Egypt’s Supreme Constitutional Court recently issued its verdict on the parliamentary elections law, ruling that not granting military personnel the right to vote would contravene the constitution. This decision was referred to the court by the Shura Council, the acting legislative body since the dissolution of the People’s Assembly, as part of the constitutionally mandated system of oversight. The court struck down other articles in the parliamentary elections law as well, taking issue with both the electoral districting system and the lack of a ban on religious propaganda during election campaigns. But it is the military ruling that is most problematic.
In a democratic system, military personnel are allowed to vote in elections but are either banned or discouraged from being members of political parties. This is the case in many countries around the world. Yet in Arab states, especially ones undergoing democratic transitions, the line between voting and party support can be very blurry.
Although the Supreme Constitutional Court’s ruling was made in accordance with the principles of democracy, military personnel should not be granted the right to vote until the country’s transitional phase has come to a close. The complications and challenges that accompany the process of democratic transformation in Egypt necessitate such a course.
Reactions to the court’s verdict can be divided into two groups. One perspective, expressed prominently by Mohamed ElBaradei, the iconic civilian opposition figure and leader of the Dostour Party, views it as a principled stand for democratic rights. ElBaradei and those of his opinion consider the court's decision to allow military personnel to vote to be in accordance with the practices of democratic systems.
Another perspective views the ruling as positive or negative based on how members of the military are expected to vote in elections.
Some believe that the majority of police and military personnel will choose civilian rather than strongmen candidates and, accordingly, have supported the court’s decision.
In contrast, nearly all Islamist leaders and parties are opposed to the idea of allowing military personnel to vote. The Muslim Brotherhood and its allied Islamist parties opposed the court’s decision as a result of their belief that police and military personnel will vote against them. Their decision to reject the verdict, therefore, was based largely on short-term political calculations.
But there are clearly deeper reasons to oppose such a move as well.
Military Central to Democratic Transition
The court’s ruling is not an entirely new development for Egypt. Still, the dangers of the decision are real given the country’s current, precarious state of democratic transition.
Military personnel enjoyed the right to vote before the 1952 revolution and during the rule of Gamal Abdel Nasser, when the military was penetrated by leftist, liberal, and Islamist organizations, including the Muslim Brotherhood. There was no significant political opposition to speak of, and the country was united under Abdel Nasser’s leadership. Military personnel could vote until the early 1970s, when the right was rescinded in the 1971 constitution.
Unlike the majority of European armies throughout the last century, militaries in the Arab world have been penetrated by political organizations, as was the case in the Egyptian army prior to the 1952 revolution. This led Arab countries to focus on building strong professional armies loyal to the state rather than the regime and on abolishing political organizations within the military. This was a central goal of the modern Egyptian state, and Abdel Nasser succeeded in this objective, restructuring the army on sound professional foundations. These efforts contributed to Egypt’s military successes against Israel in October 1973 and continue to resonate today.
Egypt thus began its democratic transition process already in possession of a national army. By contrast, Syria, Libya, and other African countries did not. They met their uprisings with armies that were tribal, sectarian, and ideological, loyal to the regime that had come under fire and not to the state as a whole. As a result, the revolutions weakened those militaries or caused them to collapse, and the states have paid a high price: the lives of hundreds of thousands of their citizens.
The Egyptian military remains an exception. And maintaining the military’s strength and cohesion is necessary for a successful democratic transition. The military has a special role to play in this phase; in Egypt, it defends the state not only from external threats but also from internal ones, such as the collapse of the political process due to the failure of the authorities, and perhaps also from the opposition.
In light of the present challenges, it is normal for legislators to harbor an excessive fear of seeing the military suffer from any possible weakness or division. It is also natural that they would express these fears while drafting the constitutional and legal frameworks governing the transitional phase.
There are numerous social, political, and cultural conditions that must be taken into account during times of transition. Moreover, the process of democratic transition and the rules of the resulting democratic system are not fixed; each society must make exceptions and take different approaches to establishing a democratic system. This applies to Egypt and the question of whether voting rights should be granted to military personnel.
The Pitfalls of Polarization
What the Constitutional Court has proposed is not to allow military personnel to join parties or engage in political activity but rather to permit them to exercise their right to vote as citizens of the country. Yet when soldiers and officers are allowed to vote, they develop individual loyalty to a party or political orientation.
This is normal in a stable democracy when divisions between different parties are not radical, as in the case of Democrats and Republicans in the United States. But that is not the case in Egypt. Some describe the governing party as a “Muslim Brotherhood occupation” and characterize others in the opposition as “hired agents and traitors.” This climate of polarization has a significant impact on the military.
It is astonishing that some people forget that the strength of the army lies in its full impartiality toward all political parties. Some groups today insist on seeing the military aligned with a political party, but this ignores the fact that the uprising succeeded because the military abandoned then president Hosni Mubarak and rejected its pre-1952 legacy of penetration by various political forces.
What would have happened in Egypt in February 2011 if the army had been controlled by political parties, divided among pro-Mubarak, pro–Muslim Brotherhood, and pro-civilian elements? These groups would have turned against each other, as factions did in neighboring countries, and Egypt would have come to resemble Somalia.
Putting on the Brakes
The dangers of democratic transitions are inevitable. And when they arise, a national army, not one beholden to a given party or political orientation, will be seen as a savior by the public.
Moreover, experiences of democratic transition, by definition, require a gradual approach and political consensus. Both of those things were absent when the Constitutional Court issued its verdict (though that does not call into question the court’s intentions in implementing the true law and the principles of democracy).
At present, Egypt must ensure that the army remains outside the framework of a specific political orientation or party. Moving too quickly on the issue of allowing military personnel to vote will not help achieve that aim.
Actors must concentrate on working toward establishing a system in which power is devolved and all political parties and figures consider one another national partners, not would-be autocrats or conspirators against the state.
A day will come when members of the armed forces can be permitted to vote in elections like other citizens. But Egypt must first achieve a consensus-based constitution—not a constitution perceived by a large sector of the Egyptian people as serving only the Muslim Brotherhood—and establish a system in which politicians do not view each other as traitors and infidels.