Arab militaries raise prospect of increased anti-protest violence

Dai­ly pic­tures of the Syr­i­an mil­i­tary shelling the country’s cities, Libyan forces pound­ing rebel held towns and Egyp­tians protest­ing the armed forces’ alleged efforts to derail their rev­o­lu­tion paint a dra­mat­ic pic­ture of rela­tions between the mil­i­tary and civ­il soci­ety across the Mid­dle East and North Africa.

It’s a pic­ture of a pop­u­lar Arab revolt sweep­ing a swath of land that stretch­es from the Gulf to the Atlantic coast of Africa that appears to put Arab secu­ri­ty and mil­i­tary lead­ers either in the dock of pub­lic opin­ion, the Inter­na­tion­al Crim­i­nal Court in The Hague or on the dart­board of pro­test­ers on Cairo’s Tahrir Square.

It is also a pic­ture that goes a long way to explain the dif­fer­ences in the efforts to build a democ­ra­cy in Tunisia and Egypt, the two states where the revolt has top­pled auto­crat­ic lead­ers; the bat­tles that are engulf­ing Syr­ia, Libya and Yemen; and the crush­ing of the upris­ing in Bahrain. Final­ly, it cre­ates a frame­work to pre­dict how revolts will unfold in Mid­dle East­ern nations that have so far been able to con­tain protests or have yet to be hit by them.

One key to under­stand­ing the role of the mil­i­tary is the fact that Arab rulers, repub­li­can and monar­chi­cal, dis­trust their armed forces. To shield them­selves from poten­tial threats by the mil­i­tary, rulers have opt­ed for dif­fer­ent mod­els: total­ly side lin­ing the mil­i­tary, buy­ing it off with a stake in nation­al secu­ri­ty and lucra­tive eco­nom­ic oppor­tu­ni­ties, focus­ing on key units com­mand­ed by mem­bers of the ruler’s fam­i­ly, cre­at­ing par­al­lel mil­i­tary orga­ni­za­tions, staffing the low­er and medi­um ranks with expa­tri­ates or most recent­ly cre­at­ing a sep­a­rate mer­ce­nary force.

Iron­i­cal­ly, the appear­ance of a uni­formed mil­i­tary offi­cer on Egypt­ian tele­vi­sion in Feb­ru­ary to announce the depar­ture of Pres­i­dent Hos­ni Mubarak and sub­se­quent­ly to read edicts of the country’s new mil­i­tary rulers revived mem­o­ries of the mil­i­tary coups of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s in the region as well as else­where in the world.

Yet, noth­ing was fur­ther from the truth. The Egypt­ian mil­i­tary is eager to return to its bar­racks, but not before it ensures that its inter­ests are pro­tect­ed in and after the tran­si­tion to democracy.Mubarak secured the military’s loy­al­ty by giv­ing it con­trol of nation­al as opposed to home­land secu­ri­ty and allow­ing it to build an inde­pen­dent rela­tion­ship with its US coun­ter­parts that enabled it to cre­ate a mil­i­tary indus­tri­al com­plex as well as a com­mer­cial empire in oth­er sectors. 

To pre­serve its pre­rog­a­tives, the mil­i­tary has announced that it willadopt pri­or to elec­tions a dec­la­ra­tion of basic prin­ci­ples that would gov­ern the draft­ing of a constitution.The dec­la­ra­tion would be designed to ensure that Egypt’s next elect­ed leader will have no choice but to keep the military’s inter­ests at heart.Elections would enable the mil­i­tary to return to its bar­racks but retain its grip on nation­al secu­ri­ty, includ­ing the right to inter­fere in pol­i­tics to pro­tect nation­al uni­ty and the sec­u­lar char­ac­ter of the state; main­tain its direct, unsu­per­vised rela­tion­ship with the Unit­ed States; be shield­ed against civil­ian over­sight and scruti­ny of its bud­get; and keep con­trol of its eco­nom­ic empire. In effect, the mil­i­tary would con­tin­ue to enjoy the sta­tus it had under Mr. Mubarak.

The military’s approach is in stark con­trast to that of Tunisia, which rid itself of its auto­crat­ic leader a month ear­li­er than Egypt did, and where a com­mis­sion is dis­cussing the best way to lim­it pres­i­den­tial pow­er involv­ing a range of pro­pos­als rang­ing from a pres­i­den­tial to a par­lia­men­tary regime. The fact that Pres­i­dent Zine El Abe­dine Ben Ali in one of his first moves after com­ing to pow­er dec­i­mat­ed the mil­i­tary and ensured that it unlike the Egypt­ian armed forces had no stake in the sys­tem he built has meant that the Tunisian force had no rea­son to obstruct real change, and if any­thing, was like­ly to ben­e­fit from reform that leads to a demo­c­ra­t­ic sys­tem, in which it would have a legit­i­mate role under civil­ian supervision.

If the role of the mil­i­tary in Egypt­ian and Tunisian mil­i­tary rep­re­sent two mod­els that explain why they did not resist the top­pling of Messrs. Mubarak and Ben Ali and the dif­fer­ences between the two coun­tries in their post-rev­o­lu­tion tran­si­tion, the struc­ture of the mil­i­tary also pro­vides mod­els for respons­es to peo­ple pow­er else­where in the Mid­dle East.

In Syr­ia, Libya and Yemen, auto­crat­ic rulers have been able to employ bru­tal force in so far failed attempts to crush revolts because rather than side lin­ing the mil­i­tary they have ensured that key units are com­mand­ed by mem­bers of the fam­i­ly. This has giv­en those well-trained and well-armed units a vest­ed inter­est in main­tain­ing the sta­tus quo and effec­tive­ly neu­tral­ized the risk of poten­tial defec­tions in times of crisis.

As a result, defec­tions from the Libyan, Syr­i­an and Yemeni mil­i­tary have not sig­nif­i­cant­ly weak­ened the grip of auto­crat­ic rulers and their abil­i­ty to bru­tal­ly crack­down on anti-gov­ern­ment pro­test­ers. The defec­tions have strength­ened the pro­test­ers and rebels but have not sig­nif­i­cant­ly altered the bal­ance of pow­er. The excep­tion per­haps is Yemen where­an attack by a dis­si­dent unit on the pres­i­den­tial com­pound of Pres­i­dent Ali Abdul­lah Saleh seri­ous­ly injured him and many of his offi­cials. That attack how­ev­er was launched only after forces loy­al to Mr. Saleh attacked the unit’s headquarters.

A fourth mod­el is that of Bahrain where mil­i­tary and secu­ri­ty forces crushed a pop­u­lar revolt. The fact that much of the rank and file con­sists of for­eign­ers, most­ly Pak­ista­nis, explains the regime’s abil­i­ty to employ bru­tal vio­lence in a tiny nation of only 1.2 mil­lion peo­ple even if it fails to answer the ques­tion why Bahrai­nis did not demon­strate the degree of resilience and per­se­ver­ance exhib­it­ed by Syr­i­ans and Yemenis.

Final­ly, there is the Sau­di and Iran­ian mod­el with a vari­ant in the Unit­ed Arab Emi­rates that has been test­ed only to a lim­it­ed degree. Both Sau­di Ara­bia and Iran have built com­pet­ing mil­i­tary forces; in Iran’s case the con­tro­ver­sial Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Guards Corps and in Sau­di Ara­bia the Nation­al Guard com­mand­ed by King Abdul­lah that oper­ate inde­pen­dent of the armed forces. The UAE this year report­ed­ly invest­ed $529 mil­lion in the cre­ation of a mer­ce­nary force com­mand­ed by Erik Prince, the noto­ri­ous founder of Black­wa­ter, designed to quell civ­il unrest in the coun­try itself as well as in the region.

The struc­ture of Mid­dle East­ern mil­i­tary forces sug­gests that the Arab revolt is like­ly to be met with con­tin­ued vio­lence and blood­shed and poten­tial­ly civ­il war in coun­tries with com­pet­ing mil­i­tary forces. It is a chill­ing prospect that promis­es a decade of insta­bil­i­ty and strife in a geo-strate­gi­cal­ly cru­cial part of the world. 

About the Author:
James M. Dorsey is a senior fel­low at Nanyang Tech­no­log­i­cal University’s S. Rajarat­nam School of Inter­na­tion­al Stud­ies and the author of the blog, The Tur­bu­lent World of Mid­dle East Soc­cer.

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