To Shoot or Not to Shoot?

Salam Kawakibi

For 40 years now, the word “army” in the Arab world has evoked military coups, states of emergency, secretiveness and surveillance. The armed forces have been the foundation of political systems, or served as their ultimate guarantors, but have rarely been visible. Several times they have served as protectors of the people and saviors of the state; although they are part of the state security apparatus, the last line of defense for the regime, they have been seen -- in Tunisia and Egypt -- to dissociate themselves from police forces, to recognise the demands of demonstrators as legitimate and, eventually, to abandon the leaders they had installed, and under whose command they were expected to operate.
What has happened over the last few decades to make people glad of military intervention, or even demand it, first in Tunisia, and then during the Egyptian revolution which swept away the Mubarak regime?
Most Arab leaders, whether they came from the armed forces or not, knew the historic importance of these forces in the establishment of nation states after independence, and were quick to see the threat they posed. They have all tried to marginalize and neutralize the forces, chiefly by granting them considerable economic privileges. In Egypt, much of the funding was provided by the United States, which paid generous subsidies to the generals. The generals were allowed to build shopping malls, towns in the desert and seaside resorts, and were admitted to elite clubs formerly reserved for the Cairene aristocracy. They occupy all the regional governorships and head a number of major public enterprises and government ministries.
Heads of state have also developed complex security apparatuses led by high-ranking officers, who found their mission changed from protection of the state to protection of the regime. This trend can be seen in every country, but it was generally started by leaders who came from the forces.
The security services gather intelligence, maintain order and monitor the activities of people on a day-to-day basis. The number of security services always grows, because it allows them to watch each other. In Egypt, their staff numbers have grown to three times those of the armed forces (1.4 million compared with only 500,000). It is rare to find the two merged into a single cohesive body, as they are in Algeria.
The security services, though conceived as the coercive arm of political regimes, have become directly involved in administration. They deal directly with civil society -- striking workers, the unemployed, demonstrators demanding housing or the right to buy the land they farm. They also manage relations between the different religious communities, apply censorship orders issued by the government or religious authorities and set the limits on free speech.
The penetration of all institutions by the security services is not new, but the degree to which public life has been directly managed by the mukhabarat (intelligence agencies) has risen over the past decade. They now operate openly, and the language used by their heads suggests that they see themselves as omnipotent. A high-ranking official of Egypt’s interior ministry told us: “In this country, everything is a security issue. We are responsible for everything, from the birds in the Sinai desert to the elements of al-Qaida wandering around in it, via the mosques of Cairo and Alexandria.” Their activities have even come to include mind control: In Saudi Arabia, in the context of the struggle against jihadism, the interior ministry has developed the concept of “intellectual security.”
Leaders have been able to sleep easy in the knowledge that the security services were looking after things, which has led to more and more security and less and less politics. The term “securitocracy”, coined by the Sudanese political scientist Haydar Ibrahim, characterizes such regimes well. The recent uprisings have revealed the dilapidated state of political institutions in country after country. In most cases, the armed forces have found themselves rescuing what are basically failed states.
The security systems of the Arab world resemble those of Latin American and eastern and southern European countries before the transition to democracy. They act as a buffer between the state and the people; they are made up of institutions of varying size and complexity, all operating in a closed loop, all with the same culture of impunity, and all geared to the systematic creation of terror. But although their primary task is to foster an atmosphere of fear and prevent citizens from banding together, they too are ruled by fear, at every level, a fear that is proportionate to the complexity of the hierarchy and its tendency to change in reflection of clan rivalries.
This year’s uprisings, from North Africa to the Middle East, have broken the closed loop. The people, making a surprise appearance on the political scene, have revealed hidden differences and stirred up rivalries. They have brought the structures of the state face to face with a dilemma -- To fire, or not to fire, on the demonstrators?
When something goes wrong in the security apparatus, dysfunction spreads to other pillars of the regime: the ruling party, the business oligarchy and the armed forces. Popular uprisings separate the institutions that serve the regime from those that present themselves as serving the state -- first and foremost, the armed forces; having played no part in maintaining order, are able to act as guarantors of the transition to democracy.
There are many links between the armed forces and the security services, most often provided by the heads of the military intelligence services, such as General Omar Suleiman in Egypt or General Mohamed “Toufik” Mediene in Algeria, who occupy the most important positions in the political system.
It should be noted that the contributions of the Tunisian and the Egyptian armed forces to the outcome of the revolts in their respective countries were different. Like most of the Arab leaders who moved from the barracks to the presidential palace, the Tunisian president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali was fearful of the ambitions of the military. Shortly after he came to power in 1987, the armed forces suffered personnel and budget cuts, and several senior officers were fired. The still unexplained helicopter accident that killed General Abdelaziz Skik and other senior army officers heightened the suspicion between the president and the armed forces. Having been kept out of the political decision-making process, even during the Bourguiba years (1957-87), the armed forces were not involved in the economic life of Tunisia and were therefore not involved in the regime’s corruption.
The Egyptian military, by contrast, have been in power since the Free Officers’ revolution of 1952. Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser, who died with only 85 Egyptian pounds to his name, initiated an ambitious social and economic development program in Egypt, and throughout the Arab world. His nationalist ideology appealed to the people, who forgave his political mistakes and his systematic attack on freedom of speech. His successor Anwar Sadat, who also came from an army background, was the champion of an economic liberalism that benefited a new parasitical bourgeoisie. He introduced a culture of corruption and ensured the loyalty of the armed forces by giving them economic privileges to marginalize them, having robbed them of their “victory” in the 1973 war against Israel, by signing the Camp David accords in 1978.
During the past decade, resentment towards Mubarak grew within the armed forces. They were dissatisfied with his refusal to appoint a vice president, which created a dangerous uncertainty as to the future, and his obstinacy in promoting his son Gamal as his successor -- a man whom they did not recognise as having any legitimate claim and whose accession would deprive them of their traditional role of kingmaker. Mubarak also caused dissatisfaction by allowing a small circle of businessmen close to his heir apparent to acquire greater and greater wealth.
In the days before the fall of the regime, the differences of opinion became apparent: should the armed forces continue to support Mubarak or push him to step down? The consensus favoring non-support grew, but the armed forces seemed hesitant to assume responsibility for deposing the president. The United States issued cautious, sometimes contradictory, statements, trying to preserve stability at all costs, even if that meant Mubarak had to go. Between 10 and 11 February, the armed forces allowed the demonstrations to achieve full force by facilitating access to the parliament building and the presidential palace, symbols of the regime’s power, making the demonstrations look like the principal cause of the regime’s fall. They have taken up the kingmaker role again but are now presenting themselves as rebuilders of the entire political order, promising a democratic system. Many people had hoped they would intervene, believing this was necessary to protect Egypt’s internal transformation from regional and foreign interference (from Israel, the United States, other Arab countries, or even Iran).
The major difference lies in the nature of the military intervention. In Tunisia, the armed forces intervened to protect the people; they forced Ben Ali to step down, with the approval of their US “friends.” The Egyptian armed forces, on the other hand, stepped in at the beginning of the revolt to fill the security void in the street. Later on, they stood by while Mubarak’s militia attacked the demonstrators in Tahrir Square. It is true that they did not fire at the demonstrators; but neither did they prevent others from doing so. Ultimately, they decided to abandon a regime in its death throes and preserve the system.
In Algeria, the political role of the military general staff was defined during the presidency of Houari Boumedienne (1965-78), by the establishment of the Military Security (MS). In Algeria, the MS was the kingmaker. At every election, the MS intervened to perpetuate an order that proved remarkably stable, except for the disastrous period after the failure of 1991. The armed forces got Bouteflika elected in 1999. But the first signs of a split between the MS and the armed forces appeared in 2004, when the MS organised Bouteflika’s re-election, against the advice of the army chief of staff Mohamed Lamari. As Mustapha Mohamed notes: “2004 confirmed the autonomy of the MS and its supremacy over the armed forces.” The re-election of Bouteflika removed the last faint hopes that Algerian politics could be rescued from the grasp of the MS, which strengthened its grip on the entire state apparatus. The situation seems to have reached a deadlock: The armed forces cannot withdraw from political affairs without leaving a void in the system, but are not doing anything that might encourage the emergence of a democratic process.
In Algeria, the interweaving of the military and the security services makes for total opacity and total control of politics. In this “ideal” securitocracy, those in charge -- the president and the government – do very little governing. The unpreparedness of the non-violent opposition suggests that change can only come from within the system, but it is hard to see those in power favouring changes that might threaten their own position. This is why hopes are emerging again today that people power will start a process that will lead to the overthrow of the regime, as in Tunisia and Egypt. It would force the security/military apparatus to make the same fateful choice – to fire, or not to fire, on the people.
In Libya, despite the opacity of the system, the armed forces have been marginalized over the last three decades in favor of the Revolutionary Committees. Army camps have been moved out into the desert, to prevent the military from fostering political ambition. In the first days of the repression ordered by Muammar Gadafy, there were defections and the head of the army, General Abu Bakr Younes Jaber, was placed under house arrest. Gadafy’s reinforcement of the security system -- based on special units loyal to him, and his use of African mercenaries -- confirms that dictators are wary not only of their people, but also of their armed forces.
After the revolutions, the armed forces in Egypt and Tunisia are in a position to set conditions for a return to civilian government. There is nothing to suggest that they have ambitions to take power for themselves. In Egypt, the decision to intervene was collegiate and prompted by the popular uprising, which should help the more authoritarian elements to resist the temptation to transgress the boundaries the armed forces have fixed. In fact, the armed forces have been quick to establish a time frame for the process of return to civilian government.
This will probably take place, as elsewhere, on the basis of a pact between the civilian population and the military, sheltering the latter from possible reprisals. In Egypt, and all the more in Algeria, if things change in that country, the negotiations are likely to include the preservation of the armed forces’ economic privileges. Translated by Charles Goulden Salam Kawakibi is research director of the Arab Reform Initiative, Paris; Bassma Kodmani is its executive director. Copyright © 2011 Le Monde diplomatique -- distributed by Agence Global