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Impact of Arab upheavals on Arab civil-military relations

05/04/2012, Rome

The Arab spring provides an opportunity to begin an in-depth analysis of civil-military relations in the Arab world. Such an exercise must be deemed a priority for the West given its potential to better understand the changes taking place throughout the region and consequently produce more informed assessments and ensuing policy responses.

IAI was pleased to host Robert Springborg, Professor in the Department of National Security Affairs of the Naval Postgraduate School and Program Manager for the Middle East for the Centre for Civil-Military Relations, as a guest speaker outlining his thoughts on the subject. Four parameters – hydrocarbon wealth, Islamism, the degree of external intervention in a state’s domestic affairs, and the diverse typology of the state in question – were identified by the speaker as best reflecting the unique characteristics affecting civil-military relations in the region, whereby a comparison with other regions where civil-military relations play a prominent role can only deliver limited results.

Broad differences emerged with regard to the mechanisms employed by Arab states, whether they are monarchies or republics, in order to control their respective armed forces. Within the definition of republics a further distinction was made between those republics which have tended to rely more heavily on armed forces’ support because of the regime’s belonging to a minority sect or ethnic/tribal grouping (Syria, Yemen, Libya), and those where the nature of the regime is more institutionalized; here the armed forces enjoy greater legitimacy in the eyes of the populace in that their loyalty to the state is at least as strong, if not even stronger, than their commitment to the survival of the ruling regime (Egypt, Tunisia). However, an overriding commonality among MENA states is what Dr. Springborg has termed a “sultanistic” approach by Arab regimes towards their respective armed forces. MENA regimes have traditionally feared the military as a potential threat to their rule and have thus adopted diverse measures aimed at limiting its activities and/or co-opting its personnel. Political and administrative surveillance, patronage, divisions of command, the use of mercenaries, and nepotism are but some examples of these techniques.

Finally, while turning to the role of the armed forces in Egypt and Tunisia, the speaker noted how the prospects for a smooth transition appear more favourable in Tunisia due to the homogeneous nature of that society and the significantly limited influence the army enjoys over the economy. In Egypt an increasingly visible clash is emerging between the two major actors in the transition phase: the Islamists, of which the Muslim Brotherhood represents the most organized force, and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces in control of the government since the fall of former President Hosni Mubarak. Contrary to what was the case in the past, this time around the military seems unable to use the mix of cooptation and repression with which they have traditionally reined in Islamist forces, adding to the widespread sense of uncertainty over the country’s future.