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Modernising but Non-democratising Armies?

January 27, 2014 at 12:25 pm

Part I

The Turkish military has often been compared and contrasted in scholarly writing with its counterparts either in Western Europe or in Latin America. Secular-minded Turkish scholars scorn at the idea of comparing the Turkish military with armies in the Arab world. For instance, one scholar claimed that “while there are overwhelming differences between Middle Eastern civil military relations and the Turkish case, only a suspicious eye can find similarities between the Turkish and Middle Eastern civil-military cases.” However, the July 3rd coup d’etat in Egypt suggests that one does not need to be too suspicious of anything to make a healthy comparison between the contra-democracy practices of the Turkish and Egyptian militaries.

Precious insights may be gleaned from such a comparison between the Egyptian military’s practices and Turkey’s experience with all kinds of military interventions ranging from a “civil society coup” to a “veto coup” to a “military memorandum” and “e-memorandum.” For one, the Turkish case lays it clear before our eyes that in contrast to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s contentions, no army has restored democracy in any country in the Middle East as far as its modern history is concerned. The Middle Eastern militaries may be said to have made modest contributions to these countries’ modernisation, but they did not encourage their democratisation. What then have the Egyptian army may have been doing since the July 3rd veto coup is not restoring democracy, but rather cementing the foundations of another outpost of a tutelary democracy, à la (old) Turkey.

Egyptian and Turkish Armies: A Comparison

Turkish and Egyptian armies have different ideologies. As is well known, the Turkish military embraced Kemalism/Ataturkism. They assumed a self-appointed (supported by post-coup laws, particularly after the 1960 coup d’etat) role to guard the Kemalist regime against, not only external, but also internal threats. Their role resting on this ideology justified in their eyes, and their secularist civilian fellows, their perpetual incursions into politics. Admittedly though, the Turkish military differed from its Latin American counterparts in that it always returned to its barracks following its interventions. They preferred to leave the task of governing to the civilians, thereby making civilian politicians responsible for any failure as long as they maintained the actual task of ruling from behind the scenes.

It looks like the Egyptian army’s ideology is what is called in Arab nationalist literature wataniyya, not Urubbah (Arabism). In other words, the Egyptian military’s ideology is based on nationalism, based on the fact that Egypt, unlike Turkey or Iran, remained under occupation after world war one. For the Egyptian army then, Egypt and its independence and modernisation came first. The Free Officers, many, including Gamal Abd al-Nasser, were among the first ‘pure’ Egyptians to be accepted at the military academy and were Egyptian nationalists.

Even during the heyday of Arab nationalism, with Egypt under Nasser, the Revolutionary Command Council, formed after 1952 Free Officers revolution, stressed that ‘the army is the army of the people’ and later wanted to instil in the people ‘al-shu’ur al-watani’ [national sentiment/awareness].

If any feature of the Egyptian army has persisted through the decades, it must be its strict Egyptian nationalist outlook. As General Sameh Seif al-Yazel said, “the Egyptian army is a nationalist army.” The distrust between the Egyptian army and the Syrian and Jordanian armies after the humiliating defeats of 1948 as well as 1967; the break-up of the union between Syria and Egypt only three years after their union in 1958; and finally the Camp David agreement has also contributed to the hardening of Egyptian nationalism of the military.

Today we see that wataniyya in the armed forces through the speeches of the former head of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), Marshall Hossein Tantawi, and literally, the self-appointed defence minister, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Amid controversies over their tardiness to hand down the rule to civilians, Marshall Tantawi said in 2011 that “the ancient Egyptian military has an established doctrine that it is an inherent part of the Egyptian people whose task is to protect the nation. We cannot allow anything to stand against the people.”

Sisi’s attempts to identify the military with “the people” and “the nation” (excluding the Ikhwan) during his speeches after the coup and the fact that the Egyptian military opposed President Morsi’s backing of the Syrian opposition exemplifies the highly nationalistic nature of the Egyptian military. This ideology, similar to Kemalism, exalts the status of the military in the eyes of its officers and entrusts them to be the guardian of the established system. If the Turkish military sees itself as the guardian of the Kemalist regime, the Egyptian military came to see itself as, in Nasser’s words, “the shield of Egypt.” It is partly these ideologies that make these armed forces more disposed to intervene in politics in the first place.

Blind Trust is no Help

The Turkish military has, for a long time, been the most trusted public institution in Turkey. Even though it now vies for that status with the President’s office, the army is still among the most trusted institutions. The Egyptian army enjoys the same degree of trust amonsgt the Egyptian people. In a poll by Zogby in February 2013, it was reported that 94% of Egyptians trusted the Egyptian army. The crowds in Tahrir Square cheering for the July 3rd coup were testimony to the support that the Egyptian army enjoys. Such a high level of trust in both countries is due to certain factors. Firstly, the armies remain a sacred place for both countries. The military has been seen as ‘the Prophet’s Hearth [Peygamber Ocağı] in Turkey. Marshall Tantawi branded the military a ‘school of patriotism’.

Secondly, compulsory military service has helped the military to penetrate society. The importance of militaries in the Middle East is tied to the fact that the countries are ‘state-nations’, not nation-states. This is to say that in the Middle East states built the nations in the Middle East, not the other way around. In nation-building processes, armies are the golden institution; they are involved in the process of building nations and nationalist armies tap into their reserve of military officers for many critical posts. In addition, militaries function like a production line in a national factory; compulsory military service forces all men, as national products, in the country to go through that line.

Militaries, therefore, help to create a homogenous national identity and educate citizens of a nation-state. It is thus safe to say that “It [the Egyptian military] has traditionally been the most important means of socialising and educating the lower classes, in theory, inculcating them with a sense of pride and patriotism.” These militaries are well aware of the importance of societal trust in preserving their antidemocratic political role; it has not been for nothing that Turkey’s generals have been unwilling to lift the compulsory service and train professional soldiers in Turkey. It is also for the same reason that the Turkish military tried to advertise its controversial “Strong Army Strong Turkey” slogan for its Victory Day celebrations; Egyptian army helicopters likewise threw thousands of Egyptian flags over the protestors in Tahrir Square and adopted “The Army and People Hand in Hand” as its slogan all the while ousting the elected President.

There is another striking note here; people’s trust in the Turkish military has decreased in tandem with the tutelary regime’s decrease in power during the last decade. The process that damaged the people’s trust in the military began with February 28th coup in 1997. For the first time in its interventions the Turkish military divided society by using privileged segments of Turkish society in the media, universities, bureaucracy, non-governmental organizations and syndicates. Unlike its previous interventions in 1960 and 1980, the military contradicted its habitual role as an actor above politics (which was never true anyway).

The military clearly turned some sections of society against the rest. The army did not attempt, in the aftermath of the coup, to bring people together again, as it had done before. A few years after the advent of the AK Party government, the military’s perceived mishandlings and incompetence in its fight with the PKK further lowered the trust Turks had (there were heavy casualties after the PKK raids on Dağlıca, Aktütün in Eastern Anatolia). The Ergenekon and Balyoz [Sledgehammer] court cases over the failed coup attempts further hurt people’s trust in the military.

In Egypt, the only actor that made the Egyptian military accountable was Israel until Camp David in 1978. In fact, the defeat suffered in the 1967 war demonstrated the Egyptian army’s incompetence. The trauma and frustration that the crushing defeat created caused the Egyptian military and President Nasser to blame each other for it. The military was severely criticized after the humiliating defeat; according to Dekmejian, “as a people who had bestowed special privileges and perquisites upon its officer corps since 1952, the Egyptians demanded not only punishment but also explanation.” Yet, the military’s relative success in 1973 war first, and then the peace agreement struck with Israel, took away all the possible tests that could challenge the myths that the Egyptian military had built.

If anyone goes to Cairo today they can see how the October War is employed to present the 1973 war as a ‘total victory’ for Egypt. Yet, after the 1978 peace agreement with Israel, there was no PKK to reveal the pitiful situation analysts find the Egyptian military in today. There was no enemy that could tell the Egyptian people that the military could not, in fact, properly do what is its raison d’etre, that is to combat.

They [Egyptian armed forces] reached their peak of military effectiveness in the 1980s when memories of their wars with Israel were still fresh. A 2008 cable from the American embassy in Cairo obtained by WikiLeaks cites analysts and former officers as saying that the armed forces were no longer capable of combat. Instead, they had thousands of tanks and 240 F-16 jets that were, he says, “basically useless. The pilots are lousy, too.” There has therefore, been no ‘moment’ to disillusion the Egyptian people about their military.

July 14th massacre: Egypt’s ‘February 28th moment?

The July 14th massacre of President Morsi’s supporters by thugs and soldiers may be Egypt’s ‘February 28th’ moment. The army’s constant references to the ‘people’ during the overthrow of the President, might tarnish the overall trust that the Egyptian armed forces enjoyed amongst Egyptians. Egyptians may now understand that the people and the \rmy are not, in fact, hand in hand. The army is rather, hand in hand with the feloul (the Mubarak hangovers), the ‘White Egyptians’ so to speak.

The massacre of the pro-Morsi protestors and the crackdown on the Brotherhood thereafter may replicate the ‘February 28’ moment for at least some Egyptians. For as Robert Fisk rightly points out, “… Egypt regarded all her people as her children. For the Brotherhood victims today – along with the police and pro-government supporters – were also children of Egypt. And no one said so. They had become the “terrorists”, the enemy of the people.” If this is true, it may also imply that the Egyptian army might have just put itself in the limelight; two years ago it was Hosni Mubarak that had to go for Egypt to break its shackles and democratise; now it will be the military junta and coup-minded generals and their civilian accomplices that need to go down.

Khaki Coloured Engineers of Religion

The crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, the closure of thousands of mosques and the barring of clerics and preachers in the thousands strikes a chord with Turkey’s experiences. Thanks to the court cases filed against failed coup attempts and successful coups we now know more about how Turkey’s generals wanted to engineer religion after blaming religious-conservative politicians of exploiting religion by politicizing it. It is now public information that the military junta formed after the 1960 coup fixed sermons and khutbas that sugar coated the coup, and sought to legitimise it in the eyes of ordinary people. The Turkish general staff’s “Prayer Action Plan” would have had retired military personnel make media appearances while praying, film videos that showed conscripts being taught religion inside the barracks and officers attending funeral prayers also leaked about a year ago.

During the February 28th coup process, the General Staff made the newspaper headlines with its ‘Islam briefings’, presentations of ‘true Islam’ as opposed to the woeful understanding of Islam by ‘political Islamists’. The National Security Council also sponsored/encouraged the printing of such books as “True Islam” [İslam Gerçeği], which claimed that some ayahs from the Qur’an justified the principle of secularism. The military plotters of February 28 coup also wished to return to the nostalgic days before 1950 when the adhan was read and sermons and khutbahs were delivered in Turkish.

During the same coup, Imams were forced to enrol in military courses and were given “national security certificates”, which acted as their ‘security clearances’; Friday prayer khutbah’s and sermons were centrally-prepared and disseminated all around the country so that single texts would be read out from all mosques in the country. The directorate of religious affairs was not spared the military tutelage either, as two colonels were appointed as advisors to the head of the directorate. More to the point, the official mouthpiece of the directorate discussed the topic of “Religious Reactionism” in one of its issues in 2000. Bewilderingly, in a piece titled “What is religious reactionism?” it was argued that the survival of tariqahs (Sufi religious orders) in Turkey, their influence on political parties and visibility in businesses and the increase in the number of TV shows with religious content demonstrated the threatening rise in religious extremism. Readers of that monthly magazine must have been befuddled to read that “Islam is against religious reactionism!” That is to say, the game where generals blamed politicians for exploiting religion to appeal to ordinary people but then themselves used religion to legitimise their military intervention played its last and final episode about 16 years ago in Turkey.

The same ugly game seems to be just beginning in Egypt, which should not surprise us either since soldiers are not particularly known for their innovation and creativity. Thus in Egypt too the civilian-looking junta will play with religion and have the courts close down the Muslim Brotherhood, just like the military had the constitutional court close down the Welfare Party (a major partner in the coalition that was forced to resign with the coup) in 1997.

The Egyptian military has already had the Sheikh of al-Azhar sit behind the defence minister as he read out a declaration to oust the elected President. Similar to instruments and techniques that the Turkish military developed over decades, there have been attempts to not allow ‘religious reactionists’ (practically this means a Muslim who prays five times a day or has a wife who wears s headscarf) into the military and to immediately purge them if they somehow escape the net and manage to enter the military schools. The Egyptian military will do everything to prevent a Muslim Brotherhood sympathiser from entering the military. After all, in Gamal Abd-al Nasser’s presidency too, the “army had to connect its movement somehow with the Islamic ethos but distinguish it from the Muslim Brethren” .

The difference between the coup plotting generals of the two countries is that Turkey’s junta generals asked ‘certified preachers’ to read ‘safe’ khutbas and preach ‘harmless’ sermons that justified the coups and blessed the military because the Turkish generals themselves, did not pray and could not preach. In Egypt, members of the Revolutionary Command Council including Anwar al-Sadat, who became known as the “believer president”, visited various mosques and preached Friday sermons asking the public to accept the new regime.

It should not, therefore, come as surprise that the old Egyptian regime disguised as the new, will want to spread ‘moderate Islam’, close down mosques and bar preachers they do not approve of. No one should be surprised if they too centralise the khutbas and have a single lacklustre khutbah and sermon read out in every legal mosque on Fridays in the country. The minister of endowments, Mohamed Mokhtar Gomaa, already hinted at just that when he said “The decision [to bar preachers] is only meant to legalise the preaching process during Fridays’ mass prayers and make only those authorised to do it, do it.” It should remain a possibility for Egypt that the military might appoint some officers “with a knowledge and grasp of true Islam” as “advisors” to the Sheikh of the renowned al-Azhar institute. They may also fund the printing of books, like Turkey’s generals, though they are unlikely to go as far as Turkey’s generals and make the language of adhan something other than Arabic!

The bad news for Egypt though is that its generals habitually employ the same religious discourse with the Egyptian people at large. In Egypt, it is possible to pray in a mosque side by side with soldiers in uniforms on an ordinary day. Obviously it was also possible in Turkey but when the chief of staff, opened his speech with “Assalam u Aleikum” and ended with just that, it was unprecedented in Turkey’s near history.

In Turkey there was an obvious incongruity between the conservative-religious majority of the Turkish people and the uncompromising secularist generals, who cherished ballroom dancing as a sign of modernity. While Turkey’s generals were known for their staunch secularism, the western media outlets have been awash with stories about General Sisi potentially being more Islamist than Morsi and his wife and daughters wearing the niqab. In short, the ‘Muslim’ language of Egyptian generals might make it harder for the Egyptians to start questioning their armed forces.

The two armies share a history due to their lack of civilian inspection or control, their role in economy and their ties with the United States. In Turkey, the parliament has only ever acted as a rubber stamp on the military budget. This has improved recently; there are now rules in place which give authority to the court of accounts to effectively audit military spending. In Egypt too, the People’s Assembly officially had authority to oversee the Egyptian Army’s arms purchases during the Hosni Mubarak era. However, like the people themselves, the people’s representatives were not willing and culturally inclined to fulfil this task. The Egyptian military has to bear most of the responsibility here as well; they held themselves exempt from any criticism or scrutiny in the media using a law passed in 1956, which played a role in the lack of civilian oversight.

The dismay expressed by al-Sisi, in a leaked video, over the public criticism of the military after the January 2011 revolution and the articulated intention to control the media demonstrated well, the castle that the Egyptian army erected around itself.

Much ink has been spilled over the Egyptian army’s role in the economy, with which the Turkish military’s role could probably not match. One thing is sure though; while the Egyptian generals’ pay is far less than their Turkish counterparts, they make up for their disadvantage by generous appointments in strategic companies after retirement. “For years, Egypt’s top military ranks have enjoyed a pampered existence in sprawling developments such as Cairo’s Nasr City, where officers are housed in spacious, subsidized condominiums. They enjoy other amenities the average Egyptian can only dream of, such as nurseries, bonuses, new cars, schools and military consumer cooperatives featuring domestic and imported products at discount prices. In other areas, top officers are able to buy luxurious apartments on generous credit for 10 per cent of what those apartments are actually worth.”

In Turkey, the generals’ pay is not too high; yet, they too are paid in plenty by the OYAK [Armed Forces Trust and Pension Fund] after their retirement. Last but not least, whilst Turkey has been a NATO member for six decades, Egypt, described as a “major non-NATO ally”, is second to Israel in receiving American financial aid.

Contrary to the observations of Diamond and Plattner, collective-security arrangements such as NATO do not generate pressure for civilian supremacy over the military. Just like Turkish officers did not develop an unshakable love for democracy [perhaps except the former chief of staff, Hilmi Özkök] after serving in NATO missions and participating in NATO programs over six decades, the Egyptian generals did not learn during their tarries in the U.S. about the ways of democratic civil-military relations. They certainly did not adopt a “civilian ethic” or “cult of obedience” i.e. voluntary subordination to the civilians.

High-ranking generals such as coup General Sisi and air force commander, Reda Mahmoud, and 500 officers are reported to be taking military training/education in the United States annually. Yet, even after such training and education in a country with consolidated democratic civil-military relations, Egypt’s generals did not hesitate to put themselves forward as an “option” to ‘save’ the protesting crowd in Tahrir Square. They did not shy away from claiming that the coup was because “Morsi entered into a conflict with the judiciary, the media, the police and the public opinion. Then (he) also entered into a conflict with the armed forces.”

One may be forced to ask what benefit there is for the participation of Turkish and Egyptian soldiers in NATO programs and American training/education? It seems that these sojourns only help the United States learn, straight from the horse’s mouth, who the younger officer classes are, what their mentalities are, which officers look more likely to cooperate with the U.S. should any dire or urgent situation arise, and which candidates emerge as generally more amenable to American influence.

How else could Robert Springborg, an expert at the U.S. War College, possess such detailed information about Egyptian coup plotters including al-Sisi? How else would he be able to say with enough confidence that “he [Sisi] had been carefully prepared for a high command position” and that “insiders in the U.S. government and the military were aware of him. He was a name that was mentioned when people talked about next the generations” ? As for the relevance of that question for Turkey, it harks back to times when civilian governments had no say whatsoever in the promotion of Turkish generals, thus making it known to everybody concerned (inside and outside) who Turkey’s chief of staff would be in 10-15 years.

The author is a doctoral candidate at Bilkent University,Turkey

1 Nil S. Şatana, “Civil-Military Relations in Europe, the Middle East and Turkey,” Turkish Studies, 12 (2), (2011), p.287.

2P.J. Vatikiotis, The Egyptian Army in politics ; pattern for new nations? (Reprint of the ed. published by Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1961), p. 79.

3“Egypt Fears ‘İkhwanization’ of Military,” the Majalla, 20 March 2013.

4“Excerpts from Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi’s speech” 22 November 2011.

5The Egyptian army in politics, p. 239

6“Attitudes in post-Morsi Egypt”, 14 August 2013.

7Barry Lando, “Egypt’s Military State within a State,” Huffington Post, 7 April 2013.

8Richard H. Dekmejian, “Egypt and Turkey: the Military in the Background,” In (eds.) Roman Kolkowicz and Andrzej Korbonski, Soldiers, Peasants, and Bureaucrats: Civil-Military Relations in Communist and Modernizing Societies (London: George Allen & Anwin, 1982), p. 34.

9“Ambitious Men in Uniform,” The Ecconomist, 3 August 2013,

10Robert Fisk, “Cairo massacre: After today, what Muslim will ever trust the ballot box again?” The Independent, 14 August 2013.

11The Egyptian Army, p. 78.

12Ibid, p. 80.

13“Egypt Bans Mosque preachers in crackdown on Islamists,” Reuters, September 10, 2013.

14Sarah A. Topol, “Egypt’s Command Economy,” Slate, December 15, 2010.

15“In Leaked Video, Egyptian Army Officers Debate How to Sway News Media,” The New York Times, October 3, 2013,

16Barry Lando, “Egypt’s Military State…”

17Dan Reiter, Why NATO enlargement does not sread democracy, International Security, Spring 2001, Vol. 25, No. 4; Ümit Cizre, Problems of democratic governance of civil-military relations in Turkey and the European Union enlargement zone, 43( 1), (2004).

18Marwan Bishara, “Generals and Patrons: the American-Egyptian Military,” Al Jazeera, 15 August 2013.

19“Abdel Fattah Al Sisi, Egypt Army Chief, Turns On Morsi, The President Who Promoted Him,” Huffington Post, 7 March 2013.

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