Arabs did not need revolutions and uprisings to remind them of the negative role often played by the army in political life. Arab history over more than half a century testifies to the negative nature of this relationship and its damaging impact on the development of political life. This has been evident ever since the first military coup, up until the scenes that are being repeated in front of our eyes today, with tanks and armored personnel carriers storming residential areas to quell the voice of the people, in defense of regimes that came to power via coups and ruled with oppression and tyranny.
However, the events of the Arab Spring perhaps have helped to shed more light on this relationship, as well as highlight another other clear fact, namely that it is necessary to distance or remove armies from politics. The popular revolutions will not succeed in achieving a popular democratic transition, consolidating the means of governance and the peaceful transfer of power, unless the army is removed from politics, redefined, and its doctrine strengthened with regards to protecting the nation and the people from external threats, instead of undertaking coups and protecting tyrannical regimes. In the countries of the Arab Spring, people today often focus on the debate surrounding the constitution, citizenship and the civil state, yet they forget the other important issue, namely the role of the army as a national institution that should be distanced from politics.
All our Arab republics have been ruled [at some stage] by military coup regimes, with the exception of Djibouti. Even in Lebanon the relationship sometimes blurs between the palace and the army, and Lebanese leaders in recent years have come primarily from the military establishment. In fact, military institutions in our countries have become the means and qualification criteria to rule the state. Military coups ruin political life without a doubt, and disrupt any natural development of civilian rule. Worse still, this sometimes happens with the participation of political forces both from the left and from the right, in the sense that some political currents have begun to believe that power is best accessed through coups rather than elections. There are many examples of this, from the reign of the Baathists in Iraq and Syria, to the rule of the Islamists, as in the Sudanese case, and many more.
The Arab popular revolutions have laid bare the complex nature of the ruling power’s relationship with the army. The protestors on the streets of Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Libya and Syria were demanding the overthrow of regimes with significant military history and depth, even if their leaders wore civilian clothes and used election polls to claim that they were popular and legitimate, whereas in fact they came to power via coups or revolutions as they liked to call them.
Therefore, when these regimes were faced with a threat to their security grip on power, they sought to use the army to confront the civilians. They succeeded in this regard in most cases because of the composition of the army and its fraternal or beneficial relationship with the regime. This prompted the army to answer the call of the ruling elite, rather than listen to the voice of the people. Thus we saw Colonel Gaddafi’s forces, or rather his battalions placed under the command of his sons, commit the worst crimes and most brutal practices. More than 30,000 thousand Libyans were killed, and twice as many injured, according to estimates. In Syria, the statistics of human rights organizations indicate that around 6,000 people have died in clashes between the protestors and the regime’s forces, whether from the army, the security services or the Shabiha. In Yemen, there are reports suggesting that more than 1,500 have been killed and over 20,000 wounded, while in Egypt, some reports state that around 1,000 people have died, and more than 6,000 have been injured, since the outbreak of the revolution and up to and including the recent clashes.
Let us compare this to figures announced recently in Israel, regarding the number of deaths the state has suffered in all wars since its foundation. The total death toll is estimated to be slightly below 27,000, with around 23,000 of these being soldiers. In terms of the number of lives that were lost at the hands of Arab armies killing their own people last year, this far exceeds the Israeli death toll in all its wars.
This image reflects a major imbalance in the nature of the role played by the majority of Arab armies, in their transformation from the guardian of the homeland against external threats to the incubator and protector of authoritarian regimes, and oppressors of the people. However, to be fair, it must be noted that there are a few Arab armies that have behaved with professionalism and discipline, to perform their natural and fundamental role to protect the homeland and the people from threats, and stay away from politics. Again to be fair, I must highlight the stances of the officers and soldiers who refused to aim their guns towards the protestors, and instead directed them towards the regimes that ordered them to slaughter their own people.
One might say that the Egyptian army sided with the people and refused to carry out orders to intervene and disperse the protests, and that this stance played a major role in the success of the revolution and in forcing Mubarak to step down. Likewise, the Tunisian army, according to numerous accounts, also played an important role in the success of the revolution there by refusing its leaders’ orders to intervene and suppress the protests alongside the security forces, and then pressuring Ben Ali to leave. This is all true, and the Egyptians and Tunisians deserve praise before others, but this does not detract from the former fraternal relationship between the two respective military institutions and the two ousted regimes, and the need in both countries, as with elsewhere, to distance armies from politics, and for the military to remain a national institution with the primary task of protecting the homeland and its territory from any external threats.
By plunging into politics, the army is distracted from its key role, and its national image is tarnished, as it is placed in front of complex political interactions and accounts. This is what happened in Egypt, when the cheering and welcoming exclamations for the role of the military council transformed into cries for the military to leave, and voices questioning its decisions and fearing its intentions. It is true that there is also support for the military council and its role, especially in this difficult period, but the military council would have avoided all this if it had withdrawn from the arena quickly, handing over power to a presidential council and a transitional national government, with consultation of all political and civil forces. It would have still remained the guarantor and protector of the revolution, until elections were conducted and power was transferred to an elected government.
These words are not intended to detract from the value of the army; rather they are an appraisal of its correct role, a role that must be distanced from politics. This role needs to be consolidated to correct the path of the past, and perhaps the lessons of the Arab Spring will be a step in this direction.