In the early stages of the Arab revolutions, after the Tunisian experience proved that it was possible for a country’s armed forces to display a set of motives other than an eventual takeover of power, observers grew hopeful about the new role that Arab armies could play in a post-tyrannical era.
The military institutions in Arab countries have drawn their legitimacy from a variety of sources. Some gained it through their role in achieving independence from foreign colonialists, while others claimed that their legitimacy emanated from their revolutions or “coups that toppled reactionary regimes instilled by colonial forces.” Others have asserted that their role in protecting the country from foreign entities and ambitions gives them irrefutable legitimacy and entitles them to ambitions of their own for the future.
This “legitimacy” is multi-faceted. Not only was it used to bolster the role of the armed forces and give them added capacities as defenders of the civil state, but also to justify these forces’ control over the political arena and the fates of the people who entrusted their lives to them. It therefore became unacceptable, in the eyes of these national heroes, for some “malefactors” to accuse them of having political aspirations, leading military coups or of having economic interests that depended on their control over the state.
In most cases, since the time that states gained their independence and embarked on a process of formation and liberation from colonialism, the armed forces saw it their duty to not only safeguard borders and protect independence from a military stand point, but also develop the societies with which they had been entrusted. They saw themselves as entitled to planning the course of their countries’ political futures and developing the economic framework necessary for growth out of the crises inherited from brutal colonial forces. They were therefore often unyielding when it came to matters such as education, the rearing of future generations and the planning of social policies — even policies dealing with population control or growth.
Any verbal or analytical questioning of the military’s expertise in such matters, or any statement to the effect that the the armed forces should content themselves with their patriotic honor of protecting the country from foreign enemies, were seen by the military as unforgivable crimes. These kinds of infractions allegedly led to “the weakening of the national spirit and the country’s resolve” necessary to adequately confront crises that were only present in the minds of those who ruled.
Arab military rulers, from the moment they came to power or began to manipulate it, completely disregarded their sworn duties to protect the country and people. They ignored their duty to stay away from public affairs and content themselves with the noble role that contributed to the building of their original stellar image. On the contrary, they chose to enter the political and economic arenas of their countries and establish a system of rule built on security that would allow them to dominate and secure their own private interests.
Real experiments have proven that some of the countries that were politically and economically dominated by the military have seen their armed forces sidetracked from their primary roles. The new focus on everyday life issues and business matters led to military failures. The armed forces called these failures conspiracies, often declaring that they were concocted by real and imaginary forces whose goal was to strike at the invincibility and stability of the state ruled by pure and wise men.
There are also many examples of a military’s failure to take on even a fraction of its responsibilities. It is unfortunate to see those forces retreat to hide behind the ever-present argument, “We alone choose the time and place for confrontation — no one else can force us to do anything.” They therefore fail to fulfill their duties of protecting the country’s borders until they are able to regain the upper hand by exhausting society and depriving it of all its capacities and energies.
African experiments have demonstrated the negative effects that result from the entrance of the military into the political arena. The Arabs now realize that this move can only lead to undesirable and detrimental results.
On the one hand, the military itself may fall victim to such behavior if it perceives that it has lost its credibility and respect, which are tied, maybe erroneously, to an ideal image rooted in the country’s past and in the role upon which its legitimacy was built during the initial phases of the state’s emergence. On the other hand, societies have fallen victim to political ambitions and attempts by others to use the armed forces' entry onto the public arena for their own ambitions — the big winner here being foreign enemies.
Tunisia’s positive experiment raised the region’s hopes that the military can play a positive role in encouraging a peaceful transition of power after the fall of an oppressive regime (which counted the Tunisian military among its victims in the first place). The Egyptian experiment, though, seems to dispute this exception, and highlights the fact that the armed forces usually strive to attain the political power with which they have a deep rooted relationship to begin with.
In Egypt, it remains improbable that the military would relinquish its economic interests and political hegemony, at least in the near term. Despite the fact that the military remained for the most part on the sidelines during the Egyptian revolution, it nevertheless intervened at a critical stage to save itself as an institution, by calling on Hosni Mubarak (a son of the military in the first place) to step down.
Optimists draped the military in a robe that was ill-fitted to it, thinking that Egypt would be a repeat of what happened in Tunisia. This erroneous analysis displayed a lack of understanding of the Tunisian situation and its peculiarities, as well as a misjudging of the Egyptian situation in a modern historical context. The political role of Arab armies has proven to be an important and complicated one, the study of which necessitates ambitious and wide-ranging analysis. The Turkish models, like the South American ones, are too geographically removed to be of use, but one can find commonalities and shared aspirations.
The developments on the Arab scene point to the fact that the military’s political and economic hegemony has not yet reached its final leg. The weakened political capacities of civil-society organisations, regardless of the reasons, are partially to blame for that, and have allowed the military to reinforce its domination. The events that are playing out in Egypt are proof that the military lacks crisis-management skills: The election of a president with only limited authority, the dissolution of a democratically elected parliament and the proclamation of a constitutional announcement have taken the country backward and delayed the political cooperation that would have saved the country from all the usual bickering, greed and pettiness.
A dear Yemeni friend of mine once told me: "They stole the night stars away from us so that they could use them to embellish their uniforms during the day."