Soldier of Love

Continuing from yesterday on some issues in the current news from the Middle East about which comparative political science has something to say. Today, more on the role of the security forces.

Interesting article last week in the New Yorker about the unexpected link between Tahrir Square and the Army:

On January 30th, I watched a column of tanks advance into the sequare. Protesters blocked their wa while two F-16 fighter jets buzzed, lout and intimidating overhead. ‘The people and the Army are one hand!” the crowd chanted, climbing on top of the tanks, scrawling “Mubarak Must Go!” on their flanks, and engaging the soldiers.

“We are your brothers,” people said.

“We will not harm you,” one soldier said.

“Will you shoot at us?” people asked. “You will shoot at us if you are given the order.”

“No,” a soldier replied. “I will never do that. Not even if I am given the order.”

In the standoff between the regime and the protesters, the Army was bound to be crucial. The Egyptian Army commands enormous respect among civilians. The military establishment has long been the most powerful institution in the country and controls not just security and defense but also a huge economic sphere, including factories and road building and housing projects.

“The people and the Army are one hand.” What can that possibly mean? Isn’t the military government the problem? Are people just delusional from having been under the military’s thumb for so long?

Who knows – but there’s something more going on here. Two things: military service and citizenship actually have a long and complicated mutual history. In Western Europe, “states made war, and war made states” – the classic story of Western European state formation from Charles Tilly and others is that in a Darwinian struggle for territory, individual states needed soldiers, and to avoid mass desertion, incentivized people to join by giving them some basic citizenship (voting) rights. Citizenship in exchange for military service.

The other thing is that a professional army doesn’t want to play a police role. This is part of what my dissertation’s about: the army and the police are both security forces, but they have very different roles, in principle. The army defends the nation against external enemies, while the police keeps the peace internally. But what happens, as in Latin America, when you don’t really have external enemies? Latin American countries haven’t fought each other very often, especially compared to Western European countries. So what does the army do if they don’t have foreign wars to fight? Unfortunately, they start to bleed over into police functions, and then everything gets screwy.

So there’s something profound to that chant in Tahrir Square, “The people and the Army are one hand!” While a despotic regime has set them against each other, the behavior of the individual soldiers quoted in the New Yorker article suggest a potential bond that transcends such barriers.

Again, the role of elite factions in elite-popular coalitions that can form a bridge to democracy looms large. Another quote from the New Yorker article is suggestive:

“The military is a black box, and no one knows what happens inside,” [said George Ishak, the head of the opposition movement Kefaya].

As we start to see inside the black box, the possibilities of coalition politics will become clearer….

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