Military Blocks Egypt's Path To Democracy

The latest round of Egyptian protests began when the military tried to strengthen its power in any future government. Vali Nasr of Tufts University talks to Steve Inskeep about other armies that tried to gain a bigger role in a supposedly democratic country. Nasr is also the author of The Rise of Islamic Capitalism, and is a former advisor to the Obama administration.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The latest protests began when Egypt's military tried to strengthen its own power in any future government. Egypt's military is hardly the only army to assume an outsized role in a supposedly democratic country.

And we're going to talk about that with Vali Nasr of Tufts University, author of "The Rise of Islamic Capitalism" and a former advisor to the Obama administration. He's in our studios. Good morning, Vali.

VALI NASR: Good morning.

INSKEEP: And welcome back to the program. Egypt's army was seen as the protesters' friends at the beginning of the year. What happened here?

NASR: Well, they were seen as friends because they facilitated the exit of President Mubarak. But this was what's happening, it was ultimately inevitable, because the military wants to hold onto control of the economy and control of levers of power, and that would ultimately blocked Egypt's path to democracy. So at some point, this desire for greater freedoms would come into direct conflict with where the military stands.

INSKEEP: Is this a universal story if you look around the world?

NASR: It is, indeed. You notice when countries go through democratization, there is a friction between the old order - which is usually represented by security forces, intelligence forces and military - and those who want change. And ultimately how this will shape will decide what kind of a democracy emerges.

INSKEEP: What are some examples?

NASR: Well, we've had cases in Latin America: Brazil, Argentina. We've had cases in Southeast Asia: Philippines, Thailand. And, in fact, in Thailand, we still have the struggle between the military and democratic forces. In the Middle East, we've had cases in Turkey and Pakistan in the 1990s. And also, the case of Russia, where ultimately the security forces won the battle and were able to roll back democracy, after a furtive period during Yeltsin.

INSKEEP: Interesting that you mentioned Turkey, Vali Nasr, because this is a country where the military had seen itself as having this extra special role to preserve a certain kind of Turkey. They've stepped in, historically, but in recent years that changed a little bit. And the Egyptians told pollsters that they find Turkey to be the political system they most admire. Why would that be?

NASR: Well, because Turkey has a vibrant, prosperous economy now. It has a fairly open political system. It is respected internationally and it's become a regional great power. It has all the combinations of success that the Egyptians would like to see the country move in the direction of.

INSKEEP: How did the Turks or Turkish civilians push back the military's power a little bit in recent years?

NASR: Well, we have to go back to the 1980s and 1990s for that. Two things happened in Turkey that ought to happen in Egypt as well, if we are to see a Turkish model emerging in Egypt. The first is that economic reforms led by the IMF in the 1980s broke the back of a state controlled domination over the economy and also began to push the Turkish economy - sorry the Turkish military - out of the economy.

Today in Egypt, about 80 percent of all manufacturing is owned by the military. You are not going to get to democracy in Egypt unless you push the military out of its commanding heights in the economy. The second is that the European community essentially made a conditionality that if Turkey's interested in being a candidate and ultimately a member of Europe, it has to have viable civilian government as civilian oversight of the military.

INSKEEP: So they got the army out of the economy and ultimately found motivations to push the army out of politics as well.

NASR: That's right.

INSKEEP: There is another example, is there not, where things have not gone so well.

NASR: Well, there is the case of Pakistan when the General Zia-ul-Haq died in an air crash in 1988. The military withdrew from the political system, allowed for elections, but then as soon as the government of Benazir Bhutto came to power it began to hobble it, it began to block its progress, and ultimately it made democracy fail in Pakistan and there was another coup in 1999.

INSKEEP: And has it happened, essentially, again, are we in the middle of seeing that happen again in Pakistan right now?

NASR: Exactly. Pakistan is a case in which the military sits just outside the political system, controls all the strategic assets, controls foreign policy, and has perfect ability to limit the activities of the civilian government. And in that kind of a situation, the civilian government is not able to do anything, loses public support, and then the military is able to manipulate the political system.

INSKEEP: And the military also has huge control over the economy in Pakistan.

NASR: Well, for militaries to be able to perform this kind of a domination, they have to control the economy, they have to control the intelligence services, they have to have, also, certain degree that we have public appeal because that gives them the political capital to be able to go after the civilian government.

INSKEEP: So let's return to Egypt now. We've talked about different things that have happened in different countries around the world when civilians have struggled with the military. That's the struggle that Egyptians are in the middle of right now, that is at the heart of the protests for the last several days. What in your mind is the most likely scenario, the most likely outcome in Egypt?

NASR: Well, right now the military's on the back heel and that's a very good thing. It's a good thing that the population is actually challenging the military early on. The sooner you break the hold of the old order and the security order, the more you have actually a chance on democracy.

The military has already lost its ability to basically ram its project through and be able to control elections, control the civilian government afterwards. If the population is able to keep the pressure on the military, the military would have to yield ground.

But ultimately, for the military to lose its commanding position in Egypt and for the civilians to be able to dominate, you have to break their hold over the economy. And that's really critical in Egypt and the battle hasn't gone there yet.

INSKEEP: Vali Nasr, thanks very much.

NASR: Thank you.

INSKEEP: He's a professor at Tufts University, former Obama administration advisor, and author of "The Rise of Islamic Capitalism." He's talking with us about the protests in Egypt, which are continuing today.

You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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