The Egyptian Army's Messianic Self Image

I have, with a certain amount of amusement, been following this evening's ping-ponging back and forth about whether the Egyptian army did or did not call for a national dialogue,
 and whether the president will or will not be part of such (possibly non-existent) dialogue or will instead sponsor his own little soirée to see who has more friends. (I am picturing here a bunch of bearded men in stripy pajamas making giddy late-night Facebook decrees.)

As public communications debacle, it's fairly entertaining in the generally tragicomic spirit of the times. But that shouldn't obscure some very serious questions: why are the security forces still serving as independent political actors? And why are some people who claim to be "democrats" supporting this?

I find myself haunted by a passage from an essay by Guillermo O’Donnell and Phillippe Schmitter in Neil Kritz's seminal 1995 collection "Transitional Justice."* Their essay discusses the fallacy of transitional governments trying to purchase social stability by granting security forces amnesty for crimes committed during the dictatorship. It's well worth reading in its entirety, as Kritz's entire three-volume collection, but the argument that really sticks with me is this:

failing to hold the military to account for past abuses “reinforce[s] the sense of impunity and immunity of the armed forces” and encourages a  “messianic self-image” of the military as  “the institution ultimately interpreting and ensuring the highest interests of the nation.”

This article was written almost 20 years ago, but sounds so very, very much like what is going on right now in Egypt. Thus, it seems perhaps worth reflecting on their conclusions as well:

To counter this “messianic self-image,” O’Donnell and Schmitter argue that skillfully handled trials can be used to reinforce the failures of authoritarianism in the minds of both the military and the public, reinforcing rather than threatening a nascent democracy. By contrast, a transition process in which past human rights violations go unpunished may, in and of itself, contribute to social and political instability in the new democracy.


*I must confess here that I, unfortunately, don't have the original with me in Egypt, and am relying here on a paper I wrote about five years ago. The original citation is: O’Donnell and Schmitter, “Transitions from Authoritarian Rule: Tentative Conclusions about Uncertain Democracies” in Kritz, ed.,  Transitional Justice: How Emerging Democracies Reckon with Former Regimes, Volume I. (Washington: United States Institute of Peace Press, 1995) pp. 59 – 60.