An Argument for Military Voting

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The Supreme Constitutional Court (SCC) of Egypt certainly does not leave any legal specialist in a state of boredom for very long. In most countries, the highest court in the land is hardly the topic of conversation in public discourse, except on rare occasions. Egypt’s SCC, however, breaks that mould quite regularly, issuing statements and rulings that threaten to not only upset, but redesign the public arena quite substantially. Its latest one calls into question the original legitimacy of Egypt’s constitutional making process – but without actually nullifying the constitution – and just last week, it took on a regulation that has survived intact in Egypt for decades. The rules pertaining to voting, and the topic of suffrage for Egypt’s police and armed forces, are now on the table, as though Egypt did not have enough to sort through.

For decades, members of the Egyptian police and army have been forbidden from voting. Those in support of maintaining those rules speak of two basic premises: the first relates to the duties of these (mostly) men, and the second relates to their independence of action with regards to voting. In terms of the former: there are no other forces that are responsible for maintaining physical security in the land, whether from internal or external strife. As such, it is important to prevent any kind of polarization and division within those forces, which could invariably lead to potentially devastating effects during a crisis – and Egypt has a penchant, it seems, for crisis. The second premise is that if voting was indeed permitted for these personnel, all army and police officers would be easily vulnerable to manipulation by their superior officers in terms of voting, and would be unable to resist any orders from their superiors in terms of voting preferences.

The proponents of changing the law draw on other arguments – which basically boil down to the principle of citizenship in a participatory democracy. Members of the army and the police are Egyptian citizens – moreover, they are fulfilling a very critical public duty. Why should they then be penalized for their public service, and forbidden from expressing their political opinions through the ballot box – particularly when they stand to be affected by any political decision possibly more than any other sector in society? After all, political crises often demand that the army and the police come out and risk their lives; surely members of those forces ought to have a say in who their ultimate ‘commander-in-chief’ is, when they are asked to put their lives on the line?

These are all arguments worth considering closely. One cannot ignore the fact that the armed forces and the police establishment are sensitive sectors – and this is true in any country, not in Egypt alone. They are not, however, the only sensitive sectors – one can see, for example, how the politicization of some parts of the judiciary has also been a grave disservice to the cause of a pluralistic and effective state machinery in Egypt. Indeed, to varying degrees, all state-employed citizens ought to be considered in a similar category in this regard – whether in the courts, the police, the bureaucracy or the judiciary – state employees need to be considered by the rest of the citizenry as above political divisions. There will be exceptions to these, of course – political appointees in the bureaucracy, for example – but generally speaking, it is sensible to minimize political partisan activity within the state’s structures. To that end, it is reasonable, and fair, to forbid political campaigning of any sort by state employees, in and out of state institutions. Even a ban, or at least restrictions, on political party membership might be entertained as well. The risk of such restrictions being flouted is certainly there – but so are the risks of all rules being flouted in any electoral system. The key is enforcement, and no quarter should be given in this regard. Indeed, if there is any Egyptian institution where rules are paid close attention to, it is the army, due to military discipline.

However, to disenfranchise these sectors, including the army and the police force, from actually voting, is a step not only too far – it is a wholly unnecessary one. Egyptian police and military are citizens – and they ought to be able to express their voice, particularly in a fledging democratic experiment, as they will be affected by the results of the ballot box. The fears that they might be manipulated are justifiable – but if the rules regarding political campaigning are made clear and enforced, then such problems will be minimized. In any case, with or without the right to vote, members of the police and army are going to be discussing political issues among themselves – just like all Egyptians. If they are to be forbidden on the basis that they could be manipulated, then surely others should be forbidden as well – and there are many institutions in Egypt where dissension from one’s superior carries consequences. Indeed, political campaigning by members of the clergy, both Muslim and Christian, in religious institutions, is supposed to be illegal as well – should clergy themselves be forbidden from voting, on the basis that ecclesiastical authorities (in the case of Christians) or more senior scholars (in the case of Muslims) might influence them? Should those who attend religious services be forbidden, on the basis that they are unduly influenced by the preachers in question?

Egypt requires a robust and pluralistic democracy to progress – and that will only be possible by strengthening institutions, rather than avoiding challenges upon them. Precautions ought to be taken in different sectors, to be sure – but to avoid the crafting of such precautions by using the blunt instrument of banning voting will not serve Egypt’s democratic experiment. It will only delay the inevitable – that every Egyptian citizen ought to enjoy the right to have a say in who governs him or her.

Dr H.A. Hellyer, a non-resident fellow at Brookings and ISPU, is a Cairo-based analyst. He can be followed on Twitter @hahellyer and his site

Photo: Jonathan Rashad

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