Beyond the middle class military coup

The situation in Egypt today rekindles the debate about middle class military coups in the 1960s and 1970s. Lessons must be learned from Latin America's experience of moving the military into the government.

Egypt today recalls Latin America of the 1960s and 1970s when the “middle class military coup” was a vehicle of political change.  Jose Nun, the Argentine scholar who coined the term in 1967, argued that sectors of an embattled middle class aspiring for economic betterment could abandon democratic politics if they feared that it posed a threat to their own economic well-being.

Latin American middle class military coups occurred in the 1960s and 1970s in countries including Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil and Chile.  Leftist governments were overthrown, often at the high price of ending elected regimes.  The result was decades of military rule. The civilian instigators often got more than they wished for–loss of civil liberties, authoritarian government, and economic mismanagement.  The policies of these military governments resulted in the economic stagnation of Latin America for most of the 20th century. The militaries themselves, having failed in politics and economics, found their own institutions discredited and divided by their forays into government.  United States administrations supported those regimes at the time, arguing that they provided political stability and international support during the Cold War.

The choice in Egypt today rekindles the debate about middle class military coups.  The Egyptian military, which has stepped back into politics by deposing President Morsi, is different from the Latin American armed forces which took power half a century ago. They have more to lose–they are much more connected to the Egyptian economy–but they also know that armed interventions elsewhere damaged capacity for good governance, and discredited military institutions.  That is why, ten months ago the Egyptian military allowed itself to leave power in a process punctuated by throngs of protesters gathering in Tahrir Square to oust the transitional government that the armed forces had installed after the fall of President Hosni Mubarak.  It is also why they stated in removing the Morsi government that their “political road map” will not involve long-term military rule.

The aspiring middle class Egyptians who have again gone to the streets are taking a huge risk.  Egyptian politics are indeed complicated and institutions are not in place that will quickly produce a clear path to economic and political improvement.  Ten months after their “political spring,” Egyptians are suffering.  Their economy is in shambles, citizens feel vulnerable on the streets, and women have become targets of increasing indiscriminate violence.  Yet they are still willing to stand up to a government they now believe is not fulfilling the promises it made when it was elected.  So change must happen, but how?

These Egyptian protests are one of a set of remarkable social movements unfolding across the globe. These movements all share a common agenda–giving voice to emerging and aspiring middle class citizens who find themselves stuck by political and economic institutions that are neither competent nor inclusive. Whether it is Turkey, Brazil, or Egypt, these protesters are seeking to reverse the failure of states to provide people with opportunity–jobs, access to education, health care, and justice.  The trouble with reversing decades of bad government is that it does not happen overnight.  It will take patience and creativity within Egypt and beyond.  Other nations like the United States have much to gain from the success of this movement–both in terms of regional and global security and from the benefits of increased trade.

In Latin America it took thirty years to recover from the bad decisions to move the military into the government.  In this age of instant connectivity and globalized economics, people on the streets in Egypt and their allies around the world will have difficulty sustaining the patience to wait for the correction of a bad decision.  The worst outcome could be an impatient Egyptian military isolating that important country from democracies around the world

Over the last two years the US government has taken a careful approach to the events in Egypt.  It is time to support as clearly as possible the emerging democratic aspirations of so many young (and old) Egyptians.  Assistance programs must be reconfigured from building infrastructure and largely providing military aid to serious large scale support for education, health, and political institution building.

In the 1990s the US government spent billions of foreign assistance dollars to help support emerging democratic institutions in Latin America and elsewhere.  From election commissions, to training civilians about security, to helping organize judicial systems, the U.S. was there. European and East Asian countries were also involved with such assistance. The result is that Latin America, overall, has emerged as a region that is showing strong signs that many of its countries can strengthen their own political institutions and can prosper and grow through engagement with the global economy.

While the United States is not the only nation which should provide assistance, it urgently needs to shape its policies to put greater stress on helping citizens gain confidence and build institutions that help fulfill hopes of more open, inclusive, and tolerant societies.  At the same time, there is a need to scale down prudently the decades-long assistance provided to the region’s armed forces.  The United States has the tools.  It should use them wisely to demonstrate that it has learned from mistaken support for middle class military coups in Latin America forty years ago and from the successes of later support for open civilian politics there.

About the authors
Louis W Goodman is Dean Emeritus and Professor at the School of International Service at the American University, Washington DC.

Johanna Mendelson Forman is a senior associate in the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, DC