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The resurgence of Arab militaries

- December 5, 2014

A supporter of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi holds a poster as an army helicopter patrols over Tahrir Square in Cairo on Nov 28. (Amr Nabil/AP Photo)
The Arab upheavals and reactions to them have resulted in a profound militarization of the Arab world. In the republics, this has taken the form of remilitarizing Egypt, further entrenching the power of Algeria’s military and possibly preparing the Tunisian military for an unaccustomed role in the future. In the other republics, regime supporting militaries have been pitted against militias emerging from protest movements, with both sides attracting external support. In the monarchies, ruling families have bolstered their militaries by increasing their capabilities and by roping them together in collective commands. They have done so primarily to confront and put down further upheavals, wherever in the Arab world they might occur, but probably also as part of intensifying intrafamily power struggles. Behind this militarization is the U.S. presence in various forms, including as primary supplier and trainer, operator of autonomous bases and orchestrator of counter terrorist campaigns.
This is a novel and dangerous development for the Arab world, and not simply business as usual. Militaries that in the past were either parade ground forces, such as those in Tunisia or several Gulf Cooperation Council states, or that had through peace lost their raison d’être, such as in Egypt, are being reinvigorated not only to combat internal threats, but as possible expeditionary forces to confront “terror” and instability in neighboring countries. While most of the attention has thus far been paid to the obvious new political face of the military in republics such as Egypt, the implications in the monarchies of the Gulf might actually be more consequential.
In the republics, men with guns are most obviously on the march. In Egypt, now led by the former field marshal, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the military was strong enough on its own to beat back forces unleashed by the Arab Spring. The military base remains too narrow upon which to build a new regime, however. Having defeated the Muslim Brotherhood and sidelined revolutionaries, Sisi must selectively invite into his winning coalition one of those state and non-state actors who will be of political, economic and administrative use. The candidates include crony capitalists, the broader bourgeoisie, other remnants of the Hosni Mubarak regime, Islamists other than the Brotherhood, traditional and tribal notables, unionists, etc. This wide range of options attests to the remarkable strength of the military and profound weakness of other actors. Key to burnishing its image has been distancing itself from its primary external supporter, the United States, against which it has positioned itself as the embodiment of a new Nasserism. The contradictions in this posturing, including real dependence on both the United States and the Saudis, will presumably become more evident to Egyptians as time passes. At present, however, the general willingness to gloss over such contradictions attests to the profound imbalance between the military and all civilian actors, and to the desperate hope for better lives, which only the strong man from the military is thought capable of delivering.
In Tunisia the military has essentially guarded the political arena in which contesting forces have vied for power, while simultaneously confronting various jihadist elements. The Tunisian military, which served as the midwife of the “revolution,” enjoys much better status now than under former presidents Habib Bourguiba or Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. In Algeria there was no Arab Spring to challenge indirect military rule, so the military has lain low, undermining other competitors for power within the state. The Algerian military, the most robust of those in these other republics despite its internal divisions, has reasserted its centrality to power at the expense of the Ministry of Interior, the presidency, and even its very own Department of Intelligence and Security (DRS), over which the generals have tightened their control. The fate of the shadowy forces allied to the military that formed shock troops against Islamist rebels during the civil war is unknown, but presumably they continue to exist and could be mobilized again if necessary.
In the other republics militaries have fragmented. In these other republics, whose states in general and militaries in particular have traditionally been less institutionalized than in those of Egypt and Tunisia, the resurgence of coercive power has been manifested to a greater extent in militias. Remnants of the Libyan military, an institution subordinated by Moammar Gaddafi to the autonomous kataib (battalions) commanded either by his sons or tribal allies, then further marginalized by the victorious militias, are now trying to stage a comeback under Gen. Khalifa Hifter or with his allied militias based in Zintan. This reconstituted military-militia, however, is facing stiff opposition from Ansar al-Sharia and other tribally and regionally based militias that have prospered in the vacuum of state authority, key of which are those centered in Misrata.
Militaries and militias in pre- and post-Arab Springs in Syria and Yemen are similar to those in Libya. In both countries the national military was cleaved into militias led by presidential allies tied to him by blood, tribe or sect. Civil war in Syria elevated the role of the militias most closely connected to President Bashar al-Assad, while marginalizing the broader military whose role has been assumed by a newly created National Defense Force trained by Iran, Hezbollah fighters and mercenaries. The Yemeni military, through which former president Ali Abdullah Saleh exercised his tribally based power, supplemented by tribal militias, appears to be the last remaining sovereign institution standing between continued territorial integrity and a failed state, as frantic U.S. efforts to shore it up attest. In reality, however, after the collapse of Gen. Ali Mohsen’s forces in September, the only remaining hard core of that military is the division commanded by Saleh’s son Ahmad, as militias associated with the Islamist Islah movement are becoming the principal armed forces of northern Sunnis. The rising strength of militias connected to the Zaidi Houthis’ Ansar Allah movement in the North and Hirak secessionists in the South, to say nothing of various jihadi forces of which the strongest is al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and of growing tactical alliances between these various challengers, suggest that like the Syrian military, the Yemeni one will be insufficiently institutionalized to survive post Arab Spring challenges in a unified, coherent form.
The Iraqi military, rebuilt on the foundations of the one disbanded by then-U.S. Pro-Consul Paul Bremer, seemed to be a rather sturdier structure than the Syrian or Yemeni militaries, primarily because it was the main focus of U.S. state-building efforts, and hence the most important vehicle through which former prime minister Nouri al-Maliki could impose his control on the country. The collapse of much of that military when confronted by Sunni tribal militias and those of the Islamic State group this spring and summer, however, revealed how fragile are the foundations a sectarianized state provides for its national military. Maliki and his successor, Haider al-Abadi, like their Syrian and Yemeni counterparts, were forced to turn increasingly to loyalist Shiite militias in the increasingly Hobbesian conflict in their country.
In the monarchies, by contrast, power has been held by ruling families, not militaries or militias. At first glance royal power appears largely undisturbed by neighboring revolutions. This view, however, may be myopic. There are indications of what could be a historic power shift from royals to officers, possibly analogous to that which occurred some two to three generations ago in most of the republics. Frightened by Arab upheavals, royals have bolstered their militaries, not only enlarging them, in some cases via conscription, but also by providing them with yet more hardware, and by placing greater emphasis on the security dimension of their domestic and foreign policies. The focus on counter terrorism, with lines being drawn in the sand between patriots and jihadis, real and imagined, raises political stakes and tensions while creating conditions associated with the realization of Max Weber’s “paradox of the sultan,” whereby a ruler’s growing dependence on the forces of coercion ultimately results in his subordination to them.
Arab monarchial coup-proofing strategies have included a mix of placing members of ruling families in command of militaries, keeping armies relatively small, counter-balancing militaries with security services and dividing the military itself, and recruiting mercenaries. Possibly it is the confidence based on this success that has caused the key monarchs in the GCC, led by the Saudis, to bolster militaries – their own and others – to counter upheavals, without any apparent regard for the consequences for control over their militaries. In December 2013, the GCC announced the formation of a Joint Military Command of some 100,000 officers and men to be headquartered in the Saudi Arabian capital of Riyadh. In March, the GCC invited Jordan and Morocco to form a military alliance in return for unspecified “financial aid.” In theory this would bolster GCC forces by 300,000 men. Most of the GCC states have also announced intentions to build up their military capacities. Kuwait had by 2014 rebuilt its forces to the pre-1990 level of 17,000. Qatar in November 2013 and the United Arab Emirates two months later announced that conscription would be introduced, while Kuwait indicated that it was considering this step. The UAE declared in early 2014 it was doubling its defense imports to $3 billion by 2015 – notable, in that since 2007 the UAE has already been second only to Saudi Arabia in acquiring U.S. military hardware through the Foreign Military Sales Program.
These and other measures reflect a large quantitative, possibly even qualitative change in the role of monarchial militaries, at least in the GCC. They are being assigned the key role in implementing an “Arab Thermidor,” wherever it should be needed. It might well be that members of these ruling families also are motivated by the perceived utility of personal control over at least some component of the military in anticipated succession struggles. Saudi King Abdullah’s attempts to ensure succession through his line, for example, appears to rest heavily on control over the National Guard, which during his rule has been developed into a more potent force than the military itself, to say nothing of it becoming the personal fiefdom of his son Mutaib. Al-Khalifa control of the Bahraini military, al-Sabah control of the Kuwaiti one, and so on throughout the GCC, is likely also to become steadily more relevant to leadership succession as these ruling families multiply and divide and contestation for power between princes intensifies.
Monarchial militaries, in other words, are becoming double-edged swords. Increasingly capable of subduing revolutions at home or in the near abroad, they are being drawn more directly into intra-elite politics, where they could end up cutting into monarchial rule itself. As the stakes of militarization and military intervention steadily increase, so does the possibility of intra-family divisions between moderates and hard liners grow, as seems most apparent in Bahrain, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Such intra-family divisions may in turn open up possibilities for non-royal officers, or even for non-commissioned officers working in league with revolutionary forces, as in Iran in 1978-79. In sum, monarchial militaries have as a result of Arab upheavals been substantially strengthened. At present they remain firmly under monarchial control, but their potential to intensify divisions within these ruling families and thereby to create opportunities for rule by commoners, whether officers or civilians, grows in tandem with their size.
Robert Springborg is the Visiting Kuwait Professor at the Paris School of International Affairs at Sciences Po in Paris. This essay is part of a Project on Middle East Studies and London School of Economics and Political Science collection on “The Arab Thermidor: The Resurgence of the Security State.”