of Democracy 16 (2), (2005) 13-27p. 16-17.
  11. Metin Heper, “Consolidating Turkish Democracy,” Journal of Democracy, 3 (2), (April 1992), p. 106.
  12. George Kirk, “The Role of the Military in Society and Governent: Egypt” The Military in the Middle East (Columbus: Ohio State University Press,, 1963), p. 78.
  13. Joshua Keating, “Can a Coup Be Ever Democratic? Foreign Policy

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.