The Nasser model set the groundrules for Africa’s post-colonial regimes: authoritarian, nationalist, single-party and underwritten by the military.
Egypt matters as an economic power and a political exemplar. That is why the scenes from Tahrir Square resonated across Africa so powerfully. Now, Egypt’s revolutionaries are asking whether the military can be trusted to manage the transition to democracy.
It was the military high command that finally pushed Hosni Mubarak and Zine el Abidine Ben Ali out, but Tunisians and Egyptians are ambivalent about whether the soldiers will promote or steal the revolution.
Civilian politicians have taken centre stage in Tunisia, but the military waits in the wings. In Egypt, the military keeps control at the head of the Supreme Military Council. Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi has issued decrees paving the way for free elections and independent political parties.
The late distinguished Egyptian diplomat Mahmoud Kassem traced the origins of authoritarian rule in Africa to the Free Officers’ revolution that toppled King Farouk in 1952 and ushered in Gamal Abdel Nasser.
The Nasser model, said Kassem, set the groundrules for Africa’s post-colonial regimes: authoritarian, nationalist, single-party and underwritten by the military.
Tunisia and Egypt put such regimes on notice. A million-strong security apparatus in Egypt, the generals calculated, could not hold back the aspirations of a large proportion of the 80 million other Egyptians.
Under Nasser’s model, the secret (and unsecret) police did the spying and torturing while the army and air force stayed away from daily repression, burnishing credentials as guardians of the national interest.
Those lines blurred in Libya under Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s Jamahiriya. Fearing coups, Gaddafi weakened the military, constrained it with revolutionary committees alongside an omnipresent secret police and set up armed units run by his sons outside the formal command structure. That is why regiments in eastern Libya joined the opposition and turned on their nominal commander-in-chief.
Will Africa’s other armies go the Egyptian or Libyan route? In West Africa, home to more military coups than any other region, the soldiers are back in the barracks, for now.
The Ghanaian and Nigerian militaries had followed Nasser’s model, but as they grew as corrupt and dysfunctional as their civilian counterparts, the generals handed over power to elected regimes.
Different dynamics are at work in states such as Algeria, Angola, Mozambique and Zimbabwe, where the national army grew out of forces that had fought colonial rule.
Such armies earned kudos as national liberators but have become fused to ruling parties that are running corrupt and repressive regimes.
The question haunting presidents Abdelaziz Bouteflika and Robert Mugabe is how their militaries would react to people power on the streets of Algiers and Harare.
Bouteflika looks the more worried. As a key apparatchik in the post-colonial regimes in the 1960s and 1970s, Bouteflika returned to power in the 1990s determined to reduce the strength of the military. Some scores have yet to be settled. Should opposition to the regime gather momentum in the streets, the generals would not hesitate to suggest that Bouteflika go into retirement.
Mugabe gets on with the military, whose top brass get lucrative contracts and top jobs in government. Soldiers generally stay out of the hurly-burly while the police and special units such as the Green Bombers do the political killings and torture.
Mugabe, one of Africa’s canniest tacticians, is lucky that few of the generals trust his main opponent, Morgan Tsvangirai.
Realists in the officers’ corps see that the 87-year-old Mugabe has now reached the endgame. Like their Egyptian counterparts, they will want to steer the coming transition without losing political influence, and they will not necessarily ask Comrade Mugabe for his advice.
This article was first published in the April 2011 edition of The Africa Report.
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