Armed governance

Who could imagine some years ago that a US ambassador in Tunisia would write in a cable: “Tunisia is not an ally today, but we still share important history and values”? This is indeed the same cable I cited in the first part of this story. About 24 years ago, when Mr Ben Ali took power in Tunisia, he invoked the old age of Bourguiba, the corruption of his entourage and pledged to give his compatriots the democracy they deserve. Many observers then described him as the “man of Washington”! But over time, he might have changed his mind for if we trust the reports from international respected institutions he never delivered on democracy and on fighting corruption.

Today, even his American allies have grown weary of his rule to the point that they are waiting for his departure. Ambassador Godec said in his cable: “in the end, serious change here will have to await Ben Ali’s departure.” Why? Because there is no trust any more: “the Government of Tunisia” says the ambassador “relies on vague promises of friendship and empty slogans.”

Relying on the military in politics is a risky enterprise. Unfortunately, military intervention in Arab domestic affairs is so commonplace that it is almost trivialised. Worse: in the se countries where coups have succeeded in establishing a new regime, the new military leaders have often been accredited legitimacy that allowed them to settle for long. They not only became the new masters of the country, but also carried the “laurels of glory,” since they were sometimes described as the “Great National Heroes” or the “saviours.” (Ben Ali, Qadhafi among others…) How can one fail to notice, in fact, that most leaders in the region, who came to power on the tanks, were also described as “popular?”

There is no question that the army is that of the people. Yet, it is thanks to such an “armed” support that an ambitious leader is able to forge a “legitimacy” that would never be betrayed by an electoral vote!

Armies are also supposed to operate mainly at the level of the national state and therefore have the ability to strengthen the cohesion of the country. And several observers from varied countries have considered the Armed forces as a solid instrument of modernisation, and a major agent for change and renunciation of tradition, especially because the new generation of officers who initialised most of these coups is from a more rural and less privileged origin than the elders.

The armed forces have also been described as “prescribing a new citizenship,” “encouraging certain values such as secularism,” and to a certain degree “political participation” (so long as it does not run against their own interests).

The examples of Iraq after the Kacem revolution, the Baathist Syria, and Boumedienne Algeria, have been treated as cases of military intervention success. But the backlash against such a positive view of the military in Arab politics was not long to manifest. The limits of these regimes are inscribed in their origin and their horizons.

The “Naksa” (defeat) of 1967 represents a dramatic turning point in Arab history. Going back to the years following the Arab defeat directly (1960-70) one may locate a change in perceptions. Henceforward, Arab leaders turned their nationalist, triumphant, socialist position that had prevailed over a decade into more pragmatic views to accompany a withdrawal toward more a reduced level of state interests. A new moderate style had to be found, and the model became Saudi Arabia.

Not only the officers who controlled power in Egypt and Syria had failed to contain Israel or to return even an inch of land to the Palestinians, but even in their own society their authoritarian policy was more than ever exposed. They were facing increasing difficulties in continuing the policies of nationalisation, extensive land reforms and industrialisation they had entrusted their bureaucracy. The “social development” they had attempted to establish was brought down by the lead in the wing.

At the same time, and from the 1970s onward, studies began to appear in the Western countries on the internal rivalries and the ongoing conflicts between the Arab military elites, their clans, their alliances and misalliances, and the consequences of their rivalry resulting in a series of plots, coups and counter-coups revealed to be quite expensive for the Arab society.

A simple look at the terminology used in these studies and articles describing the regimes of the Arab states where the military has managed to settle in the wake of a coup, is enough to make us realise that they have rarely been appreciated. Terms like “military dictatorship,” “government of the army Party,” “military oligarchy,” “military-civilian coalition,” etc… have become commonplace.

On this level, the lexicon has changed very little over the years, admittedly, because even if the military was discredited in the Arab world since the 1967 defeat, the army is still in power in several countries and increasingly associated with social, political, economic and cultural bankruptcy in the societies it governs and in the region in general.

In short, the military is no longer the “solution” for the Middle Eastern –” North African societies as people naively believed in the late 1950s of the last century.

Today the military is an integral part of the major problems of these societies. And it remains a problem as long as it clings to power or seeks to intervene in political and civil affairs. We cannot, indeed, imagine a democratic society in reference to the military. The military, by definition, is not a democratically but a hierarchically based-institution.

This is true for most countries in the region. The military institution cannot preserve these countries for ever from the social and political malaise that is creeping and eroding the regimes and turning their youth into candidates for radicalism.