What Sways Armies’ Allegiances in Mideast?

Daniel L. Byman
Daniel L. Byman
Daniel L. Byman Director and Professor, Security Studies Program - Georgetown University, Senior Fellow - Foreign Policy, Center for Middle East Policy

February 15, 2011

For those of us surprised by Egypt and Tunisia (which seems to be everyone except for the courageous young people who first took to the streets to demand change), perhaps the biggest shock is the benign role of the military. Part of the reason analysts have been so confident that the Ben Alis and Mubaraks of the Arab world would endure is that they had arranged for the loyalty of their generals. So if given the order, the militaries would kill their own people in large numbers to ensure regime survival.

In Tunisia, however, the military stepped in to counter the secret police and give the Ben Ali regime a shove out the door. Mubarak deployed the military to intimidate the crowds in Egypt, but there too, soldiers did not fire on the protesters and, at times, protected them against the regime’s hired thugs. As the crisis wore on, military leaders turned against Mubarak and now are helping Egypt transition to democracy, or at least promising to do so.

As crowds gather in squares in other Arab countries—and in non-Arab countries like Iran—the question of whether their militaries will assist democratization or repress their own people looms large. What explains such a decision?

Mark Thompson, in comparing the Chinese communist regime’s successful use of the military to shoot demonstrators in Tiananmen Square with the failures of Eastern European regimes to do the same, identifies at least two factors relevant to the Middle East today.[1]  First, in China, the regime enjoyed some degree of legitimacy among a coherent set of elites—it was not just kleptocrats working for mutual self-interest with no loyalty to the existing regime. Second, the protesters in China were not able to reach out and mobilize other classes beyond the elite student community. In Eastern Europe, in contrast, protests involved more of society, and the elite had lost confidence in itself. Other important military-related work specific to the Middle East comes from James Quinlivan, who identifies a range of ways—from perks to the appointment of family loyalists—that Middle Eastern regimes have arranged to ensure the loyalty of their own militaries.[2]

These works offer a good starting point to understand how other countries will handle unrest. First, all of the self-styled “republics” face a crisis in legitimacy among their elites.  The Arab nationalism that propelled their revolutions to power is faded, and they have no democratic or economic accomplishments on which to fall back. In contrast, the monarchies, such as Saudi Arabia and Morocco, are more likely to have a coherent set of leaders who accept that bloodline and other forms of patrimonial power are legitimate.

Another question is whether the militaries have an outward or inward focus. Egypt’s military actually cares about winning wars. Algeria’s and Yemen’s, in contrast, have always focused first and foremost on securing the regime against unrest at home. International scrutiny was also vital in staying the regime’s coercive hands in Tunisia and Egypt. It is no accident that Mubarak’s thugs tried to target broadcasters with cameras as they intimidated crowds. Not every government, however, cares equally about international opinion. And some, such as Syria, have long been accustomed to suppressing foreign media. So the camera may be less powerful the next time around.

Also, militating against the spread of unrest is the lesson that autocrats will take from Tunisia and Egypt. Clearly they should worry that small demonstrations will snowball. So they may be more likely to repress early if they fear things may get out of hand. The more the military is tied to the regime, as opposed to having an independent corporate identity, the more willing it will be to fire, even if this blemishes its reputation among the people for decades to come.

The role of the military also highlights a surprising success of U.S. policy. The United States has long had strong military-to-military ties to its Arab allies for a host of security reasons, with Egypt being a prime example. Democratization proponents often criticized this relationship, arguing that Washington was bolstering the repressive part of the dictatorship.  When the story of the Egyptian military and the 25 January revolution is told, however, we’re likely to see that the leverage the United States had on Egypt stemmed in large part from this military relationship, and that it weighed heavily on Egyptian generals as they moved to usher Mubarak out. In any event, quietly but firmly, U.S. policymakers should now stress to the Egyptian military that strong ties depend now on a new role: the Egyptian military as the guarantor of Egypt’s democracy as well as the protector of the country’s security.

[1] “To Shoot or Not to Shoot: Post-totalitarianism in China and Eastern Europe,” Comparative Politics, October 2001.

[2] “Coup-Proofing: Its Practice and Consequences in the Middle East,” International Security, Fall 1999.