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The role of armies in the Middle Eastern settings
   
 
 
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The role of armies in the Middle Eastern settings

 
Wednesday, 20 March 2013 23:24
 
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by Nicolamaria Coppola
EPOS Insights

 

Armies have played a central role during the mass mobilitations in 2011 in the Middle Eastern countries. If the military has been involved in repression in Bahrain, Oman, Syria and Yemen, in Tunisia and Egypt it has acted as midwife for transitions, because of the refusal of the military to shoot at the protesters, thereby easing the end of both regimes. Armies are a particular kind of actors: they have been part of the authoritiarian settings for decades but latter have faced a real challenge when called upon to shoot at mass non-violent demostrations in 2011.

The military in the Arab world has been an integral institution within the authoritarian regimes for the last 40 years. The police, for example, has everywhere played an essential role in ruling the country and maintaining order, solving local conflicts and issuing of bureaucratic papers and authorizations. As the French political scientist Philippe Droz-Vincent writes in his working paper “A return of Armies to the Forefront of Arab Policies?”, «regimes have developed tentacular police apparatuses that have been at the forefront of social repression, whereas the army have remained in a "quietist" position». In their day-to-day working, «authoritarian regimes have been much more police states than military regimes», he adds. Besides it proclaimed role in external defence, the army has positioned itself as a symbol of the State, carefully cultivating the image of an actor at the service of the country. As a result, «armies have retained some legitimacy without threatening regimes and have been far less delegitimized than other state institutions».

Regimes themselves have displayed strategies to "tame" their militaries who have always been a quite privileged actor within the public sector. In addition to large budgets, modernization programmes and freedom for external oversight, some generals have gained favourable economic positions by being involved in economic ventures: in Egypt, for example, the military has invested in large economic ventures in Sinai or coastal lands, and in Syria, until 2005, officers deployed in Lebanon benefited from the administration of smuggling networks.

Some other Arab regimes have penetrated their militaries far more thoroughly: the Yemeni army as been characterized by the deep penetration of tribal relations after the 1994 reunification war; in Syria the Alawi community has benefited from preferential recruitment into top military posts; in Libya the army has been permeated by family and tribal networks. Neverthless, Libya is a limit case because Colonel Gaddafi distrusted the army after his takeover in 1969 and systematically weakened the military. The regular military was counterbalanced with the upgrading of special units and militias, falling under the direct control of Gaddafi's sons, members of the Gadhafa tribe or close allies.

In 2011, while protesters engaged in civil resistance and occupied Tahrir Square in Cairo, Square of Change in Sanaa and Pearl Square in Manama, regimes deloyed their militay apparatuses unleashing the full range of power of their security forces. Using tear gas, rubber bullets, live ammunitions at shor range and snipers posted on high buildings to create terror, regimes should have won the battle, but armies began to fraternize with protesters in the mass demostrations against authoritarianism thereby easing the end of dictatorships.

In Tunisia, the Chief of Staff, General Ammar, is reported to have refused orders to open fire at protesters, and the army was deployed to maintaining order on the streets. In Egypt, the army units sympathized with the demonstrators and were welcomed as heroes: the military blessed the protesters' «legitimate demands» and declared that it would not use force against the people.

According to the analysis of Philippe Droz-Vincent, we see that armies are set to play «a pivotal role, either by rebuilding regimes or by filling the political void that emerges during power struggles». It is possible to classify three models of post-regimes breakdown army postures: the Tunisian military chooses to stay at the margins of the political system; the huge Egyptian miltary is propelled into politics; the Lybian army implodes as the country descends into civil war.

1) In Tunisia, on 24 January 2011, General Ammar promised to uphold the revolution and guarantee stability until election were held. The Tunisian army has allowed state bureaucrats and jurists take the lead, limiting its role to providing security and protected citizens from in the security vacuum that ensued when police fled their posts. The military officially declared its support of the electoral protests, signaling it will have accept the outcome even before the Islamists emerged on top. After the elections, the representative of the defense ministry, Major-Colonel Mokhtar Ben Nasr remarked: «As a military institution, we are proud of the Tunisian people. We have fulfilled our promise and participated in securing the elections (…) The Tunisian army will return to its military bases after the elections, and it will carry out its normal business, while rethinking its mission, and working to employ many of the youth».

2) In Egypt the situation is far more complex. The Egyptian army has been the only institution that has retained some coherence and legitimacy during the 18-day uprising, and has acted as midwife of transiction. The Mubarak regime and its police apparatus collapsed, leaving a political void: «hence, within this institutional quagmire, the army acts has acted as a direct stabilizer», Professor Droz-Vincent states. Philippe Droz-Vincent, as some other analysts, assumes that Mr. Mubarak’s government had collapsed in 2011. According to Joshua Statcher, Assistant Professor of Political Science at Kent State, and author of “Adaptable Autocrats: Regime Power in Egypt and Syria”, they were wrong. «The regime never changed - he writes in an article appeared on June 30, 2012, on The New York Times - It was reconfigured. The underlying centralized structures of the system that the military council inherited from Mr. Mubarak persist, and the generals have sought to preserve them». Signs of the military's shift are also evident in the islamic constitution that has prompted strong opposition in the Square, says Eric Trager, an analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who has studied the Muslim Brotherhood organization that backs Morsi. «It appears that the Brotherhood and Morsi have solidified a deal with the military in which Morsi is the political leader of Egypt», Trager adds.

3) Libya represents a third model. Due to its inherent weakness and fragmentation, the Libyan army imploded: the State apparatus rapidly disintegrated and Gaddafi's geographic areas of control «dwindled dramatically in the first two weeks of the uprising, with entire army units defecting and providing the “rebels” a nascent military force».

It is possible to consider a fourth model, represented by the Yemeni army. Displaying extreme discomfort in repressing unarmed civilians, during the mass mobilizations in Sanaa, the Yemeni army began to fragment, with severl top commanders declaring their support for the anti-Saleh protesters. Today the army is involved in a re-building process and France is helping Yemen – after French Ambassador Franck Gellet met with Yemen Defense Minister Mohammed Nasser Ahmed last January to review areas of collaboration – to promote stability and security. Defense Minister Ahmed stressed how very much he values France military expertise and intends to work at strengthening such partnership as to achieve joint interests.

Last modified on Monday, 01 April 2013 15:31
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