Ruling But Not Governing: The Military and Political Development in Egypt, Algeria, and Turkey, by Steven A. Cook. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007
It is too easy, when Western representatives meet senior government officials in Egypt, Algeria, and Turkey, to forget the uniformed elephant in the room. Steven Cook’s timely Ruling But Not Governing is a scholarly study of the military’s central role in politics, and measures the elastic tripwires that can trigger muscular intervention.
Though not full-fledged “military dictatorships,” these countries share authoritarian traditions stemming from the founding role of the army in the ruling political structures. These institutions, writes Cook, “are not necessarily designed for efficiency... but to preserve the power of the dominant elite and its allies at the expense of society” (p. 6). These “pseudo-democratic” institutions (e.g., ministries, parliaments, and courts) provide the “veneer” for governance. The essence of Cook’s analysis is that the military – generally content with allowing these institutions a degree of authority in quotidian matters – asserts a “ruling” veto power if regime existence is endangered.
Dr. Cook recognizes the differences between these countries, but highlights remarkable similarities in the military ruling-governing dynamic. In varying degrees, the regimes’ “senior officer corps positioned themselves at the nexus of state and private sectors in order to reap the benefits of both” (p. 80). Cook’s genteel formulation refers to often opaque deals that provide militaries with alternate, unbudgeted, sources of income. Along with influential military establishments, these countries share experience dealing with political Islam’s resurgence, the book’s major sub-theme.
The founding Free Officers of modern Egypt set the stage for a succession of military leaders: Gamal ‘Abd al-Nasir, Anwar Sadat, and Husni Mubarak. Cook, whose extensive reading of the literature is augmented by interviews with Egyptian officers, says the “military’s crucial and intimate association with the presidency ensures the continuity of the political system” (p. 73). Faced with the Muslim Brotherhood’s incessant drive for political influence, Egypt’s authoritarian regime has used all methods, ranging from including them in the panoply of state and civil society institutions, to periodic crackdowns on the movement when it competes too successfully with government provision of basic services, as in earthquake relief in the early 90s.
In Algeria – where the Front Islamique du Salut (Islamic Salvation Front, or FIS) party was poised to win national parliamentary elections before the 1992 coup – the vernacular for the ruling regime is “le pouvoir militaire.” Cook gives a masterful summary of the post-independence civilian façade, where it was “relatively easy for the leadership to purchase political docility” in the one-party state (p. 43). He demolishes the “prevailing myth of a FIS prone to violence” (p. 32), and is on the mark when he says that “officers did not believe that the FIS would be able to follow through” on their program after their initial victory in freely contested local and regional elections in 1990 (p. 54). The secular parties – or parlor political class – shared the military’s initial insouciance, and their inattention was jolted by FIS success at getting out the vote.
Kemalist Turkey, Ataturk’s successor regime to the multinational Ottoman Empire, is the oldest of the three authoritarian systems in focus. As such, it has shown the most varied response to threats to the ruling order. Military intervention is always on the table, though some have been bloodless: the 1971 “coup by memorandum;” the 1997 “soft” or “postmodern” coup; and the April 2007 “electronic intervention,” a threatening military communiqué on the Internet. Cook may be at his best in the chapter on Turkey, and devotes the remainder of the book to a detailed study of the long running military-Islamist rivalry.
As Cook frames it, “The EU-Turkey Model” contains useful elements for policymakers eager to nudge countries like Egypt and Algeria away from the military-authoritarian tradition towards a more authentic version of democracy. Turkish aspirations to join the European Union have provided the latter a powerful lever to bolster the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) government’s attempts at greater civilian control of the military. But the general staff’s potential to intervene in civil affairs as the guardian of the secular Kemalist order remains.
“Ruling But Not Governing” cautions that “without an external catalyst for change,” as in EU membership carrots for Turkey, it is likely that “patterns of authoritarian politics will endure in military-dominated states like Egypt and Algeria” (p. 148). However, as of this writing, even the relatively benign civil-military modus vivendi in Turkey is under stress: the governing AK Party is under threat of losing its status – and its governing role – under a May 2008 verdict by the military’s secularist ally, the judicial system. The military may not “govern,” but does it still rule?
This was first published in the Summer 2008 issue of the Middle East Journal, the quarterly journal of the Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C.