Ongoing debates surrounding the categorization of Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi's July 3 ouster from office -- whether it qualified as a military coup or a democratic uprising -- are best left to think tanks. What Egypt needs, according to its geography, population size and economic condition, is stability, and this stability is best achieved through the centralization of strong state power and control. History bears this out; the pharaohs were able to build an empire on the banks of a river coursing through the desert under such a model. Subsequent foreign occupiers took heed of the pharaonic example, instituting a strong centralized authority backed with military might. Gamal Abdel Nasser's military coup overthrew the monarchy in 1952, establishing the latest iteration of a stable, independent Egyptian state.
The presence of a democratic political system along the lines of a Western-style liberal democracy is at best an arbitrary indicator of stability for many Middle Eastern governments, particularly Egypt. And for a region that is facing the United States' diminishing direct engagement, this stability is key. Whatever its motivation, when Egypt's military expelled Morsi, it largely guaranteed two of Washington's key interests: namely, that it will not attack Israel, and more important, it will keep the Suez Canal free and clear to international trade. As Morsi has no doubt learned by now, little else regarding the domestic politics and policies of the Egyptian state affects the decision making of the United States or other Western powers as long as the military-backed order is maintained.
The events of the past week have established a difficult precedent for the military and its management of the Egyptian state. Since the 2011 unrest that preceded the ouster of former President Hosni Mubarak, Egyptian society has increasingly looked to public protest and social unrest as a legitimate means of affecting political change, at least outwardly. While the military has remained the final arbiter of power, its position has become less secure following each wave of unrest.
The 18 months of direct military rule after Mubarak's removal from office brought Egypt's generals into direct competition with the aspirations of Egypt's youth movements, culminating in large-scale protests in January 2012that led to the call for elections. Those elections brought Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood to power. When state security forces joined protesters during the Port Said riots of early 2013, the military again had to intervene to ensure domestic stability and security, again setting a precedent of direct involvement that ran counter to nearly 50 years of indirect state management through a pliant political front party.
With the fall of Morsi's government, the military has again stepped into a very public and difficult role of having to reconcile the various political factions of the Egyptian public while maintaining its own interests, within the geopolitical constraints of the Egyptian state. The democratic system that led to the installment of Morsi's government failed to harness or contain the proliferation of street politics that emerged after Mubarak's fall. If ongoing Islamist protests against the military's most recent political roadmap are any indication, it doesn't appear Egypt's generals will have much more success managing the country's emergent protest culture. A distracted Egyptian military and an increasingly restive Egyptian population do not bode well for domestic, or regional, stability.
The Middle East's Need for Strong Leadership
Democracy is often touted by Western pundits as an ideal for Middle Eastern states, but the reality of the democratic process often results in outcomes that undermine Western and international interests in the region. Post-Gadhafi Libya has had relative success in holding elections and convening an elected government largely representative of the various regions and political currents within the country. However, the General National Congress has failed to reach consensus or extend its authority beyond the confines of the building where it meets. The inability of the central government or its military to impose its will on strong local centers has prevented the re-emergence of a Libyan strongman like Gadhafi, but it has also hampered the establishment of a permanent government to manage the Libyan state, including imposing Gadhafi-era stability.
The result has been fluctuating oil production, ongoing violence in regional centers such as Benghazi and general lawlessness in its vast swathes of desert territory, the latter of concern to Westerners seeking to limit the expansion of regional Islamist militant organizations. Libya's democratic experiment has resulted in a central government that is not convincingly stronger than any of its regional power centers -- Libya is now much more a collection of competing power centers than a centralized state. We can understand the constraints of Egypt's generals preventing them from flirting with such a system.
Unlike Libya, Iran's political system presents a case study in which democratic practices help cement strong centralized authority, and by extension, stability in the region. Like Egypt, Iran's political system features an element of stability that persists beyond the time frame of individual presidents or administrations in the role of the supreme leader, himself a representative of a broader military-clerical partnership. Unlike the Egyptian military, however, the Iranian supreme leader's role is formally acknowledged within the Iranian Constitution, which at least on paper provides a system of checks and balances and a system of nominating and removing him from office if need be.
Iran's democratic system has allowed for enough competition for power within its system to prevent the Islamic republic from coalescing around one figure or one institution, and it is exactly this competition for authority that has helped the regime endure through two supreme leaders and several presidents. Though not directly elected, Iran's supreme leader helps ensure the continuation of key Iranian policy throughout the course of different presidential administrations, though as outgoing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's second term has shown us, presidents are not the pawns of the supreme leader.
But more than anything else, Iran's stability draws on its geographic identity and relative security. With its mountainous geography helping to define a millennia-old Persian identity, Iran has persisted even after several waves of invasion. Iran's rugged territory and the various ethnic and linguistic groups that it supports favor a strong centralized power tempered with localized self-rule under the Persian administrative system. In short, the historical legacy of Persian administration is reflected in modern Iran's unique democratic system; by creating a venue for competition between various political factions, it leaves the military-clerical elite better able to contain this opposition and impose order. Egypt lacks any such system, thereby ensuring that large-scale unrest rather than organized political competition will continue to limit the military's options in managing the Egyptian state.
The Military's Geopolitical Reality
Egypt's borders, like those in most of the Arab world, are artificial boundaries drawn up by European powers through large stretches of featureless desert. Unlike many of its neighbors, Egypt boasts a largely homogenous population and a well-defined geographic core: the Nile Valley. But Egypt's geography presents challenges as well.
Much like ancient Egypt, modern Egypt features very densely populated strips of population living along the Nile surrounded by large regions of desert. Egypt's geographical reality has long shaped its political necessities, favoring a strong centralized authority with the organizational skill to control and move large groups of people around difficult terrain. Infrastructure is costly to develop, and while the Nile can support a large population, it requires labor- and management-intensive irrigation systems and food distribution schemes to ensure there is enough wheat and bread to go around. Egypt's military has for the past five decades moved comfortably into the role previously held by strong foreign occupiers and Egypt's original rulers, although the population growth of recent years has added significant strain to the military's ability to manage its population's needs given Egypt's limited economic resources.
The challenge for Egypt's military now is whether it can continue to maintain its monopoly on authority. Like the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood's related parties in Jordan, Algeria, Tunisia and Turkey, Egypt's military regime also inspired similar military-backed governments in the Arab world, from Algeria to Iraq. The past decade has not been good to these secular military regimes -- there was the ouster of Saddam Hussein, a popular uprising against the Syrian Baathist regime and the dissolution of the Algerian military's monopoly on power. The Egyptian military's continued dominance over domestic affairs, although challenged in recent years, is increasingly becoming anomalistic rather than part of a larger regional trend.
The tide is slowly but surely shifting against Nasser's military-backed secular Arab nationalist political system. Egypt's has remained the most entrenched in the region, but in the face of rising social discontent and the political aspirations of its population, Egypt's military faces a difficult long-term scenario: adapt and loosen its hold on power to survive as in Algeria and Turkey, or resist and risk being overthrown as seen in the Baathist republics of Syria and Iraq.
For decades, the military-dominated political system in Egypt faced little in the way of meaningful challenges to its authority and prestige. Even now, the military remains the most powerful institution within the state even if some of its influence and political maneuverability has declined. But the rising instability following the unrest of 2011 has forced the military out of its preference -- ruling behind a political proxy -- into more directly addressing the challenges of the state.
Egypt's opposition is lauding the military involvement that lead to Morsi's ouster, but the 18 months of military rule after the fall of Mubarak's regime illustrated how quickly public sentiments could turn against Egypt's generals.Morsi's defiant speech in refusal of the military's demands that he step down would have been unthinkable a decade ago. And with the Muslim Brotherhood again in the role of the opposition, the Egyptian military is sure to face rising challenges to its goal of quietly guaranteeing the security and stability of the Egyptian state from behind the scenes, even as economic, energy and food security problems continue to mount.
Egypt's military leadership cannot move the country back in time, before the proliferation of independent political parties and protest culture took hold. The military's acquiescence to public demands, albeit in line with its own desire to limit the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood, came at the expense of validating large-scale unrest as a legitimate form of political participation, ultimately limiting the military's own actions in the future. The results of Egypt's democratic experiment of the past few years has left the Arab world's most populous state and strongest military facing serious indigenous competition for authority for the first time in its modern history. As the Muslim Brotherhood and the democratic process continue to weaken the military's absolute hold on power, the stability of the Egyptian state and the broader region will increasingly come into question.