It’s Good to be the Chief of Staff

Who knew that the Turkish military would issue their “electronic memorandum” on April 27th, just four days before Ruling But Not Governing: The Military and Political Development in Egypt, Algeria, and Turkey (RBNG) was published? I kind of wanted to sit back and laugh, but what is going on in Turkey is no laughing matter. The military’s action a few weeks ago threatens the tremendous progress that Turkey has made over the last three years toward a more open and democratic polity. I look forward to getting down to brass tacks with the discussants, but I thought it would be best to lay out the four basic underlying messages of RBNG…


First, the book underscores the point that regimes in the Middle East are, contrary to conventional wisdom, quite stable. Unlike the rickety regimes of the old Soviet bloc, military dominated countries like Egypt, Algeria, and Turkey are supple and flexible enough to remain stable despite internal and external crises. Think about Egypt. It’s the same regime that came into being with the Free Officers’ coup in July 1952 and has endured despite massive military defeat, political assassination, economic stagnation, and a low-level extremist insurgency.

Second, RBNG shows how (amazingly!) the “democracy promotion industry” has overlooked a critical aspect of the authoritarian political systems of the Middle East: the security services. The United States can promote all the civil society and economic development Washington wants, but this is unlikely to have a significant effect on the political trajectory of a variety of Middle Eastern states because the policy neglects the overwhelming presence and power of militaries. To be fair, there has been some attention to this issue. Both Amr Hamzawy and Ellen Laipson have looked at the connection between democracy and the security services.

Third, it’s fashionable among Arab and many Western elites to deride “democracy promotion.” This is a function of the war in Iraq, but it is clear that external powers can be decisive in promoting change (albeit not at the end of a tank turret). The book explores how, during 2003-2004, the EU served as a crucial anchor of Turkish political reform. Unfortunately, the negative signals emerging from Brussels about Turkish membership since then have contributed, in part, to the backsliding we are currently observing in Turkey.

Fourth, the book is directly relevant to U.S. policy hotspots like Iraq and Pakistan. I have noticed that there is an argument emerging in Washington about the need for a new military strongman in Iraq (a very popular idea in Saudi Arabia and Egypt, where I just spent some time). RBNG highlights the benefits of this policy (stability) against the obvious drawbacks of building yet another authoritarian political system in the Middle East. That being said, given the current situation in Iraq and painful as it may be to admit, Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt is looking pretty good.