If there can be elected governments in Palestine and in Gaza, why can democracy not work in neighbouring Egypt? The army takeover in Egypt and the subsequent ruthless crackdown that has led to the massacre of hundreds of people have raised several important questions regarding the inception of democracy in Middle Eastern and African countries.
It is usually observed that in countries with powerful enemies in the vicinity, the army emerges as the strongest of all institutions. However, the existence of a huge army presents a stumbling block on the path of the growth of an elected government. This is because in the name of defending the nation from powerful adversaries across the border, the army ends up exerting a strict control over the country.
In spite of the Camp David Accords of 1979, Egypt, with an estimated population of 84 million, reportedly maintains an army of 468,000, besides one-million reservists. But Egypt is not the only example. In neighbouring Syria as well as in many Asian and African countries, the picture is more or less similar. Nearer home, Pakistan keeps a big army on the plea that it has to defend its borders against a much bigger India.
But be it Egypt, Syria or Pakistan, the record of their respective armies have been poor on the battlefield. They have brought little or no glory to the respective countries. The Egyptian and Syrian armies — barring the first few days of the Yom Kippur War in October 1973 — lost all the battles against Israel. The chequered record of the army in Pakistan is well-known. Instead of defending the borders, the armies in these nations seem more interested in ruling the respective countries, directly or indirectly. They throttle people’s voices and suppress popular movements.
The military lobbies are so strong that there is absolutely no scope of the growth of democracy. The dictators keep the army in good humour to prolong their stay in power. So even after the peace agreement with Israel, the Egyptian rulers, Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak, never thought of trimming the army. Without an enemy to fight against, the pampered army began to expand its influence over business, industry and agriculture in Egypt. As if that was not enough, it continued to receive a huge annual dole from the United States of America in the form of military aid.
On some occasions, in order to justify the huge numbers, the army creates an imaginary enemy. In the process, it increases its stranglehold over the country, impairing the chances of the election of a popular government. People’s attention is often diverted from domestic issues and the ‘external threat’ is grossly exaggerated.
The army uses the alibi of political instability to intervene. This happened in Egypt recently. In Pakistan, Ayub Khan, Yahya Khan and Zia-ul-Haq took this route to come to power. But Pervez Musharraf’s case was different. He overthrew an elected regime when the Nawaz Sharif government tried to clip his wings.
In the Middle East, it may not be appropriate to compare the growth of multi-party democracy in Israel with that of Egypt. But then how have Palestine and Gaza managed to elect governments? One cannot agree with the policies or programmes of either the Hamas or the Fatah, but it is a fact that they came to power after an election and were not thrust from above. The fact is that Palestine and Gaza were under Israeli occupation before they came into existence. So they did not experience the vice-like-grip of the army. Democracy grew by default there. The problem is that the ‘liberals’ in Egypt and the ‘Islamists’ in Pakistan often end up becoming the stooges of the army in their respective countries.