The Military and the Mullahs

Owen Bennett-Jones on army rule in Egypt and Pakistan

On 4 October 1954 Pakistan’s army chief General Ayub Khan passed the hours of a sleepless night at the Dorchester Hotel in London writing ‘A Short Appreciation of Present and Future Problems of Pakistan’. It ran to 2500 words and outlined the general’s views on how best to manage a country that had existed for seven years but had been unable to agree a constitution. Fifty-two years later, Abdel Fatah el-Sisi composed a remarkably similar document. His 5000-word ‘Democracy in the Middle East’ was written at the US Army War College. Both essays are filled with the kind of breezy generalisations that can still be heard over the clink of whisky glasses in army officers’ mess rooms in the developing world. ‘Our people are mostly uneducated and our politicians not so scrupulous,’ Ayub Khan wrote, regretting that it was ‘too late to resile from universal suffrage, however great its shortcomings’. Sisi had similar misgivings: ‘It is one thing to say that democracy is a preferred form of government but quite another to adjust to its requirements and accept some of the risks that go with it.’

All the many military rulers in Pakistan and Egypt have expressed such views. And all of them have used the ‘national interest’ to justify being in power. They talk less often about their own institutional interests but occasionally they let down their guard. On 3 December 2011 Egypt’s official news agency published a story that quoted the minister of defence’s assistant for financial affairs, General Mahmoud Nasr. ‘The armed forces,’ he said, ‘have lent the central bank $1 billion.’ The state-run agency didn’t ask the general any of the many questions his statement raised but a few months later he made another public announcement: ‘Our money does not belong to the state,’ he said,

it is the sweat of the Ministry of Defence from the revenue of its enterprises … We will not allow the state to intervene in it … We will fight for our economic enterprises and we will not quit this battle. We will not leave our thirty-year sweat for somebody else to ravage it, and we will not allow anybody to come near the armed forces’ projects.

While it may be stretching a point to suggest that Egypt’s successive military-backed regimes have been driven by the profit motive, it is incontestable that the military’s economic interests give officers a reason to fear democratic accountability.

It is difficult to know just how far the militarisation of the Egyptian economy has gone, but retired Egyptian officers are often to be found running farms, tourist hotels and supermarkets. They are protected from competition by a plethora of hidden subsidies: tax breaks, easy access to bank loans and the services of the military police to break inconvenient strikes; labour activists sometimes end up in military courts. Yet when senior officers survey their business empires they seem not to be aware that the playing field has been tilted in their favour: instead they congratulate themselves on their personal abilities. Their profits, they believe, demonstrate the superiority of the military mind and the organisational skills that come with a life of discipline and hard work. In Pakistan the two biggest army businesses are the Fauji Foundation and the Army Welfare Trust. The Fauji Foundation’s assets include sugar mills, chemical plants and fertiliser factories, as well as one of Pakistan’s biggest financial institutions, the Askari Bank. These and other similar military corporations that exist on a national scale are, for all practical purposes, run from GHQ.

There are, even so, important differences in the nature of military power in Egypt and Pakistan. For all the talk of rogue elements in the lower and middle ranks of the ISI, the Pakistan army has complete control of the country’s most powerful intelligence agency. Neither the police nor any of the agencies under civilian control – Intelligence Bureau, the FIA – can match the ISI’s willingness and capacity to use force to influence domestic politics. In Egypt, by contrast, the Interior Ministry’s security apparatus has emerged as a rival to military power. The army consequently saw the Arab Spring as an opportunity to reassert the authority which, since the heady days of Nasser, had steadily been ceded to other state institutions. Also significant is the greater willingness of the Egyptian military to confront, imprison and even kill not only Islamists but liberals as well. Nonetheless, what the two systems have in common remains more important than what divides them. In both countries, ‘deep states’ have emerged in which serving and retired army, police and intelligence officials, together with senior bureaucrats and millionaire crony capitalists, have taken it on themselves to protect what they see as the higher interests of the nation. Mubarak may have fled to his home on the Red Sea but activists continued to be followed by the same internal intelligence agents as before. Whatever was happening at the top, the deep state remained intact. When revolutionary protesters ransacked sensitive government offices, security personnel were posted outside to prevent any files being removed. In Pakistan there are similar hidden forces that see it as their duty to defend the country’s nuclear weapons and to keep India at bay. Thus, whenever a civilian government seems set on making peace with India, state-controlled militants mount cross-border attacks – the raid on India’s Pathankot army base in January is the latest instance.

Yet for all their skill in amassing wealth and power, the Pakistan and Egyptian armies preside over dysfunctional states incapable of enforcing the rule of law, providing basic health services, building schools or creating jobs. In 2015, Pakistan ranked 147 out of 188 countries in the UNDP’s Human Development Index. Gross national income per head stood at $4454 and life expectancy at 66.2. While it’s true that military governments in Pakistan have tended to produce higher growth rates than civilian ones, army officers bear a large part of the blame for these terrible figures. To take just one example, the military’s determination to block the development of trade with India until there is political movement on the Kashmir issue has constrained successive civilian governments. As both Asif Ali Zardari and Nawaz Sharif know, enabling free trade with India would probably do more than any other policy decision to enable Pakistan to raise the living standards of its people. But the army blocked both men’s attempt to make it happen. The Egyptian military has similarly shown little interest in those parts of the economy it doesn’t own. A US diplomatic dispatch released by WikiLeaks in 2008 shows how the Egyptian army and in particular the minister of defence, Field Marshal Tantawi, think. ‘In the cabinet,’ it read, ‘where he still wields significant influence, Tantawi has opposed both economic and political reforms that he perceives as eroding central government power. He is supremely concerned with national unity.’ As for General Sisi, he has said nothing to indicate that he would be any more successful than Tantawi in implementing an economic policy that would create the jobs young Egyptians need. On the contrary he looks set to remain dependent on sources of income derived from Egypt’s natural resources and geostrategic location: Suez Canal revenues, oil, gas and foreign aid. Egypt currently ranks 108 in the UNDP index.

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[*] The Pakistan Paradox: Instability and Resilience (Hurst, 684 pp., £20, June 2015, 978 1 8490 4329 8).