Since the start of the “Arab spring”, the overwhelming role of the military has been obvious. In Tunisia, popular uprisings may have been determinant, but at the same time former President Zineddine Ben Ali would not have fallen so easily if the army had not decided to exclude him from power. The same can be said about Egypt. In Yemen, the lack of consensus between the army’s elites is a credible explanation for the slowness of the transition process. As for Libya, the weakness of the military apparatus formerly set in place by Moammar Gaddafi allowed NATO to promote a strategy that ended with the fall of the Libyan leader.
Several common denominators
Nevertheless, these four countries continue to invite heavy criticism due to the absence of a separation between civilian and military spheres. In Tunisia, the army may be adopting a low profile, but nothing indicates that it is submitting to the executive power. Furthermore, the fragile security conditions prevailing in several parts of the country – starting with Tunis – contribute to reinforcing the role of the army as an ultimate guarantor for order and stability. In Egypt, the army’s dominance over the political is evident: issues such as the nature of relations with Israel, or the preservation of peace and order on a national level, are strategic priorities that the military watch from very close by. In Yemen, President al-Hadi springs straight from the military seraglio. Libya stands out here as an exception. In the absence of a strong army, civilian power is taking every opportunity to rally citizens to a national military body, while militias flourish in different parts of the country.
A comparable situation can be observed in those Arab countries currently in deep crisis – namely, Bahrain and Syria. In Bahrain, the royal family ruels the roost when it comes to dealing with the “Shia riots”. Key positions both in the ministry of defense and the army are held by members of the Al-Khalifa family, while Shias are largely excluded from the military sphere. The confessional factor combined with the overwhelming presence of the royal family blurs the divisions between civilian and military perspectives. As for the King, he is also the commander-in-chief of the army, and therefore has the final say over security and military decisions too. The situation is similar in Syria. President Bachar al-Assad has maintained the legacy of his father. He is in control of military and intelligence apparatuses. Furthermore, while key elements of the system are mainly constituted of Alawi officers, the low number of defections amongst high-ranking military officials as well as Assad's quick response to replace defecting or assassinated officers prove how powerful his influence still is when it comes to military perspectives. Assad may not necessarily be ruling on his own; but everything indicates that the final word is his.
As for the rest of the Arab countries, military perspectives are either controlled by civilian leaders (Saudi Arabia, Qatar, UAE, Morocco…) or the other way around (Algeria). Lebanon and Iraq may stand here as notable exceptions: the line separating the action of civilians from that of the military is generally blurred, due to weak institutions and a specific political context. Nevertheless, none of the other Arab countries can pretend to be ruled by a civilian power acting independently from the military sphere. Indeed, decades of autocratic rule have led to situations where regional and security issues have become overwhelming in domestic affairs. Political leaders quickly understood how important it was to have a strong but controlled army if they wanted to safeguard their own interests and the stability of their country. As a result, generally speaking, the “Arab spring” has had limited impact in these countries.
Despite this, the “Arab spring” actually contributed to shaping regional priorities, setting them in motion in a new direction. Indeed, while international alliances have seldom undergone radical change, regional perspectives have brought new challenges, and eventually had an impact on internal matters.
A shift in strategic challenges
With the exception of Libya, the “Arab spring” had no impact on international alliances. Broadly speaking, the United States remains the dominant military partner for the Arab world. Countries such as Russia, China and India – not to forget the European Union and some of its members – are pushing for more gains for themselves, but they still have a long way to go before they become privileged partners to the region.
But while these alliances have shifted little, some regional challenges did start to change considerably, bringing new and considerable risks for the stability of the sub-region. In Libya, a strong presence of local militias is regularly reported, as well as illegal trafficking, weapons smuggling and the rise of Islamist groups. One ought to also fear the potential for spill-over of the situation in Mali following a Touareg uprising. Immigration, mostly originating from sub-Saharan Africa, has placed additional pressurs on the Libyan authorities. While dealing with the imperative of stabilizing their country, Libyans also need to be able to better control their borders if they want to implement efficient policies.
In Egypt, the deteriorating security conditions in Sinai are nothing new. Former President Mubarak had been facing serious challenges over the territory, due to the difficulty of efficiently controlling Bedouin tribes and their trafficking. Nevertheless, recent events have led to far greater concern over the future of Egypt/Israel relations. Egyptians increasingly support the suspension – and even the cancellation – of the ongoing bilateral peace treaty. The Islamist attack at the beginning of August 2012 that left 16 Egyptian troops dead at the Egyptian-Israeli border before they could reach Israeli territory shed light on one of Egypt’s most important security challenges: the threat of violent Islamists, whose political agency could tempt part of the Egyptian population into asking for an end to the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty. The army’s reaction to this attack was strong, and it left no doubt concerning Egypt’s will both to maintain a control over the Sinai and to preserve the nature of its relations with Israel. Nevertheless, the situation remains tense and characterized by increased popular criticism addressed to both the army and the Muslim Brotherhood-led government.
Iran is another key player to watch closely. By keeping their nuclear achievements secret, Iranians frighten many Arab countries, starting with the Gulf States. At the same time, Iran is regularly accused of trying to influence the Shia of the region and get them to endorse Tehran’s points of view – i.e. topple Arab governments. Whether this accusation is real or exaggerated, perceptions of an “Iranian threat” have encouraged Arab governments to form a front against Tehran. To a large extent, by focusing on the Iranian scarecrow, several Arab countries also managed to deflect strong popular criticism away from their domestic policies.
Indeed, the Arab uprisings have put deficiencies and critical domestic issues prevalent in most Arab countries in the spotlight. They have even increased internal risks and their possible security impact. In Tunisia, the opposition between al-Nahda’s supporters and their critics and the political rise of Salafi trends challenge security and stability. In Egypt, while a similar situation prevails, tensions between Copts and some Islamists have increased and put more pressure on the government and the army. In Libya, challenges to the civilian power and its sovereignty over its territory have yet to be compensated for through the strengthening of police and security forces still in the making. In Bahrain, anti-government demonstrations bring regular clashes between opponents and the army, contributing to the kingdom's destabilization. In Yemen, the ongoing shaky transition process did not prevent four main challenges from developing: the affirmation of tribes; the strengthening of al-Qaida; the demands of Huthists for more citizenship rights; and the claims made by some Southern-Yemenis for increased autonomy, if not downright independence. In Syria, initial popular demands for reforms have turned into an impending “civil war” scenario, with more and more people fighting each other for religious reasons.
What role is to be played by international actors?
In this context, is there any possibility for the so-called international community to limit the impact of such disturbing changes? In theory, the answer is no. Decades of external meddling into Arab affairs brought crisis to the region, since several international actors (starting with the USA and Russia) have turned the Arab world into a space for exerting their own influence. Today, some events make us feel as if the Cold War was back again. The United States and their allies are pushing for “rapprochement” policies with their regional “friends”, while Russia is sticking to the defense of its last Arab strategic partner - Syria. The Syrian case is enough in itself to prove that geopolitical considerations can easily override moral purposes. Even though the Russian veto to any strong UN resolution on Syria complicates attempts at seeking a solution to the crisis, one should not forget that there is also a global American and western reluctance to reiterate the Libyan experience in Syria. The country's current situation provides an opportunity for international actors to exert global rhetorical skills without really aiming at defining a long-term peaceful solution. Otherwise, the United States, which remains the strongest actor in the region, would probably have found a way to limit the ongoing bloodshed in Syria.
As for the EU, once again, its reaction to the “Arab spring” has highlighted its global lack of self-confidence. While Europeans are direct neighbours to Mediterranean countries, they limited their involvement to global funding packages for projects and investments, and to reiterating that Arab governments ought to listen to the demands of their citizenries. While not inherently flawed, this attitude should have been accompanied by a stronger European commitment to stabilizing the region, including better coordination of security policies with Arab governments, a stronger insistence on the principle of conditionality (money vs deeper reforms) as well as the definition of principles clearly spelling out the EU’s vision for the future of its relations with its Southern partners. Indeed, despite its internal divergences, the EU is capable of strengthening its role in the Arab world and beyond. While the USA stands as a strong challenger to its interests, the EU benefits from a better image in the region, and its budget is sufficient to help build a strong and independent role. Nevertheless, the EU may be seen in the region as a strange outsider, a UFO following events while sticking to a welcome but limited rhetoric.
The EU will no doubt miss a historical opportunity to emerge as a strong actor in the Arab world if it does not endorse tougher positions concerning the promotion of such principles as political openness, better economic management, and more efficient and transparent security policies, especially since its expertise on these matters is without a rival.
The transitions being made possible by the “Arab spring” have also brought considerable challenges for the MENA region. While political openness and new economic policies are required, Security Sector Reform is also a priority. Security challenges in the region have increased dramatically, and they call for adapted and efficient policies.
As for the so-called international community, it should allow its skills and its expertise to benefit the evolutions of the Arab world. But this requires less focusing on mere opportunistic considerations, and expressing a stronger commitment to a positive evolution for the region. While arms sales and military subsidies should be reconsidered, advising and sharing expertise with Arab countries ought to be set as a priority. The same could be said about the necessary steps towards a separation of powers, in order to allow the civilian sphere to decide which role the army should play.
The “Arab spring” has indeed created a historical opportunity, inasmuch as it has set in motion all the countries of the region (those in transition as well as the others), bringing about considerable change. Most international partners of the region, first and foremost the USA, can have a strong impact on the Arab governments. Therefore, they should promote the idea of a necessary reform of the Security Sector to strengthen the rule of law. As for the EU, it has the possibility of getting rid of its inferiority complex and of rising as a major player in the Arab world. Indeed, the “Arab spring” is also an opportunity for a “European spring” to rise on strategic matters. Were the EU set to help the Arab world stabilize, it would considerably boost the emergence of both regions as strategic players.