By Michael Young
February 12, 2014
From the start of the Arab uprisings in 2011, the most valid benchmark for success was how the revolts would affect existing formal institutions – the army, intelligence services, police and the judiciary. For Arab republics to succeed in their democratic endeavours, it was necessary that these bodies be placed under civilian authority deriving from democratic elections.
Three years later, the results have been disheartening. Only in Tunisia has there been a more successful constitutional process, and even there much remains to be defined as the new constitution is implemented. On the other hand, in Egypt, Syria and Libya, the institutions have either prevailed or were not replaced by a framework allowing for civilian oversight.
In Egypt, the return of the military and security institutions has been far more circuitous than in Syria. However, the consequences will likely be longer-lasting from an institutional perspective. In 2011 the military played a vital role in removing Hosni Mubarak, when the United States withdrew its support for the Egyptian president. It also allowed a fairly democratic process that brought former president Mohammed Morsi to power and an Islamist majority to parliament.
This acceptance, however, did not constitute a submission to civilian authority. The military sought to protect its special status in the draft constitution being prepared under Mr Morsi, while mistakes he made alienated large segments of Egyptian society. Economic conditions deteriorated and the opposition grew, leading to Mr Morsi’s removal last July.
The removal of Mr Morsi had considerable public support, which the armed forces and its commander, Abdel Fattah El Sisi, found helpful in passing a constitution the military favoured. Field Marshal El Sisi is now preparing a presidential bid, though the military has been cagey about his intentions.
In Syria, the situation was different. From the start, the army and intelligence services refused to cede any ground to protesters, embarking on a ferocious campaign of subjugation. More than 130,000 people have been killed in what quickly developed into a civil war, one the regime provoked to survive politically. The intelligence services quickly grasped that a heightening of the violence and exacerbation of sectarian animosities would radicalise the rebellion and lead to the emergence of those jihadi groups the regime had claimed to be fighting.
Already familiar with jihadist networks from the time it made use of them to channel combatants into Iraq, the Syrian regime released prisoners and took measures essentially reinforcing extremist groups. This splintered the rebels and changed the narrative of the Syrian conflict. Bashar Al Assad’s removal is now increasingly viewed in the West as a means of delivering Syria to Al Qaeda and its affiliates.
Mr Al Assad is more solid than he has been in the three years of the uprising. Whether he regains control over all of Syria is not his principal preoccupation at this stage. Until now, he has survived politically and weathered the worst that his foes could muster. The opposition, meanwhile, remains more fragmented than ever.
The Syrian apparatus of repression never considered blending politics with force. Mr Al Assad offered vague political concessions in 2011, but otherwise it has been all violence since. While the Syrian regime may in the end prevail, the foundations of Assad rule will remain shaky until they can be buttressed by some sort of consensual political understanding.
In Libya, the anarchy that accompanied the end of the war against Muammar Qaddafi’s regime carried over into the post-war period. The divisions within the opposition hardened once the conflict ended, with no recognised central authority to unify them. While the post-revolution authorities dismantled Qaddafi’s apparatus of repression, they failed to fill the ensuing vacuum with a credible replacement.
Since then, the Libyan authorities have struggled to rein in the wartime militias. In an effort to reverse this disturbing trend, the United States, Italy, Turkey and the United Kingdom have sought to set up and train a new Libyan army, or “general purpose force”. While this is welcome, and to an extent builds on lessons learnt in Iraq, the obstacles to the force’s effectiveness cannot be underestimated.
After Iraq, the West, especially the United States, has been of two minds on the role of repressive institutions, particularly militaries, in the Arab world. When such institutions are absent and democratic practices are not well entrenched, there is a high probability that instability will ensue. On the other hand, instability is often manipulated by repressive institutions as justification for the continued rule of authoritarian leaderships.
And this latter ploy works abroad. While the Obama administration had sharp differences with the Egyptian military after the July 2013 removal of Mr Morsi, three years of volatility in Egypt will almost certainly push the Americans to endorse a new military-led regime in Cairo. After all, from Gamal Abdel Nasser to Hosni Mubarak, Washington never had any trouble backing Egyptian military leaders.
Arab democrats can legitimately lament their inability to outmanoeuvre their countries’ military. The cravenness of western states aside, Arab societies have too often been pushed by their regimes into either-or choices – where it is stable autocracy versus unstable liberty; or imposed, but stable, unity versus unstable fragmentation, whether sectarian or tribal.
How to escape from such desolate binaries will be the task of future generations of Arabs. For now, most of the Arab uprisings after 2011 have utterly failed to create democratic alternatives to what existed before, and the world will accept the consequences without protest.
Michael Young is opinion editor of The Daily Star newspaper in Beirut