Armies are a funny thing; any ruler or nation needs at least one, but they’re simultaneously a nation’s best defense and one of its greatest threats. After all, if a charismatic military commander decides he’s had enough of his civilian leadership and he can get the army to go along with him, who’s going to stop him from taking power? Even in modern democracies with well-established traditions of civilian control, an unruly general can make potentially serious trouble for an elected leader. In states without those elements, the threat is all the greater. Here are two cases in point:
- In Egypt, Defense Minister, General, and de facto ruler of the country Abd el-Fattah el-Sisi is pushing for blanket immunity for the Egyptian armed forces, presumably including himself, for at least 15 years as part of any new constitution. Now I’m sure that
Generalissimo FrancoGeneral el-Sisi only has the best of intentions for the stability of what is sure to be a model democracy moving forward, but it’s hard to escape the suspicion that he’s pushing for this in order to protect the Egyptian military from any culpability for the, oh, 10,000 or so Egyptians it’s killed or wounded since the coup took place. But that’s nothing; he doesn’t just want military immunity for past actions, he wants it moving forward for at least a decade and a half, meaning that Egypt’s fledgling “democracy” will be developing under the shadow of a military that literally can’t be held accountable for any action it takes. Now imagine if el-Sisi gets this immunity enshrined in the constitution, and I suspect that he will get whatever he wants on this because he’s the only political figure in Egypt with any juice (mostly generated by that army standing behind him) at this point, and then he runs for the presidency, which he’ll win. Then he’ll be an elected president with the full support of the untouchable and unchecked Egyptian military behind him. There’s a recipe for democratic nation-building right there.
- In Iran, meanwhile, there is an established civilian political system, only partially democratic, but with enshrined civilian (or clerical if you prefer) control over the military. The elected part of the leadership, the presidency, is currently held by a moderate, where “moderate” is defined as “somebody who is willing to engage in nuclear talks with the international community in order to see the sanctions that are crippling Iran’s economy lifted, rather than inviting additional crippling sanctions like the last guy kept doing.” While President Rouhani is trying to court the West and maybe get the Iranian economy out from under the sanctions, though, the Revolutionary Guard (IRGC), Iran’s elite military command, which doesn’t answer to him, is refusing to stop using Morg bar Amrika (you got it, “Death to America”) as one of its regular official chants. This latest thumb in Rouhani’s eye comes a few weeks after the Iranian President specifically told (or “politely asked,” really) the Revolutionary Guard to stay out of Iranian politics. Now, in theory, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei ought to be able to back the Revolutionary Guard off, if he wants, but the hard truth is that the Revolutionary Guard has enough independent power at this point to ignore him, too. The Guard has expanded from defense of the regime into running its own foreign affairs (in Iraq, for example, and Syria) and big business; indeed, part of the reason the Guard would like to see Rouhani’s talks with the P5+1 break down is that, with the sanctions blocking foreign firms from competing for Iranian projects, companies affiliated with the Guard have been making a killing. The country as a whole is suffering, but the IRGC is thriving, and not helping.
We’re kind of lucky that the closest you can come to a story like this in America is some batshit insane retired general yapping about the military overthrowing our president. Things could so easily be so much worse.