Can Muslim governments free themselves from their countries’ powerful militaries and establish civilian control comparable to that found in liberal democracies? This question is now paramount in countries as disparate as Egypt, Pakistan, and Turkey.
To predict how this struggle will play out, it helps to understand the region’s past. Since Islam’s founding in the seventh century, it has maintained a tradition of deep military engagement in politics and governance. Indeed, Islam’s increasing military prowess helped it to spread rapidly around the world.
The military was responsible for Islam’s implantation throughout the Middle East, as well as in Persia, Southern Europe, and the Indian sub-continent. And once a Muslim state was established in newly conquered lands, the military became integral to its governance.
The military’s incorporation into the state was most prominent in the Ottoman Empire, whose rulers created a new type of military force that drew its manpower mostly from Islamic-ruled parts of Europe. These Janissaries (Christian boys conscripted to serve in Ottoman infantry units) were either recruited from Europe or abducted from countries under Ottoman control.
Janissaries were not allowed to marry or to own property, which prevented them from developing loyalties outside of the imperial court. But, after these restrictions were removed in the sixteenth century, and up until their extermination in the nineteenth century, the Janissaries became extremely powerful in Istanbul (and even established their own dynasty in Egypt).
Military domination in Muslim countries survived right up to the fall of the Ottoman Empire in the early twentieth century. The colonial powers that filled the vacuum left by the declining empire had their own militaries, and therefore did not need local forces to govern. But when Europeans withdrew from the Muslim world in the twentieth century, these forces rushed back in to wrest control of politics.
The military rose to power in Egypt, Pakistan, and other Arab countries in the early and mid-twentieth century. In Turkey, the military proclaimed itself the guardian of the secular Republic of Turkey, founded in 1923 by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, himself a military man.
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Today, the revolutions rocking much of the Muslim world are bedeviled by Islam’s military past. In the first phase of these popular uprisings, those who had been politically and economically excluded began to demand inclusion and participation. Now a second phase is underway, marked by a serious effort to divest the old military establishment of its power. This struggle is manifesting itself in different ways in Egypt, Turkey, and Pakistan.
In Egypt, the military’s takeover of the political transition after the ouster of former President Hosni Mubarak is unacceptable to Muslim and secular forces alike. Most Egyptians want the soldiers to leave politics and return to their barracks.
Essam el-Erian, whose Islamist Freedom and Justice Party recently won the most seats in Egypt’s parliamentary elections, recently said that the Muslim Brotherhood (to which the party is closely tied), does not expect the military rulers to relinquish power voluntarily. They will have to be persuaded to leave, and, if that does not work, forced out. The parliament’s first step in ultimately removing them would be to defend its authority to choose the members of a planned 100-person constitutional assembly.
Meanwhile, in Turkey, the Justice and Development Party, which has strong roots in the country’s Islamic tradition, is now seeking to limit the military’s role. The armed forces, however, claim a constitutional mandate to protect the Republic’s secular traditions. And Turkey’s generals have intervened in politics several times to defend Kemalism – Atatürk’s secular ideology of modernization that pushed Islamic Turkey towards European-style liberalism.
But, of the three countries, Turkey has most successfully demilitarized its politics. The charismatic prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, having won three consecutive elections, has been able to exert his authority over the military. Controversially, he has jailed the army’s top general, İlker Başbuğ, whom Turkish prosecutors have accused – many say implausibly – of plotting to overthrow the government.
Finally, Pakistan’s military, which has governed the country for half of its 64-year history, is fighting hard to retain influence over policymaking. Humbled by its inability to control United States military operations, including the one that killed Osama bin Laden, the army is struggling to play a hand in the country’s evolving relations with India and the US. Nevertheless, wary of provoking widespread hostility, military leaders have indicated recently that they have no intention of intervening in politics.
Since the Arab Spring began, four long-established regimes have been removed, while others are under increasing pressure, giving ordinary Arabs hope that their demands will no longer be ignored, and that those who govern will be mindful of citizens’ needs. But that – the real revolution – will happen only when true representatives of citizens, rather than the military, begin to set their countries’ political course.