Democracy is not automatically born after electing a new president and reforming a constitution as evidenced in Egypt. There are many challenges in a transition and consolidation period.
One of the biggest obstacles during transition and consolidation periods in newly democratizing countries is controlling and redirecting the military as a legacy of the authoritarian regime. This is often easier said than done.
Few countries have overcome legacies of military intervention during a transition and consolidation period. Indonesia successfully transformed from an authoritarian regime to a democratic regime by redirecting the military to focus on its primary function. In both Egypt and Indonesia, the role of the military was the same during the transition, but different in the consolidation period.
During its transitional period in January 2011, Egypt’s military stood with the people to oust former president Hosni Mubarak. The military was in charge during the uprising through the emergence of a democratically elected civilian government. The military did not shoot demonstrators, a crucial move for the future of democracy in Egypt.
In Bahrain, by contrast, the military stood by the ruling monarchy. Because it repressed civilian demonstrators brutally, the Bahraini monarchy survived. In Libya, there were opposing beliefs within the military, some officers refused to shoot civilians while others willingly pulled their triggers in defense of Muammar Qaddafi. The result was civil war. In Syria, the story is still unfolding, the military have managed to hold the regime together, continuing to repress.
Indonesia’s transition was similar to that of Egypt in terms of the role of the military. In Indonesia, the military had played a key role in organizing the controlled transfer of power from the authoritarian regime to the democratic regime. People took to the streets to stand against the regime under former president Soeharto.
In May 1998, the central question was: How would the Indonesian Armed Forces position itself amid the instability in the country? In Indonesia at that time, the military had to decide whether to shoot or support the people. The Indonesian military were directed to stabilize the country under the direction of Soeharto. Former armed forces commander Gen. Wiranto received a letter from Soeharto, who asked him to impose the order within the state (Winters, 2012), which means that at the time, the military actually had the legitimacy to run the country, but opted not to exercise it.
Eventually, as we saw at the end of Soeharto’s era, the military chose to not shoot the people. Despite having the capacity and even the legitimacy to do so, the military did not have the will. Had they shot people and stood with the regime, the path toward democracy would never have occurred in Indonesia or it might have taken a much longer time to achieve democracy.
The decision not to shoot people relates to the capacity and the will of the military. The capacity of the military relates to its coercive apparatus, which includes such elements as good training, expertise in using weapon systems and assistance from international countries. The will of the military relates to the level of institutionalization of the coercive apparatus.
The military has institutional interests such as maintaining internal cohesion, discipline and morale within the corps, to protect its image, prestige and national legitimacy (Bellin 2012). Shooting civilians would have been potentially costly for the military in Egypt.
In Indonesia, we know that with the support of the people, the military defended the Constitution and successfully contained a potentially calamitous slide into widespread domestic instability and violence. In general, using lethal force against civilians threatens to undermine the image of the military as a defender of the nation.
Immediately following the preparation of the first general election since 1957, the Egyptian Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) and the army took crucial steps by introducing a compulsory constitution and disbanding the People’s Assembly. The compulsory constitution endowed the military with more power than other institutional agencies. This fact showed that the SCAF, and the army in general, constitute a significant component of the state’s political apparatus beyond their primary function as the guardian of the state from outside threats.
Given this condition, the military still maintains its role to control the regime even though Egyptians disagree with the new constitution. For those who do not like the changes to the Constitution, they will be dealt with harshly by the military.
In Indonesia, the election took place in 1999 involving 48 parties. The secular Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) won the most votes. The election marked the completion of Indonesia’s transition process by electing a new government.
Indonesia then entered the consolidation period by strengthening the newly elected government. At the beginning of that period, the military made its internal reforms such as leaving the legislature, liquidating positions related to political affairs and starting to hand over some businesses to the state. These reforms, stemming from the consciousness of the internal officers, followed the crucial decision not to shoot people as aforementioned. Some officers realized that the military no longer was a dominant actor in political and social life beyond its traditional function. In contrast, the military leaders in Egypt protected the army’s interest at the beginning of consolidation period.
In both countries, the role of the military was crucial in transforming the regime to democracy. In Egypt, the future of democracy still remains a question. It is still not known whether the military is willing to give power to the civilian government. In Indonesia, despite the military no longer having a role in political life, they still have potency.
As mentioned by Edward Gibson, once you give a political chance to the military, it is hard to deprive it, even in well-established democratic countries.
The writer is a 2012 Arryman Fellow and visiting scholar at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois.