Is becoming Pakistan the best Egypt can hope for?

By Ian Bremmer
July 11, 2013

After the events in Egypt this past week, some in Washington are debating whether to call a coup a coup. The better question: Was the upheaval that toppled Hosni Mubarak in 2011 really a revolution? Think of what Egypt was before and after the fall of Mubarak, and what it is now. Before the Arab Spring the military was Egypt’s most critical political body, a stabilizing force in a country of weak politicians and weaker governance. That never changed. In fact, it hasn’t changed much in the past 60 years. The same military has deposed Mohamed Mursi, and whether it did so because the people demanded it or because the military wanted it is beside the point. Mursi is gone, the Constitution offers no effective oversight of the military, and the fate of the country still rests with a few select generals.

As we ponder Egypt’s foreseeable future, there are no attractive options. Egypt’s least worst option? Pakistan — if it should be so lucky. Things in Egypt are now so bad that resembling Pakistan is as good as it can realistically get any time soon. The worst possibility: outright state failure.

The outcome is in the military’s hands. Egypt’s situation already bears similarities to Pakistan’s, where the military is central, broadly popular, and the country’s primary economic force. In both countries, the military understands that actually running the country — or at least being seen as running the country — is the worst way to consolidate power while avoiding public fury when things go wrong.

Today, the main difference with Pakistan’s military is that Egypt’s is now seen as responsible for the day-to-day functioning of governance. The generals will once again go for the Goldilocks approach to forming a civilian government, one that is not too strong but not too weak. It has to be resolute enough to earn a reputation for competence (this is where Mursi and the Muslim Brotherhood fell short), but docile enough to not sideline the military or curb its privileges. Most importantly, the new government needs to seem sufficiently independent to take flak and “own” the blame for any economic woes. The last thing the military wants is for the next wave of protestors to aim their anger at the army.

Can the military pull this off? Can it empower a government that earns enough public confidence to restore stability to the country and allows the military to distance itself from economic management and domestic politics? There are plenty of looming obstacles. The military’s killing of more than 50 pro-Mursi protestors underscores the growing rift between the Muslim Brotherhood and armed forces. It’s not hard to imagine a scenario in which the military, claiming the Muslim Brotherhood is evolving into an insurgency, chooses to again make the party illegal, as it was under Mubarak.

The military is in a race against the clock. The interim transitional government has laid out a timetable for new elections that is undeniably too ambitious. The six month timeline leaves only four months for redrafting the Constitution — a process that is destined to take much longer. The chance of protracted civil conflict is very real and growing.

But don’t rule out the military’s success. In the wake of the coup, two supportive Gulf countries — Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — sent a clear message with their checkbooks. Aid to the tune of $8 billion demonstrated that the military is the perceived best bet to provide stability in a country that is too big to fail.

Of course, the Pakistan model is a very low bar to set for governance. Pakistan has been racked with internal security issues, and a democratically-elected government successfully finished its entire term for only the first time this year. Egypt has another critical difference from Pakistan, one that comes with great risks and rewards: there is an empowered, vocal, active civil society. The “rebel” signature of the protests is what made Mursi’s ouster possible; a similar civil activism is what drove out Mubarak too.

It is this active civil society that complicates the military’s path from here to a Pakistan model of governance. But while Egypt is a far way off from having the kind of democratic elections that we celebrate in emerging markets like Brazil and Turkey, it possesses a similar type of civil society—one that could, in the future, make such a system possible.

In the meantime, it’s best to hope the military has firm dominion over the country and can avoid violent crisis in its bid to establish a viable government.

PHOTO: A religious scholar kisses an army officer as a greeting before talking to him in front of the Egyptian museum where Egyptian army soldiers stand guard in Cairo July 9, 2013. REUTERS/Asmaa Waguih 

 

11 comments

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Seriously are you delusional, Egypt is vastly different from the failed state of Pakistan. We have neither tribes, nor factions, we never had a civil war in 7000 years, but of course leave it to an American to tell us more about ourselves. Racism comes in different ways, or are you just working for the CIA

Posted by goldnile | Report as abusive

Egypt will fare better and not become Pakistan as the ground realities are totally different. The only similarity being the role of military in internal affairs.
1. Pakistan has hostile neighbors on three sides: India, Iran and Afghanistan and more hostile neighbors like Muscat and UAE some 200 miles across the sea from Gawadar.
2. Totally ineffective post-colonial policing and weak state institutions. Pakistan couldn’t come out of slave mindset as the 26 families that betrayed locals and joined forces with the British imperialists were highly rewarded and still dominate the political landscape. They will never let the reforms to take place.
3. Most of the people in military are from the lower middle classes and it’s easier for them also also for the masses to identify with each other.
4. ISI is what it is today because of the above reasons. As regards internal affairs, it cannot trust the totally inefficient police. Whenever it shared information about terrorists with the police, the police let them escape for bribes or fear of confrontation.
5. Pakistan did not fail and will never. Why? America is not letting it fail and pouring billions since 1960′s. This is something which I clearly understand as all historical facts point to it. What I don’t understand is, why is America always in a love-hate relation with Pakistan and always giving and forgiving Pakistan. Probably, love is blind.

Posted by MohiHashmi | Report as abusive

This is a disservice to Pakistan, who prior to 9/11, did not possess any such security concerns that their Arab neighbors are currently facing.

Posted by AneesR | Report as abusive

The Constitution offers no effective oversight of the executive, Morsi in this case. Just like the US where the executive abrogates the constitution and laws while the other branches aid and abet the rape of the constitution. Just because a constitution has a mechanism does not mean it works. This is why the people of Egypt had enough, just like the US citizens that are about fed up with tyranny.
The “coup” happened long ago in Egypt when Morsi veered off the constitutional road into the a ditch. Must have been studying Obama.

Posted by JP007 | Report as abusive

The reason Egypt, as well as Pakistan, have trouble with governance is because they are Sunni Muslims. Sunni’s are the violent branch of Islam, and all suicide bombers come from the Sunni branch of Islam. You never hear of a Shiite or Sufi suicide bomber.

My point is, because of the Sunni’s intolerance, they cannot agree on anything. They always need a stick wacked over there head. Some may think that what Im saying is racist, but look at it.

Iran has a Islamic Government for 35 years now. They are enemies with the US and Isreal, but they act like a rational state actor should. We may not like them, but they are a rational enemy.

Now look at Libya. We helped them in there supposed “revolution”, and they return the favor by killing our Ambassador. Remember, the people that killed the US Ambassador, as well as all the 9/11 terrorists, the Boston bombers, the UK bombers, the bombers in Spain, etc, etc, etc ARE ALL SUNNI!! Specifically DIRTY WAHHABI’S. The West needs to wake up and realize that we have been supporting the wrong side all along.

Posted by KyleDexter | Report as abusive

Let us keep out; the Muslims killing one another is best for the West. That was the way the Christian West learned religious wars are not nice and tolerance. In my world history textbooks said the 30 Years War killed half of Germany’s population.

Posted by Samrch | Report as abusive

Let us keep out; the Muslims killing one another is best for the West. That was the way the Christian West learned religious wars are not nice and tolerance. In my world history textbooks said the 30 Years War killed half of Germany’s population.

Posted by Samrch | Report as abusive

I believe both Egypt’s advantages and Pakistan’s disadvantages are given short shrift in this comparison. Mr. Bremmer glances at Egypt’s “active civil society” and does little more than conclude that it represents a clear present risk for military order, and only a vague distant reward for Egypt’s political future. If violent thuggery is excluded from a “civil” rubric, then I believe Egypt’s passionate civil political participation offers a panoply of opportunities and risk management potential for the Egyptian military. It is, in fact, one of the military’s prime political assets in this critical passage, one that can help it durably establish the contours of its role, powers and prosperity in Egyptian society. The Pakistani military could only dream of such a fertile civil substrate on which to anchor its political existence. Power in Pakistan cannot be neatly divided between the military, the government and the street–every wing of Pakistani influence and authority is imbricated and penetrated by its own enemies, whether it’s ISI-connected assassins of army commanders, or cynical Pashtun drug lords running with the Taliban. When bombs routinely rip through Egyptian marketplaces every week, killing dozens, when 30% of Egyptian territory is an ungoverned, indeed ungovernable, moonscape webbed with heroin smuggling routes, when leading figures of Egypt’s “active civil society” are predictably shot down in broad daylight like vermin, we may be able to speak of Egypt resembling Pakistan.

Posted by SkepticReader | Report as abusive

Ah, the “Arab Spring” with democracy in bloom. It seems the neo-cons with their fantasy worlds didn’t leave the Beltway with Dubya and Paul Wolfowitz.

Posted by ptiffany | Report as abusive

Pakistan is 1000 times better than Egypt. Egypt is nothing but a destroyed land.

Posted by Roger9x | Report as abusive

I can see here that Egyptians and Pakistanis both have taken offence to this comparison but I guess it is more or less relevant with resemblance in one area and contrasts in other;-

a) Pakistan was never ruled by a dictator for three decades and the kind of security apparatus that needs to be there for this could never be constructed.

b) Mubarak’s decades in office as a liberal fostered the massive pan-Egypt religious left wing. Whereas, in Pakistan the reverse happened under Zia ul Haq’s decade long rule. While he was able o Islamise the State, he spring loaded the liberal left wing (PPP).

In conclusion, Pakistan has seen turbulent times and things have been seriously shaken up in Egypt. One can only hope that things settle down in these countries.

Posted by HasanMian | Report as abusive