The nations of the Middle East are shaking on their foundations these days. A dozen nations have seen massive public protests, Tunisia and Egypt have had long-term rulers displaced by popular discontent, and a third nation, Libya, is racked by a nascent civil war between the regime and its popular opposition.
One of the most singular features of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions is the lack of military force. In the case of Egypt, the turning point in the protests was when the Egyptian military refused to take sides in the confrontation between the protestors and the Mubarak government, and indeed soon found itself refereeing between the two parties. In Tunisia, the turning point came when General Rachid Ammar, Chief of Staff of the Tunisian armed forces, refused a presidential order to fire on the crowds; within days the military had turned entirely against the Ben Ali government. In Libya, meanwhile, Muammar Gaddafi’s army showed no hesitation in attacking the protestors with aircraft and heavy artillery.
The question is, then, why did the Egyptian and Tunisian militaries refuse to take action against the protestors, when the Libyan military did? It is a complex question, and is directly tied to the sort of government a state has (one of several shades of authoritarianism), and the role of the military within that state.
The origins of this political and military idiom in the modern Middle East lie in the early 20th Century. Most of the post-colonial nations of the Middle East, such as Syria, Libya, and Iraq, were essentially created by lines drawn across maps of the former Ottoman Empire between 1910 and 1920. As historians, political scientists, and others have noted on innumerable occasions, the colonial powers famously ignored historic affinities or local conditions when creating new kingdoms for their clients to rule—Jordan, for example, was created essentially as a job-well-done reward for a younger son of Sharif Hussein of Mecca, T.E. Lawrence’s ally from the desert campaigns, and who ruled Arabia until he was displaced by the al-Saud tribe in 1924. The Sharif’s other son became the first king of Iraq.
The results were, in some cases, states that could never have naturally emerged as true nations—Iraq in particular is a Frankenstein, comprised of three former Ottoman provinces stitched together and including a Kurdish-dominated north, an ethnically-distinct Shi’ite south, and a Sunni Arab area around Baghdad, with a majority-Shi’ite population until recently ruled over by Sunni Arabs who belonged to the old pan-Arab nationalist Ba’ath party that emerged as a regional movement in the 1950s, an organization that many fundamentalist Muslim groups consider to be an abomination all of its own for its short-lived attempts at secularizing, socializing, and modernizing Arab society during the 1950s and 1960s.
Syria is perhaps less extreme and certainly less ethnically diverse, but originated in much the same manner. Syria is to this day dominated by the al-Assad family (the late Hafez and the ruling Bashar, pere et fils), whose tribe belongs to the minority Alawi branch of Islam that many Sunnis and Shi’ites consider to be heretical. The al-Assad regime is also the last remnant of the Ba’ath Party.
Under the circumstances—extreme poverty, sudden independence, domestic turmoil, endless economic troubles, the pressure-cooker political climate of the Cold War, and the decades-long vendetta of the Arab/Israeli conflict-- virtually all of the countries in the Middle East defaulted to autocratic authoritarian governments—despots, tyrants, and kings in all but name.
One of the characteristic features of autocratic authoritarian regimes in the late 20th and early 21st centuries is a direct control by the ruler of at least part of the nation’s military force. The last thing any tyrant wants is a locus of power or influence other than his own self, and a unified and professional military would be exactly that. More particularly, no ruler could stay on his throne if an independent military wanted him deposed.
In the military context, the result was that if a particular ruler, family, or political party wanted to keep control over a diverse and fractious population, it had to have at its disposal a private army—the inner circle-- that could be relied upon in situations for which the regular army might not be reliable. These situations could include managing riots, staving off military coups, crushing religious unrest, control over weapons of mass destruction, and the like.
Most of the dictatorships produced by the 20th Century therefore divided their militaries up into a series parts, typically including a small, well-equipped elite (the inner circle) personally loyal to the dictator and often drawn from the same narrow tribal, ethnic, political, or religious group, and a larger ‘regular’ army (the outer circle) of comparatively poor quality and drawn from the general population. Like the Praetorian Guard of imperial Rome, the actual quality of the inner-circle units can, of course, range from competent fighting men to parade-ground paper tigers and palace poodles incapable of managing anything more than terrifying unarmed villagers.
Inner-circle units typically get better pay, better training, and better equipment, and frequently have much higher proportions of long-service professionals as compared to conscripts. In open warfare, such as the 1991 Gulf War, they are kept in reserve, hoarded like a poker player’s blue chips, avoiding casualties while ready either to exploit a victory or to protect the regime in case of defeat.
Domestic prestige is also a significant factor—inner-circle units typically have resonant titles such as the Presidential Guard, Republican Guard, Revolutionary Guard, or Special Forces to indicate their high status, and take pride of place in parades and public ceremonies. These inner-circle units are also often closely tied to a dictator’s cult of personality, which in cases such as Saddam Hussein or Muammar Gaddafi can reach delusions of grandeur on a messianic scale.
As a quick explanation of terminology, in Western parlance the term ‘special forces’ usually refers to elite commando-style units such as the American Delta Force or the British SAS. In Soviet-influenced forces such as the Iraqi and Libyan militaries, however, the term generally denotes elite inner-circle conventional military units that can be used for internal security and keeping control over less-dependable outer-circle units.
These elite units are usually closely tied to the regime’s secret police and intelligence organizations (whether they are the Gestapo, NKVD, or Mukhabarat), the better to perform their domestic repression roles. For example, consider the Third Reich’s SS organization, which included the Reich’s entire internal security apparatus as well as a military wing that operated in parallel with the regular German army, or the USSR’s ‘internal troops’ fielded by the NKVD during Stalin’s regime, who operated behind the Red Army units (proverbially with bayonets leveled to keep the soldiers marching forwards). In some cases, such as the Libyan and Iraqi armies, the inner-circle units had exclusive control over the arsenals and ammunition supplies, and disarmed their outer-circle counterparts before parades lest some soldier take a potshot at the dictator.
Inner-circle units are also usually tied directly to the what might be termed the dictator’s “royal family,” a sprawling organization that is equal parts tribe, political machine, and economic venture, in which ‘family’ members provide inner-circle military manpower and political support in exchange for a chance to share in the oil revenues or some other economic banquet. Examples include the al-Assad clan in Syria, Saddam Hussein’s sprawling affinity in Iraq, or Muammar Gaddafi’s Gaddafa tribe in Libya. Similar preferences for having members of the royal family or at least the royal tribe in command positions prevails in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Abu-Dhabi, the United Arab Emirates, and Jordan.
It is no coincidence that all of the major military units garrisoned around Syria’s capitol, Damascus, are commanded by members of the Assad family, or that the elite Defense Companies that serve as bodyguards and political muscle for the regime are composed mostly of Alawi Muslims from the same district as the al-Assads. Most telling of all, when Hafez al-Assad leveled much of the Syrian city of Hama in 1982 in response to religious upheaval, the man he put in charge of the job was none other than his brother Rifaat al-Assad, head of the internal security forces. Sadly, Rifaat ultimately betrayed his brother’s trust with an attempted coup in 1983, and has spent the most of the subsequent years in genteel exile.
Egypt, by contrast, is relatively unusual in that the army (or at least, the officer class) is one of the more modern, egalitarian, and progressive elements in Egyptian society. There are no true inner-circle units, although the army is the tenth largest in the world. In addition, most of the officers in the upper echelons have attended the reputable Egyptian Military Academy, as well as college or professional schools in Europe or the United States. This background gave the officer class a different perspective on the role of the military in society, albeit one in which the military is loyal primarily to itself, rather than to the national leadership, and sees itself as a corrective mechanism for keeping the country on-track. In conjunction with the reluctance of conscripts to shoot civilians who may well be friends, neighbors, and relatives, this lack of an immediate connection to the Mubarak government, and the interest in reining in a government that fails or goes too far, is one of the reason the Egyptian army largely stayed out of the recent street unrest, forcing the Mubarak regime to depend on the police and hired thugs.
This was not always the case, however, as for many years the Egyptian military was virtually a caricature of the political army, rife with plots and coup attempts. Indeed modern Egypt’s history essentially began when a military cabal known as the Free Officers overthrew King Farouk in 1952 and installed first Muhammad Naguib and then Gamal Abdel Nasser as head of state. Nasser’s successor and Mubarak’s immediate predecessor, Anwar Sadat (himself one of the Free Officers), was assassinated by a similar military cabal composed of fundamentalist Muslim officers. The military’s shift away from it’s post-colonial and Soviet-influenced political role and into a western-style professional model is, ironically, one of the Mubarak government’s most significant achievements in Egypt’s domestic politics. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, an implicitly political committee of senior commanders, had not actually met for over thirty years before convening in January 2011 to temporarily assume power after the resignation of President Mubarak.
Egypt’s Central Security Forces, a paramilitary force used for domestic security and similar roles, but unlike inner-circle units in other nations the CSF is comprised primarily of poorly-paid conscripts rather than favored praetorians, and had no direct ties to Mubarak. Mubarak increased the number of CSF personnel to 100,000 in the early 1980s in an attempt to balance the military’s influence at the time, but met with little success. One of the most significant episodes in military unrest under Mubarak’s rule was a 1986 mutiny by several thousand CSF troops in response to a rumor that their terms of conscript service were being extended.
Tunisia, like Egypt, has a professional and historically apolitical military that was not directly under the control of President Ben Ali’s regime. Unlike Egypt, however, the small (approximately 35,000-man) Tunisian military has never fought in a war, and has since the 1960s spent most of its time doing peacekeeping and humanitarian work.
If that is why the Egyptian and Tunisian militaries stayed out of the recent turmoil, consider the other extreme.
The late Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi regime was a rather extreme example of the cult of personality and extreme paranoia in military organization, but the Iraqi situation illustrates the inner circle/outer circle dichotomy. The “outer circle” Iraqi armed forces under Hussein’s regime included the Iraqi armed forces into the regular Iraqi army (draftees little better than cannon fodder), the more professional Republican Guard, and the Air Force, which was of a status approximately equal to the Republican Guard.
The ‘inner circle’ in 2003 included several corps of elite bodyguards and special forces, including the 12,000-man Special Republican Guard or ‘Golden Division.” Augmenting this in 2003 were the paramilitary Fedayeen Saddam organization mustering up to 30,000 men and an irregular corps of ‘foreign fighter’ volunteers and mercenaries.
Hussein’s inner-circle units drew heavily on manpower sources with a personal affinity to Hussein and his family, including the al-Tikriti tribe, the Ba’ath political party, and to a lesser extent the general Sunni Muslim population of central Iraq.
The several divisions of the Republican Guard had been an vaunted inner-circle unit, reporting directly to Hussein himself rather than to the army general staff. Following its near-destruction in the 1991 Gulf War, however, it lost most of its prestige and was essentially replaced at the dinner table by new, smaller elite units. A previous paramilitary organization, the Popular Army of Iraq, was essentially a Ba’ath party militia; it numbered over half a million men at its peak in the late 1970, but declined rapidly in prestige after it suffered heavy casualties during the Iran-Iraq war and was dissolved in 1991.
The fate of the Iraqi army during the 2003 invasion by the United States and its allies is well-known. The regular army and most of the Republican Guard disintegrated, the Air Force was destroyed on the ground, and most of the inner-circle units broke up and went underground to carry out guerilla attacks, as Iraq descended into an ethnic and religious civil war that lasted several years, with the US-led occupying forces caught in the middle while trying to restore order.
Libya did not suffer from the same ethnic, religious, and economic strains as Iraq—the country’s population is far smaller than Iraq’s, homogenously Sunni Muslim, and overwhelmingly concentrated in cities along the Mediterranean coast. While still poor by western standards, the Libyan GDP and standards of living are significantly better than those in Hussein’s Iraq. The principal ethnic tension is Gaddafi’s obsessive hatred of the Berber tribal groups, which is apparently not shared by the general population. Rather than any ethnic, or religious tensions, as were the case in Iraq, the primary driver behind the popular uprising against Gaddafi is an overwhelming disgust at the continuously erratic, corrupt, and tyrannical behavior of his regime. Gaddafi’s loyalists are drawn primarily from his own Gaddadfa tribe, other residents of the coastal Syrte district where most of the Gaddafa live, or other persons personally loyal to the regime.
Though Gaddafi spent lavishly on sponsoring foreign terrorist organizations, on attempts to acquire weapons of mass destruction, and in acquiring vast quantities of conventional weapons from the USSR, his regime essentially starved the 50,000-strong regular military of men, money, ammunition, and equipment. Much of the equipment purchased from the USSR simply sat in warehouses unused, or was given away to militias and terrorist organization. The result was a poorly-motivated and underequipped force, half the strength of which were draftees, that failed on just about every occasion that it saw action, and which was quite literally decimated—suffering losses of up to 10% of its total manpower-- during the so-called “Toyota War” in Chad during the 1980s.
The Libyan Air Force was higher in prestige than the army until the late 1980s; Gaddafi spent lavishly on aircraft, and indeed the Air Force had far more aircraft than it had trained pilots or ground crew to operate them. When the humiliating defeats inflicted by the US during the Gulf of Sidra encounters and the 1986 Operation El Dorado Canyon made Libya a military laughingstock, however, Gaddafi appears to have essentially turned his back on the Air Force and let it decline.
The real muscle behind Gaddafi’s regime over the last forty years has been his intelligence and secret police organization, who usually exercised power by ‘disappearing’ or assassinating foreign or domestic critics rather than by brute force. Loyal inner-circle military units included the 3,000-strong Revolutionary Guard Corps drawn from Gaddafi’s own tribe, and the elite “Khamis Brigade” commanded by Gaddafi’s youngest son.
These inner-circle units are augmented by Gaddafi’s intelligence organization, his secret police, and the ‘Revolutionary Committees,’ which are in reality equal parts party brownshirts, local government councils, political commissars and paramilitary militia. The Revolutionary Committees also theoretically served as a leadership cadre for the People’s Militia, an unorganized force composed of anyone eligible for military service, but which existed largely on paper.
Gaddafi also maintains for his immediate personal protection a 40-strong “Amazonian Guard,” comprised entirely of handpicked women who allegedly must be virgins, as well as several other units of bodyguards. It is unclear as to whether Gaddafi had foreign mercenaries on the payroll in Libya before the outbreak of the ongoing revolt on February 15, but he certainly began importing as many as he could find as the revolt gained headway.
From 1972 to 1987, Gaddafi’s regime also maintained the Islamic Legion, a corps of foreign volunteers mostly from sub-Saharan Africa, the membership of which included Arab supremacists, soldiers of fortune, and migrant workers who had been dragooned into military service. This ‘foreign legion’ conducted a number of operations in Uganda, Palestine, Lebanon, and Syria, but was only deployed in strength in Chad, where it suffered a number of severe defeats and essentially disintegrated. Several leaders of the Janjaweed militias terrorizing the Sudan are veterans of Gaddafi’s Legion.
The actual state of affairs in Libya is confused. Some of Gaddafi’s troops willingly fired on the protestors at the outset of the February protests, and in fact the Libyan army has a long history of using violence on protestors. This time, however, many regular army units reportedly mutinied or disintegrated as the protests gained momentum and accelerated into open rebellion and civil war, leaving Gaddafi to throw open his arsenals to criminals, prisoners, and anyone willing to bear arms. The Air Force is essentially split—while much of the force has turned against the Gaddafi regime, including several pilots who flew to Malta or ditched in the Mediterranean rather than bomb the protestors, some squadrons appear to have remained loyal to the regime and continue to launch sporadic airstrikes.
In a stellar example of how something old can become new again, the examples of Iraq and Libya bear a close resemblance to the common state of affairs under the later Abbasid Caliphate (approximately 850-1258 CE). As the Abbasid caliphate’s central authority weakened after the death of the great Harun Al-Rashid, provincial lords attempted to increase their own power by acquiring corps of foreign soldiers to use as bodyguards and to keep restless populations and unreliable local troops in check.
These soldiers, variously referred to as mamluks, ghilman, or saqaliba, and their later cousins the Janissaries of the Ottoman Empire, were long considered to be more trustworthy than native troops. Many were also either technically slaves, owned by their lord, or mawla, free clients with specific reciprocal obligations to their lord, and as such considered part of his extended family, with all the social, political, and economic advantages that included. Without other tribal or familial attachments, they were expected to be more loyal to the ruler alone, and less prone to mutiny, treachery, and court intrigue.
These initially small units increased as their usefulness became clear—the Caliph al-Mu'tasim, second son of Harun al-Rashid, enlarged his mamluk units from a 4,000-man palace guard to a 70,000-strong private army during his reign. This was due in large part to Mu’tasim’s weakening control over the provincial emirs who had historically provided most of the Caliphate’s troops.
In the end, however, the mamluks’ loyalty to a specific ruler usually decreased as their numbers and prestige increased. The men who were supposed to be without faction became a faction of their own, and by the late 900s corps of mamluks were frequently capable of deposing a ruler and replacing him with one the erstwhile ‘bodyguards’ controlled. This situation devolved until much of the modern Middle East was ruled by dynasties of Turkish sultans whose ancestors had been bodyguards of an Arab lord, and a “Mamluk Sultanate” ruled Egypt for nearly three centuries until it was absorbed by the Ottoman Empire.
As of February 2011, there are no democracies in the Arab world. Tunisia and Egypt are on the road towards democracy, but they are not there yet. The protests continue in other countries, and Gaddafi is obviously on his last legs. The future is uncertain—while relatively moderate rulers such as King Abdullah of Jordan offer political concessions rather than sending in the army, it is hard to imagine Bashar al-Assad meeting his opponents with anything other than force, as his father and uncle did at Hama. If democracy is to emerge, however, the praetorians and secret police must be dispensed with.