The success of Pakistan’s democratic elections in May and the outcome of the recent protests in Egypt point to a shift in both countries’ military participation in politics – while they will support or depose governments, they no longer seem interested in ruling the countries themselves.

Part of this seems to be self-preservation on the part of the military; if it does not rule the country, it will not get blamed if and when conditions on the ground don’t improve. Both Pakistan and Egypt have severely damaged economies that will likely require several minor miracles to solve. Pakistan is facing domestic insurgencies and ongoing sectarian violence, while Egypt faces the continuing problem of violence against the Coptic minority. If the military stays in the background, it does not have to find solutions to these problems or countless others.

In Pakistan, the lack of military intervention in politics is partially due to its pre-occupation with fighting insurgencies and terrorism within its own borders, and to the security and economic failures of the last military dictator, Pervez Musharraf. Pakistan’s military is still recovering from the poor governance of a military dictator, making it more cautious regarding its political involvement. However, the seeming end of overt military interference in Pakistan does not mean that the military will subordinate itself to the will of the people. It remains a powerful interest group that wields enormous power over security policy in Pakistan, including control of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal.

Former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak was ousted over two years ago, and Mohamed Morsi was president for barely one. The military also ruled for about a year but Morsi, the democratically-elected leader, bore the brunt of the anger and frustration of the Egyptian people over the lack of improvements.

It remains difficult to determine the current political position of the Egyptian military. On the one hand, it just enacted a coup, which has resulted in dozens of deaths and calls for resistance by the Muslim Brotherhood, arguably the most organized Egyptian political party. On the other, like so many militaries around the world, it gets to claim it “saved” democracy from a corrupt politician, and its actions have support from a majority of the protesters.

That said, the Egyptian military has removed itself from obvious political power this time around. It has already appointed the chief justice, Adly Mansour, as the interim president until new elections are held. And new elections will be held, although there is always a question of how free and fair they will be.

Economically, it is impossible to know precisely how much control the Pakistani and Egyptian militaries have, but that both have enormous wealth and influence in their respective economies is certain. Beyond their domestic financial empires, both are the recipients of significant American aid and have been for decades. By staying in the shadows, both militaries can expand their economic power without exposing themselves unduly to corruption charges.

This is not to suggest, however, that either country will soon develop a military subservient to the political government. The Pakistani and Egyptian militaries have amassed too much power, physically, politically, and economically, to divest themselves of any of it for the sake of a shaky democracy. But they will continue to develop independent of their respective political governments, overtly involving themselves in political affairs rarely, but always wielding substantial influence.

For both the Pakistani and the Egyptian militaries, the best scenario is not to rule their respective countries. It is to have a ruler that will leave them alone to do whatever they deem necessary to protect the people, the state, and their own interests. Ruling involves numerous constraints, in particular a politicized populace that is demanding a better future. The people in both countries demand a high level of responsiveness from their governments, as the Arab Spring in Egypt and the strong turnout and civil involvement in Pakistan’s elections have shown. But staying in the background, with minimal oversight and none of the visible responsibility, is the ideal situation for the militaries.

Unfortunately, this position will severely damage the futures of both countries. By divorcing themselves from the overt political process, these militaries also avoid all political oversight of their actions. Defense, security, and the tools of war will not be under the direct purview of the government or elected officials, ultimately preventing the development of true democracy in both countries. Furthermore, the militaries’ economic influence makes it extremely difficult to reform either country’s economic system. As powerful economic institutions, both militaries must be included in any economic reforms. Without greater visibility, the militaries can avoid such reforms and thereby damage the overall economic health of both Egypt and Pakistan. 

Should Pakistan’s and Egypt’s militaries be able to sustain, even expand, their power while maintaining an appearance of democracy, they might become increasingly attractive models for other countries, leading to more bifurcated systems of government with ever-decreasing scrutiny of the military. Turkey, for example, which also has a long history of military interventions in the political process, could follow this particular path. If popular dissent against Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan continues, there is a possibility the Turkish military will step in. If it does, it may also claim to be saving Turkey from one man’s creeping authoritarianism, and allow new elections to take place while maintaining its power.

The overt military support for democracy and the unwillingness to rule in Egypt and Pakistan are not signs that democracy will triumph. Instead, they are indicative of a much more insidious political arrangement where the military steps away from electoral politics, but retains its economic, political, and physical power. Thus rather than becoming less powerful, the military only becomes less accountable and less visible, making domestic reforms even less likely to succeed.

Kathryn Alexeeff is a research assistant with the South Asia Center. This piece first appeared on Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel.