Egyptians, the Army Is Not Your Quick Fix

Some Egyptians see military rule as a solution to their problems. Here's why it's a bad idea.

Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images
Daniel Berehulak/Getty Images

As Egypt struggles to cope with economic turmoil and political divisions, citizens are increasingly seeking alternatives to the current Muslim Brotherhood government. Discontent with the religious tenor of Islamist rule and rhetoric under Mohammed Morsy, some opponents of the current Egyptian government are now looking to the military for help, viewing the military as a legitimate political actor that could intervene and save the country before the Muslim Brotherhood’s government becomes entrenched. 

These pleas sound remarkably similar to those used by Brazilians, Chileans, Argentines, Paraguayans, and Uruguayans who were discontent with their own governments in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. Their tortured histories provide powerful reminders of what can happen when people turn to the military as a country’s savior. During the second half of the 20th century, military regimes in Brazil, Chile, Argentina, Paraguay, and Uruguay, all came to power in ways that many Egyptians now seem keen to emulate. However, far from "saving" their societies, these military regimes relied on political repression, torture, and state-sponsored terrorism, even while reaffirming the economic policies that created instability and led to a "lost decade" for the region in the 1980s. 

Brazil is perhaps one of the clearest examples of how reliance on the military as a political intervener can have drastic and unexpected results. The military had been a key player in national politics since the 19th century. As a result, when inflation reached 100 percent in 1964 and then-President João Goulart was turning further to the left, those opposed to Goulart’s politics and troubled by the economic instability once again turned to the military, believing it could once again intervene and stabilize the country before returning to the sidelines. The military acted. 

On March 31, 1964, an army general led his troops to Rio de Janeiro; by April 1, the rest of the military had joined in support of the coup, and Goulart was in exile in Uruguay. The military had once again stepped in to stabilize the situation; another episode of intervention that dated back to the end of the Empire and the foundation of the First Republic in 1889. Interventions also included the installation of Getúlio Vargas as president in 1930, the creation of Vargas’s Estado Novo [New State] dictatorship in 1937, and the attempt to prevent progressive Vice President Goulart from becoming president in 1961 when acting president Janio Quadros resigned, among other instances.

Military intervention in 1964, however, took a different path than in past years. Having determined on several occasions that politicians could no longer be trusted to govern Brazil, the generals remained in power, stripping opposing politicians of their political rights, curbing democratic practices, and employing torture and police violence. 

As the military strengthened its hold on politics, members of the middle class, led by a visible student movement that was too young to "appreciate" the regime, started protesting the absence of democracy. In response, the regime entered its most repressive phase, closing down Congress indefinitely, expanding its use of torture, and escalating censorship. Even while state repression increased, many Brazilians celebrated their economic "miracle" that saw over 10 percent annual growth on average between 1967 and 1973. However, such growth was chimerical, and economic instability increased throughout the remainder of the 1970s. And although the "moderates" (sometimes labeled the "Sorbonne school" for their ties to military thought and writings on national security) returned to power in 1974, by that point the military regime’s security apparatuses had already tortured thousands and killed hundreds, with tens of thousands in exile.

In 1974, the military began the process of slowly (and sometimes reluctantly) easing its grip on society, as the "moderate" military faction (which had still employed torture and political repression in the 1964-67 period) returned to power after seven years of rule by the competing hard-liner faction. Among many differences, the "moderates" originally expected their intervention to be relatively brief in order to stabilize Brazilian politics; the hardliners believed that a longer period of military control and greater political, social, and cultural intervention and control was necessary to undo what they believed to be the pernicious effects of partisan politics in Brazil. When President Ernesto Geisel (1974-79) took office, he initiated what he himself called a "slow, gradual" return to democracy, with an emphasis on the "slow" — it would take 11 years for the process to play out.

But Brazil wasn’t an isolated case. The election of socialist candidate Salvador Allende in 1970 accelerated the political polarization that had been taking place in Chile. Economic instability and radicalization among workers led many from the middle and upper classes to call on the armed forces to defend the country. In September 1973, the military did just that, bombing the presidential palace and overthrowing Allende. Many expected that Chile, one of the region’s stronger democracies, would quickly return to a civilian government. Instead, Augusto Pinochet, who claimed the role of president after the coup, strengthened his hold on the executive branch, launching a repressive campaign that killed around 3,000 civilians and "subversives" while torturing tens of thousands more.

Civilians were also quick to turn to the military in Argentina to save them from political and economic turmoil. As the country deteriorated into armed conflict between right-wing paramilitary groups and leftist organizations in the mid-1970s, business leaders, political parties, and the Church met with military officials, asking them to intervene to stabilize the situation. In 1976, the military launched a coup that received little opposition from most political parties. The end result was a brutal regime that killed as many as 30,000 people (and tortured tens of thousands more) before collapsing in 1983.

By the mid-1970s, these regimes were endemic throughout the Southern Cone of South America. Paraguayan general Alfredo Stroessner came to power in the 1954 coup. With the complicity of Paraguay’s conservative party, Stroessner did indeed create political stability of a sort, ruling as a dictator for the next 35 years, relying on a perpetual state of siege that targeted anybody labeled "subversive" and tha
t ultimately killed around 4,000 alleged "subversives" and tortured thousands more. And in Uruguay, as urban violence and civil strife wracked the country in the early 1970s, the military took power in 1973, imposing widespread censorship and arresting, torturing, and killing those who opposed the regime.

Certainly, each of these military regimes marked crises in democratic processes and in the respect for basic human rights. Yet their failures were not merely political. People had turned to the military to create economic stability as well, but the military regimes also failed in that respect. Throughout the region, military economic policies created systems of unequal wealth, as the gap between the rich and poor increased dramatically. Wealth was increasingly concentrated in the hands of the few, even while inflation and foreign debt shot up astronomically, setting the stage for Latin America’s financial crisis, its "lost decade" of the 1980s. 

Oftentimes, this was the result of neoliberal economic policies, most notably in the cases of Chile and Argentina. Yet neoliberalism was not a requirement for economic failure in South American dictatorships (nor was it inherent in economic of military regimes throughout the world in this period). Indeed, in Brazil, the military dictatorship maintained statist policies and control in many economic sectors, yet even those policies exacerbated already-significant socioeconomic inequalities in Brazilian society, even while sending the country into mounting debt that would lead to economic turmoil throughout much of the 1980s and into the 1990s. Whether it was through neoliberalism or statism, military intervention in South America failed to create any long-term economic stability for a majority of their populations even while they eroded democratic processes and impinged upon basic human rights.

Nor does Egypt need to look all the way to South America to understand the military’s role in helping create conditions of repression. Although the Egyptian Revolution of 1952 originally set out to overthrow the king and establish a democracy, it ultimately paved the way for Gamal Abdel Nasser to govern for 18 years with military support. Likewise, former president Hosni Mubarak was able to govern for so long while stifling dissent, with security apparatuses imprisoning people without charges, and employing torture against opponents of the regime. And while the economy grew in Egypt under Nasser and Mubarak, it did so in an increasingly liberalized economy that witnessed increasingly uneven wealth distribution even as issues like a 72 percent literacy rate continue to cause problems.

To be clear, this is not to say the two cases — South America and Egypt — are perfectly analogous. In those South American countries where military regimes existed, it was in the context of Cold War political polarization and early neoliberal globalization, in contrast to the entrenched neoliberalism of the 21st century. Likewise, South American countries generally had democratically-elected or constitutional presidents and at least some history of electoral politics at the national level, even if it was often limited. And even between these countries, the political histories varied widely, from Chile’s and Uruguay’s generally strong histories of democracy to the more frequent military interventions in Brazil’s and Argentina’s histories. When civilians in South America called for military intervention in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, it was couched in the language of Cold War ideologies rather than 21st century politico-religious terms.

Nonetheless, in each of the South American cases, military regimes came to power with the support, both tacit and explicit, of important sectors of civilian society. Whether it was middle-class housewives, business elites, political parties, the Catholic Church, or just those tired of political turmoil, people in South America turned to the military to temporarily step in and create economic and political stability, just as Morsy’s opponents are doing today. Yet in each case, what resulted were political policies that led to censorship, repression, torture, state-sponsored terror, and the "disappearing" of bodies, alongside economic policies that sent the region into a tailspin of rising debt and inflation.

Instead of providing stability and democracy, these military regimes ushered in repression that was disruptive politically, socially, and economically. As millions of Brazilians, Chileans, Argentines, Paraguayans, and Uruguayans can testify: When society turns to the military to serve as its political and economic savior, it often ends up sacrificing democracy, human rights, and economic development in the name of an elusive stability. These are the lessons that Latin America’s 20th century holds for Egypt.

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