From Egypt to Pakistan: Why are we infatuated by the Army?

Published: August 2, 2013

Armies have cleverly turned their numerous defeats into victories by saying a far superior enemy carried out an aggressive act against them. DESIGN: IMAAN SHEIKH

After a halting transition to democracy that was hailed around the globe, Egypt is once again under military rule. The generals claim to have intervened in the national interest, citing the massive crowds who filled the streets of Cairo to protest the Islamist rule of the democratically-elected president. 

This coup, coming just a year after the Arab Spring, raises a fundamental question that applies not just to Egypt but also to Pakistan. How do armies legitimise their coups?

Despite their differences, there are striking parallels between coups in Egypt and Pakistan. Take the case of Pakistan:

  • The army’s maiden coup in 1958 by general Ayub was justified as a way to end the corrupt and incompetent tenure of a string of short-lived civilian governments.
  • General Yahya’s ‘coup within a coup’ against field marshal Ayub in 1969 came on the heels of mass agitation against Ayub whose regime was believed to have institutionalised corruption.
  • Yahya himself was deposed in 1971 by senior army and air force commanders when crowds took to the streets to condemn the army’s surrender to India in East Pakistan.
  • General Zia’s coup against the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) government of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in 1977 followed a nationwide protest about electoral rigging.
  • General Musharraf exploited popular sentiment that was building against Nawaz Sharif in 1999, despite the latter’s heavy mandate.

So here is the lesson; in countries with weak political institutions, the army is often the strongest and well-funded arm of the government. It arrogates to itself the right to judge what is and what is not in the national interest. Coups happen when the people accept the army’s supra-constitutional role to adjudicate political disputes.

With the re-election of Nawaz Sharif, Pakistan made its first successful transition from one elected government to another. Yet, the threat of a coup hangs in the air. If domestic politics sour, all eyes will be turned onto the army chief.

But Egypt and Pakistan are the outliers to an international trend away from military rule. For decades, juntas held sway in most Latin American countries.  And military rule was the norm in Indonesia and Turkey. However, all these countries eventually transitioned to democracy. How did this salubrious outcome materialise?

While each country’s transition had its own unique elements, a common element stands out; at some point the military lost its legitimacy as the final arbiter of political disputes. The people stopped believing in a myth that their militaries had interjected into the national psyche – an enemy stood at the gates and posed a mortal threat to the nation’s survival.

The myth persists in Egypt and Pakistan. Their people believe that the army is the only institution that can ward off this existential threat. The fact that neither the army has won a war against the external threat – Israel in the case of Egypt and India in the case of Pakistan – has not helped to slay the myth.

In fact, the armies have cleverly turned their numerous defeats into strategic advantage by countering that they should be regarded as victories since a far superior enemy carried out an aggressive act against them. In other words, were it not for the army, the situation would be dire.

In Pakistan, the doctrine of necessity has been used more than once by the generals in court to cloak treason with legitimacy.

President Sadat of Egypt, a soldier himself, made peace with Israel in 1979 after he became convinced of the futility of war. Two years earlier, he had flown into Jerusalem to address the Israeli parliament with a message of peace. President Jimmy Carter brought the leaders of Egypt and Israel together at Camp David a year later, but Egyptians never bought into the peace treaty. Sadat was gunned down while reviewing a military parade, giving the army yet another excuse to stay in power.

To this day, the Arab Street has not made peace with Israel, virtually guaranteeing that the army will stay in power. If the Egyptians crowds had been patient, they would have used the parliamentary process to change their leaders.

In Pakistan, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, now in his third term, is reaching out to India, as he did back in 1999.  There is no doubt that Pakistan desperately needs to make peace with India. There is no other way to reign in the militant hordes that have turned on Pakistan itself.

However, better than anyone else, Nawaz Sharif knows that he is performing the high-wire act.  If he can bring the people along with him, he will succeed and democracy will find a permanent home in Pakistan.

The risk is worth taking.


Dr Ahmad Faruqui

An economist and a political commentator based in San Francisco. Author of "Rethinking the National Security of Pakistan" and "Musharraf's Pakistan, Bush's America and the Middle East."

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Noor

    How true… only if the average Pakistani didn’t live in denial and actually has the blindfold removed-a blindfold place by the pak army/isi…then there may be a change in the national psyche against the imaginary terror of India that the army has ingrained deeply in the minds of pakistanis.Recommend

  • Anon

    @ Dr.Ahmad Faruqui

    I think this article of yours must be published in Urdu newspapers so that the common man on the street is also able to open his eyes.Recommend

  • Parvez

    You have side stepped the role played by foreign powers when such changes take place.

  • Dp

    @ Parvez

    I assume you’re refering to the taliban, funded by saudi money & also by isi operatives who recruit ignorant youth from madrassahs to replenish the taliban ranks? I’m afraid that not many people forsee that in a few decades,shariah may be established in pakistan by the taliban & isi. If this happens,pakistan will be dragged back to the dark ages,like Syria,afganistan,mali,somalia etc…Recommend

  • Ishtiaq Ahmed

    I fully agree with the author, Dr Ahmad Faruqui, we need to get out of this rut and fix our priorities correctly and those have to be economic growth which is inclusive. The psyche needs to be changed and that must begin with the educational system.Recommend

  • Iqbal Latif

    Legislation of morality and institution of a strongman are corner stone stratagem of Political Islam!!

    Zia-ul-Haq, Saddam, Assad Sr, Gaddafi, Khomeini and Mursi epitomise the culture of a strong man, that is theologically encouraged since inception of Islam. Legislation of morality is a primetime fascination of all ideological despots, this bordering maniacal intrusions in individual lives sustain the crumbling edifice of ideological monuments. Whips are the answer to this obsession of curbing immorality.

  • LYK

    I do agree with your commentary and analysis but as soon as peace talks proceed to a certain stage, someone rigs the process by creating a border incident or an occasional bomb or shooting. The process is so fragile, it breaks down until the next effort. Which may be another year or two away.

    Sometimes I wonder if these incidents are carefully planned to derail such efforts by some unnamed organization?Recommend

  • Shahid

    To answer your question of why some countries forsake democracy and look to the army for a solution. Samuel P. Huntington in his book Political Order in Changing Societies states:

    “The most important political distinction among countries,” Huntington writes, “concerns not their form of government but their degree of government.” In other words, strong democracies and strong dictatorships have more in common than strong democracies and weak democracies. Thus, the United States always had more in common with the Soviet Union than with any fragile, tottering democracy in the Third World. This, in turn, is because order usually comes before freedom — for without a reasonable degree of administrative order, freedom can have little value. Huntington quotes the mid-20th century American journalist, Walter Lippmann: “There is no greater necessity for men who live in communities than that they be governed, self-governed if possible, well-governed if they are fortunate, but in any event, governed.”

    So the answer to – how do we keep the army in the barracks? Give people governance, that’s all they ask, they do not care whether you wear a suit or sherwani or a uniform, all they want is good governance, a country where institutions work, damn the politicians let them play their games. Where institutions are staffed on merit and not political affiliation.

    If you win an election by 52 percent you still have to care about the 48% who did not vote for you. You cannot run roughshod over those who did not vote for you. True democracy is not just winning the elections it is about protecting and providing for the man with the smallest voice whether it is religious or ethnic. Once you understand this no army would dare to overthrow you.Recommend

  • bangash

    These generals cannot win battles let alone built a country.Recommend

  • Parvez

    @Dp: That sir / madam is your assumption………………..interesting.

  • nadeem

    citing the massive crowds who filled the streets of Cairo ….

    By this logic, the US Army could have used the million man march on Washington DC as a trigger for a coup. Also, back in 2004 when Bush was fighting for re-election, he was very unpopular. The US Army could have said “if thousands show up in DC to protest against Bush, we will take that as justification to topple him and install John Kerry, the democratic candidate”. Not thousands, probably millions would have showed up – he was that unpopular. But at the ballot box, Bush won and everyone accepted the result even reluctantly. Even though he continued with his crazy policies for four more years, and even though the great recession occurred on his watch, the military did not intervene. The system of checks and balances prevented him from running again in 2008, and a better person took the reins, and life went on. If this was Pakistan, a crazed general would have taken over for sure. Recommend

  • C. Nandkishore

    My analysis is different. Egypt and Pakistan cannot be compared. Right from the time of Pharaohs Egypt was king and subjects. It never had a middle level. No barons, no prince lings, etc to oppose the king. Therefore it was easily to rule. Just give the subjects food and a little religion. That is why Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak could rule for so long a time. In case of Pakistan the Muslim League was never wide spread like the Congress. It never held elections. Its leaders were not from the middle class. Consequently ML was a shell with no substance. Once it lost its shell collapsed. The only organisation in Pakistan was the army. It was easiest for it to take over. Recommend

  • RHS

    This article is fundamentally correct in its assessment. The fact that has been overlooked is that both countries have been financially struggling for decades and that the periodic US and Saudi help to military regimes is somehow perceived as “progress” being made under them. Recommend

  • N

    @ LYK
    I think you’re right… peace talks with India and the stability & economic progress that will flow isn’t in the interest of certain parties…so random atrocities are carried out at the border
    1. To derail peace talks
    2. To sow hatred in the mind of the average citizen and suspend peace talks for many more years

    Would you elaborate on what you mean,Sir ?Recommend

  • Parvez

    @N: Sure…………when coups take place in countries like Pakistan or Egypt to think that the major powers like America, England or even Russia (at one time) have no involvement is being deliberately naive.

  • Rashid

    @Iqbal Latif

    Interesting observation.Recommend

  • M. Emad

    93000 Pakistan Army members publicly unconditionally surrendered in 1971. Egyptian Army has no record of surrender in modern time.Recommend

  • Mazher Mehboob

    The seeds of conflict, envy and rivalry were sowed before Islam, between the two clans of Quresh, Banu Hashim and Banu Ummaya. The Conflict remains even after Islam to the present day. The envy with many other distruction’s lead to create, two biggest sects of Islam, Shia and Sunni and now the dysfunctional states and societies in Middle East and some parts of South Asia.

    More ReadingRecommend

  • sterry

    @M. Emad: To be fair, Pakistan has always fought an enemy much larger in number than itself unlike the Arabs. The population of India is at least 7-8 times greater than Pakistan. Also Pakistan has kept the larger Indian armies at bay for all wars except 1971. In fact, most observers would label all of the wars a draw except 1971. In many battles, the smaller Pakistani military gave better than they received. The 1971 War was the downfall of Pak military because the Pakistani army was fighting with one hand tied behind its back. On the one hand India was infiltrating and supporting a Bengali insurrection and within the ranks there was distrust of Bangali servicemen in uniform. Under these chaotic conditions, it is unfair to pass judgement on the skills of the army professionally but it is fair to say that the political decisions made by the military leaders were flawed. I think the whole Pakistani nation understands that the military leaders are the ones who have lead to the most disastrous decisions from Ayub Khan in 1971 or Zia in the Afghanistan war when he sold the country for nothing or to Musharraf when he instigated Kargil.Recommend

  • Maria

    @Noor: I think that a new level of maturity has developed in Pakistan which has allowed democracy to be given a chance. At the same time, the role of the army as a professional force to guard the nation is never questioned. Our Indians friends like you forget that Pakistanis do not just see an imaginary terror in India, we know only too well what goes on in occupied Kashmir and what India is orchestrating across the border from its ally in Afghanistan. The experience of 1971 only showed Pakistan that it has ever right to worry about Indian state terrorism.Recommend