We’ve just seen a military coup in Egypt – what does recent history in the region say about what results we can expect from this kind of government upheaval? Looking at three examples since 1952, the outcome of a still standing, stable democratic government and economy remains elusive.
Since it won its independence from France in 1962, Algeria had a one-party political system dominated by the National Liberation From (FLN), an Algerian-nationalist (or more largely, Arab-nationalist) party of socialist ideology. Chadli Benjedid presided over the FLN starting in 1979, but economic instability and government corruption ensued throughout the 1980s triggering much public discontent aimed at the FLN and the Algerian political system in general. In an attempt to improve public standing, Benjedid implemented a new constitution outlawing Algeria’s socialist ideology and one-party system in 1989, after which new parties emerged into the Algerian political scene. The Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) proved to be the most popular as it capitalized on the public’s dissatisfaction with the instability and corruption of the FLN government. In December 1991, the FIS won a significant victory, beating the FLN in the first round of Algeria’s democratic parliamentary elections. However, before the January 1992 date of the second round of elections, in which the FIS was sure to succeed, the Algerian military staged a coup. President Benjedid resigned, as per the suggestion of the military, the second round of elections was canceled and Mohammed Boudiaf, a former FLN leader, was instituted as the new president.
Since the 1992 coup, Algeria has seen two decades of suffering with thousands killed and displaced, billions of dollars lost and no opposition party able to establish a significant political presence. The first presidential elections following the coup were held in 1995 in an attempt to legitimize the government and the presidency. However, candidates were limited to political parties legalized by the military government (this excluded the FIS) and the FLN continued its maintained parliamentary majority. Throughout the past decade, some governmental changes have been implemented in response to public unrest, but there is still a need for lasting significant improvements.
From Northern Africa to South Asia, on October 12, 1999, the Pakistani military overthrew the government and replaced Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif with Chief of Army Staff General Perver Musharraf. Tension between Sharif and his army chief Musharraf had long existed, particularly after Sharif’s unpopular 1999 decision to withdraw Pakistani troops from Kargil (the line that separated the Indian and Pakistani armies in the Himalayan Mountains). Fearing an impending military coup and acting on his personal feelings towards Musharraf, Sharif strategically dismissed Musharraf while the general was out of the country. When Musharraf returned to Pakistan that day, the 111th Brigade (a unit answerable only to the Chief of Army Staff, known for its enactment of previous Pakistani coups) surrounded Sharif’s residence and forcibly overthrew the government.
Musharraf presided over Pakistan until 2008. After voters overwhelmingly favored him, extending his rule in 2003 for another five years, his popularity had significantly diminished by the end of his presidency and he soon fell from power. In the 2008 elections, with Musharraf and his political actions already unpopular among Pakistanis, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) won the majority of parliamentary seats and proceeded to impeach Musharraf and force his resignation. Following Musharraf’s resignation, Asif Ali Zardari of the PPP was elected president and continues to preside today.
Finally, what we have seen in Egypt this summer is not the country’s first military coup. In July 1952 the Free Officers Movement, a group established in 1948 of army officers dedicated to the removal of the Egyptian monarchy, overthrew King Farouk and Egypt’s constitutional monarchy. The group of less than one hundred soldiers was led by Gamal Abdel Nasser and Muhammad Naguib, and held the support of both the United States and Soviet Union. Immediately following the coup, leading figures and those close to the monarchy were arrested while it was reported that there was a generally calm atmosphere in Egypt’s streets. The army explained its actions on Cairo radio, “The Army revolt was not merely a movement against the ex-King, but it has also been, still is, and always will be a force directed against corruption in all its forms… so that every individual could give his evidence in an atmosphere free of fear and in tranquility.”
Naguib was appointed president of the Revolutionary Command Council (RCC); established following the coup as Egypt’s ruling body. The RCC soon abolished all political parties, nullified the 1923 Egyptian Constitution and suffered from both internal and external conflict. The Muslim Brotherhood particularly countered the RCC and carried out street riots and other criminal activities in an attempt to gain popular support. Due to the conflict, Nasser replaced Naguib as president, dissolved the RCC and ordered mass arrests of the Muslim Brotherhood. During his fifteen-year rule, Nasser was largely unchallenged and did modernize some social measures (including granting women voting rights for the first time in Egypt’s history).
Anwar Sadat, vice president under Nasser, succeeded Nasser as Egypt’s president following his 1970 death. Sadat is remembered for his advancements of regional peace and was largely popular in Egypt until the end of his presidency, when he was assassinated in 1981 by an Egyptian army officer (who primarily disagreed with Sadat’s peace treaty with Israel). Mubarak, then vice president, succeeded Sadat and presided over Egypt until the 2011 Egyptian revolution when he was forced to resign.
What will become of the most recent ousted Egyptian president, Muhammad Morsi, the role of Egypt’s military in its government and the future of democracy in the country, remains to be seen. Egypt’s military recently appointed Adly Mansour, a little known judge of Egypt’s Supreme Constitutional Court, as interim president and has called for parliamentary elections in quick six months with a presidential election to follow. The Muslim Brotherhood continues to protest Morsi’s overthrow in a refusal to accept Mansour’s leadership and many Islamists fear the return to the suppressed lifestyle under autocratic rulers of Egypt’s past after the forced removal of the country’s first democratically elected president.
Take from historical precedents for coups in Algeria, Pakistan and Egypt what you may, two conservative organizations, AEI and Heritage, drew opposing conclusions regarding Egypt’s future in recent weeks.
AEI’s Michael Rubin defended coups in recent history that have overthrown democratically elected leaders and sees opportunity for freedom in Egypt in Morsi’s overthrow; “Coups may be signs of failure, but they can also be signs of rebirth. It is an irony of history that too much emphasis on the process of democracy sometimes leads to the opposite result. The Egyptian military may have ended Morsi’s ambition, but it has offered Egypt its last best chance to avoid Islamist dictatorship.”
Heritage’s Bryan Riley, on the other hand, proposed that it would take more than a change of presidents for Egypt to attain freedom, particularly economic freedom. “How many years must people in Egypt wait for opportunity to blossom in to their country?” Riley writes.
“The answer, quite simply, is until they’re allowed to be free.”
Time will tell.
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