A Trip Down Memory Lane (Militaries and Democracy Edition)

A few thoughts/historical examples, as to why I am guarded in my optimism on Egypt.

Pervez Musharraf, after the coup in 1999:

This is not martial law, only another path towards democracy. The armed forces have no intention to stay in charge any longer than is absolutely necessary to pave the way for true democracy to flourish in Pakistan.

Musharraf left power in August of 2008 (and even then, he was forced out under threat of impeachment).

Now, I am not stating that Egypt 2011 and Pakistan 1999 are analogous.  However, Musharraf was not the first military man to state that he was only leading a transitional government that would soon return to democracy.

A rather extreme example that comes to mind is Brazil.  In 1964 a military coup brought Castelo Branco to the presidency.  It was his stated intention to allow a popularly elected president to come back into office in 1966.  However, civilian control of the presidency returned in 1985.  The first direct election of the presidency took place in late 1989, with President Collor taking office in 1990.

In South Korea, General Park Chung-hee came to power in 1961 and promised, amongst other thing, to adhere to the constitutional limitation of two terms in office (there were also rigged elections for the parliament during his time in office).  He managed to get the document amended to allow for a third term and eventually replaced the constitution to one of his own liking.  He was eventually assassinated in 1979.

Both the Cuban Revolution of 1959 and the Nicaraguan Revolution of 1979 started with broad-based coalitions of actors supporting post-revolutionary power actors who promised democracy and yet certain actors in the initial coalition emerged in control to the exclusion of others.   Heck, we can go back to the French Revolution of 1789 to see where popular will and the promises of liberty do not always pan out as intended.

Indeed, if I had time and all the books in my office around me, I have no doubt that I could put together a lengthy list of cases wherein at the moment of initial change from one regime to a transition one that the holders of power at the transition made some sort of promise of democratization-promises that were, all too often, not kept.

Again:  this is not to say that any of these examples create a predetermined path for Egypt.  However, the preponderance of the historic record should provide some brakes on unbridled hope as to what the Egyptian military is likely to do in the next six months (and, likewise, the ability of the protestors to control those outcomes).

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Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter


  1. Brummagem Joe says:

    Inshallah? I’m not sure any of these examples most of which took place over thirty years ago are particularly valid today. I have no unbridled hopes but at the moment I’d say the odds favor a transition to a very untidy democracy. We’d better hope so because an attempt by the military to create Mubarak II is going to be a very dangerous undertaking. It would also be somewhat contrary to the Egyptian temperament in my experience which tends to deal making. In fact in this respect they are not unlike the Israelis.

  2. Michael says:

    All of which just proves how remarkable George Washington was for stepping down as soon as the war was won.

  3. ponce says:

    Russia seems like it would be a good example.

    Is it still considered a democracy?

  4. @ponce:

    I would not consider it a democracy, no.

  5. MSS says:

    Caution is in order, to be sure. But the cases you cite mostly are dissimilar to what has happened thus far in Egypt. Brazil and Pakistan had coups, but without major (or any) mass uprising against the overthrown government. Cuba and Nicaragua had mass uprisings, but with the old military collapsing and replaced by a guerrilla army.

    It seems to me that the set of cases that combine a coup by an institutional military with mass uprising against a dictator is a pretty small set. But it includes some cases that went democratic. Venezuela 1958, Portugal 1976, Romania 1989, and of course Indonesia 1999. There probably are others, and there could well be still more that resulted in a renewed dictatorship.Maybe we can build this list…

  6. Miguel Madeira says:

    In the category “mass uprising + military coup > democracy” we can add Philippines 1986; in the category “”mass uprising + military coup > new dictatorship” we can add Haiti 1986 (with some democratic intermitences).

    Btw, I am not much sure that the Portuguese case can be considered “mass uprising + military coup”; the mass uprising(s) largely begin after the coup (even if perhaps in the same day…).

  7. @MSS:

    I concur that the cases are quite different.

    I am just trying to point out, especially to folks who seem to think that just because a statement is made that it ought to be taken at face value.