Will Their Armies Save (some ) Arab States from Islamism / Prof.B.Rubin

November 2, 2011
Caption: Soldiers of Turkey’s once-secular army holding official prayers as the Islamist regime transforms it into a reliable Islamist force.

Nowhere in the world is Mao Zedong’s dictum that political power grows out of the barrel of a gun truer than in the Middle East.

The armed forces have been the basis of power in the Arabic-speaking world and in Turkey, too. That’s why the nationalist dictatorships and traditionalist monarchies, which had seen so many coups and coup attempts in the 1950s and 1960s, had to find special ways to control the armed forces. They did so by special privileges, close intelligence watches, promoting officers on the basis of loyalty to the regime, and many other measures.

One of these was the creation of elite, parallel military formations. Examples include the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the Iraqi Republican Guard, the Saudi “White Army,” and others.

During the “Arab Spring” there has not been a single revolution in the usual sense of the word. In Egypt and Tunisia, what we have seen are essentially coups. The armed forces both used the mass demonstrations and responded to them by seizing power. In Libya, a rebel army was basically handed power by NATO. But where the army remained loyal, as in Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and — so far but perhaps shakily — Syria, the regime remained in power.

This analysis raises the question of whether the army is going to remain in control of Egypt and Tunisia. In this situation, neither “revolution” nor elections nor revolutionary Islamist groups really matter. The soldiers are still the boss. Change, then, is more illusory than real and there is far less to fear.

Such an analysis is viable; it might be true; it might even be, from an international strategic perspective, the best outcome. While a stable, non-repressive, and non-aggressive democracy that benefited large numbers of people is preferable, what if it isn’t possible?

Here’s a chart to get a clear picture of the situation:



Professional soldiers: Algeria (closely tied to regime), Egypt (dual power with probable Islamist-led regime?), Syria (closely tied to regime with small numbers supporting opposition), Tunisia (dual power–?–with Islamist-led regime)

Islamists: Gaza Strip, Iran, Lebanon (army still independent but Islamist militia the strongest military force), Libya, Turkey (far from completely but that’s the trend)

Kings: Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Gulf emirates (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, United Arab Emirates)


Before discussing Egypt and Tunisia, however, I should explain why this idea of the army regulating Islamists doesn’t apply to other countries. In Libya, the rebels are the army now and many of them are radical Islamists whose loyalty to civilian authorities is close to zero. Since Libya has its own income, it is not the semi-slave of foreign aid that would restrict its government from doing as it pleases regardless of Western dissatisfaction.

As for Turkey, it could be a model contradicting the military-in-control thesis. After all, that is precisely the system that did exist in Turkey for decades, with the army as the ultimate custodian of the republic. The Islamist regime — with a lot of foolish Western “help” — has broken the army. Massive arrests are intimidating and weakening the officer corps. If in power long enough, the Islamists will step by step take over the army from the inside by promoting both ideologically loyal and opportunistic officers. It’s too late for a coup.

At this point, an army coup is not a solution in Syria. Either the regime will remain in power or there will be a revolution. Some fresh faces at the top are unlikely to quell the protests. It will still be the Alawite-dominated regime that has ruled Syria for almost fifty years. A split in the army (which has already happened to some extent) brings a civil war closer.

What about Egypt and Tunisia? In Egypt, the army has been the backbone of the regime for 60 years but it has not wielded direct political power for most of that time. Generals became provincial governors and high administrators after retirement. The army was pampered with privileges and allowed to carry out many profitable economic activities. U.S. aid financed its budget to a large extent and furnished it regularly with new toys.

One can certainly argue that the army in Egypt — and similar things apply to Tunisia — has an interest in being “moderate.” It is more of a pragmatic than a doctrinaire institution, and it knows the cost of war. Islamist demagogues can talk about revolution, invasion, wiping out Israel, and so on, but the officers know that they are unlikely to win.

Note that this situation doesn’t require the officers to have political ambitions. But their interventions have an involuntary edge to them, to protect their privileges and to maintain the law and order that they professionally prefer.

The decision of the Egyptian army to postpone presidential elections to the second half of 2013 is the clearest example of that reluctant political activism. Even if they sincerely intended in past months to turn over power to civilians, the crime and anarchy and extremism unleashed have given them second thoughts.

Is this a thin reed to lean on? Yes, but it is the only reed around, a much stronger one than that of liberal moderate politicians.

I’m not saying that this is the Obama administration’s strategy, far from it. Ironically, America’s president is also its leading neo-conservative. The only difference to his strategy of “democracy is the answer” is that he sees Islamists playing a major, perhaps even leading, role. A “realist” president would encourage the military establishments to keep control but everything he has said and done shows he wants the civilians to run things. For example, recently he has urged the Egyptians to drop the emergency laws and in Turkey, of course, he supported the actions that led to the army’s breaking.

In short, Obama is trying to destroy the safety net. The strategy I’m outlining seems more in line with State and Defense Department realpolitik thinking. But how much is this backed at the top of these institutions? Not clear. And how much is the White House listening to them? Not much.

The Western mass media is covering this as a purely good-guy civilians against military dictators conflict. They argue that there is nothing to fear from the Islamists so the sooner the military gets out of politics the better. I have one word in response: Turkey. That’s an example of what’s likely to happen when the Islamists knock down the last remaining barrier to their ambitions.

Sure, the military is dictatorial but so is the likely alternative. Certainly, the military in Egypt has killed Christians in the Maspero massacre and attacked them elsewhere. But imagine what things will be like when unrestrained mobs know that like-minded people are running the country.

Of course, the army-in-control approach requires some demagoguery and tyrannical behavior on the part of the military. Protecting Christians in Egypt is unpopular, so the army will let churches be burned and may even participate, as we saw in the Maspero incident, kill unarmed Christian demonstrators. Letting a mob attack the Israeli embassy is popular — no participants were sent to prison — but the military will also set limits to anti-Israel actions, if not anti-Israel demagoguery. The army arrests bloggers and democratic activists as well as violent Salafists but doesn’t dare touch the Muslim Brotherhood.

How is the army vulnerable? In the long run, if officers themselves embrace radical nationalism or Islamism, they might side with their civilian counterparts. We know such sentiments exist, especially in Egypt, but how strong are they? The current military leaders, advanced in age, are not interested in being dictators, but might there be some colonels who could seek to become the Mubaraks, Qadhafis, and Ben Alis of the future? Possible, though it won’t be easy for them to take power, at least until they’ve been promoted to near the top.

Yet can this system succeed, and at what cost? Will the Islamists, liberals, and left accept a situation in which they can win elections, hold offices, and do nothing? A more likely outcome would be that the military would let them do what they want domestically but restrain them internationally. For example, institute Sharia law (many officers would even be happy with that), reduce women’s rights, teach an Islamist curriculum in the schools, put Islamist imams in mosques, and even stone sinners but don’t go to war against Israel, sponsor terrorism abroad, or take actions against the United States.

There is some advantage to patience as the Islamists’ strategy. If, as seems likely, the economies crash, they will want to be able to blame that on the army at the very moment that the army represses protests against the civilian government. Naturally, this is a formula for instability but not for war.

That’s conceivable. In exchange for a free hand at home, the Islamists would accept this situation, though hoping to gain full control in the future. The Obama administration could even claim this as a success while the Western media plays down the human rights violations, precisely as has happened with Turkey.

Yet as we have seen in the Middle East, demagoguery can get out of hand. And as we have seen in Turkey, the Islamists’ “long march through the institutions” might free them from the military’s constraints in the future.

After all, the army is not a black box. Karl Marx said that “even the educator must be educated.” Well, even the officers have beliefs that go beyond their professional skills. The army does not have a political party of its own or reliable politicians in either Egypt or Tunisia. It has to maintain some kind of working relationship with the Islamists, keeping them happy, and with public opinion, keeping itself as popular as possible.

At any rate, this dimension must be taken into account. We probably won’t find out more until 2013, when — if all goes as planned — Tunisia and Egypt will elect civilian presidents.

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