The military has been at the heart of events in every country that has witnessed uprising and revolution since the beginning of the Arab Spring; Arab armies therefore find themselves in the spotlight today for a variety of reasons that share one common denominator. The regimes that faced the wrath of their people resorted to a single language, namely the langue of violence to forcibly quell the popular protests and silence the voices of the demonstrators. This is how the security forces took to the street to conduct “dialogue” with the protesters, first utilizing tear gas and water cannons, and then moving on to live ammunition. In some cases, the ruler did not even want to waste time using tear gas or water cannons and orders deploying tanks to the street and allowing the use of live ammunition were issued immediately.
In order to justify the decision to use the army against the protesters, we have heard the “conspiracy” claims being repeated in one Arab capital after another, with all those calling for freedom and rights suddenly became foreign agents and traitors, whilst all those taking part in demonstrators were saboteurs that must be crushed, whether they number in the thousands or the millions. In the case of Libya, the revolutionaries and rebels were not just conspirators, they were rats and stray dogs that did not deserve to live because they had dared to defy Gaddafi and the plans of his son [Saif al-Islam] to inherit the throne, or shall we say the tent.
One officer who defected from the Syrian army in the wake of the campaign of violence and suppression carried out against the Syrian protesters, and the rise in the number of people killed and detained by the Syrian government, revealed the manner in which regimes try to hide the truth, falsify reality, and mislead soldiers into following orders to fire on unarmed protesters. This officer, in an interview conducted with the German Deutsche Presse-Agentur [DPA] news agency, following his defection, said that “we were living a lie. We were told that people were armed. But when we arrived, we saw that they were ordinary unarmed civilians. We were orders to shoot them all.” This Syrian officer revealed that he had taken part in raids on homes in the city of Homs, adding that he had received orders to ban any soldier from watching television, except the Syrian state television channel. He also revealed that “orders were given to terrify people so they would not dare to go out of their houses” and that the orders to shoot protesters even extended to shooting women and children.
Some Syrian regime supporters might respond to this by saying that such testimony is only to be expected from a defector, and therefore we cannot rely upon it in making judgments on the manner in which the al-Assad regime dealt with the protesters. However what more evidence is needed to prove that the Syrian regime suppressed and tortured protesters in light of the huge death toll in Syria, not to mention the images and scenes of torture and killing that have been uploaded on YouTube by Syrian activists on a daily basis in order to break the media blackout imposed by the Syrian authorities and which aimed to prevent satellite television channels and reporters from entering the country and reporting the events on the ground? What about the column of tanks that the Syrian regime deployed throughout the cities, and the testimony of civilians who were forced to flee their homes and seek refuge across the border?
That regimes utilize security and military forces to suppress popular uprisings is something that does not require further proof, in the same manner that talk of “conspiracy” no longer fools anybody today. Many of these regimes initially came to power via military coup, and have utilized their security apparatus to cling to power, not knowing any other method of guaranteeing their authority. They established republics of fear that elevated the security apparatus and conversely stripped citizens of their rights and freedoms. Even when these regimes established political parties they did not seek democratic legitimacy, but rather they continued to rely upon their security apparatus to stifle any voice of oppositions and rig elections to the point that Arab leaders broke records with regards to time in power. Such leaders even tried to extend this by bequeathing power to their children. Colonel Gaddafi, for example, recently said in response to those rebelling against his 42-year rule that “I only possess moral authority, I am like the Queen of England, and she has been in power for 57 years, and nobody has come out against her, so why are people protesting against me?”
Such regimes have squandered public funds on ways of subjugating the people, developing security apparatus and training them to suppress the citizens, whilst also arming their own military battalions to protect the regime against any coup attempts, and in order to deter those soldiers and officers who believe that their affiliation is to the state and not the regime, and that their mission is to defend the homeland and the people, not to subjugate and humiliate them. The reality is that dictatorial regimes, even those that came to power via a military coup, do not trust their military; they remain hostage to fears of a military coup overthrowing them from power, therefore they resort to forming special military units that are completely loyal to the current ruler, try to silence others with prizes and rewards, whilst monitoring other elements in their militaries, as well as the general public.
The common factor in the Arab uprisings and revolutions is regimes resorting to their security and military apparatus to confront the popular demonstrations, however the response of the armies have not been the same in all cases. The military units that were already in place and loyal to the regime, and which are usually commanded by those close to the ruler or even members of his family, do not hesitate to draw their guns and fire on protesters. However the other military battalions do not all act in the same manner, and either a division within the military occurs as we have seen in Yemen, Libya, and Syria, or the military commanders refuse to issue orders to fire upon their own people, as in Egypt, or the ruler is pressured to step aside before it is too late, which is what happened in Tunisia, when Ben Ali said that he had “understood the message” and left.
The Egyptian army set a good example in its bias towards the people’s revolutions, and the eyes of the world are watching it today to see if it will complete its mission and supervise the transfer of power to the representatives of the people via free and fair elections. Those who know the history of Arab elections may perhaps remember that the Sudanese army sided with the people twice when they revolted against the ruling regime; firstly in the mid-70s, and then once again in the mid-80s. This is what people expect from their army. However authoritarian regimes changed the army’s task from protecting the homeland against foreign enemies, instead turning it into a tool for internal repression. The army must be a symbol of the pride and dignity of the nation, not a tool for suppressing the people, nor an incubator for coups and future dictatorships.
(The writer is Asharq al-Awsat's Senior Editor-at-Large. The article was published in the London-based newspaper on Sept. 16, 2011.)