The role of militaries in the Arab Thermidor

By Robert Springborg, Sciences Po

* This memo was prepared for “The Arab Thermidor: The Resurgence of the Security State” workshop held at the London School of Economics and Political Science Middle East Centre, October 10, 2014.

If the subtitle of this workshop, “The Resurgence of the Mukhabarat State,” is meant to imply that resurgence of security and intelligence services is the key institutional feature of Arab “Thermidors,” it is misleading. It is the power of Arab militaries and militias, not mukhabarat, that has been dramatically enhanced in reaction to “Middle Eastern revolutions.” Egypt, now led by the former field marshal, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, is only the most obvious case in point of a region-wide trend that includes most other republics as well as monarchies. The Tunisian military, which served as the midwife of the “revolution,” enjoys much more status now than under either former presidents, Habib Bourguiba or Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. Were the bumpy transition presently focused on end of year elections to derail yet again, the military might end up as at least the arbiter, if not the beneficiary of the ultimate allocation of political power. The struggle over command of the Lebanese military has been as intense, if rather less public, than the conflict over the presidential succession, suggesting the centrality of that institution to the country’s identity and politics.

In the other republics, whose states in general and militaries in particular have traditionally been less institutionalized than in those of Egypt and Tunisia, the resurgence of coercive power has been manifested in militaries and, to a greater extent, in militias. The Algerian military, the most robust of those in these other republics despite its internal divisions, has reasserted its centrality to le pouvoir at the expense of the Ministry of Interior’s Direction de la Surveillance du Territoire (DST), the presidency, and even its very own Department of Intelligence and Security (DRS), over which the decideurs generals have tightened their control. The fate of the shadowy forces allied to the military that formed shock troops against Islamist rebels during the civil war is unknown, but presumably they continue to exist and could be mobilized again if necessary. Remnants of the Libyan military, an institution subordinated by Moammar Gaddafi to the autonomous kataib (battalions) commanded either by his sons or tribal allies, then further marginalized by the victorious militias, are now trying to stage a comeback under General Khalifa Hifter or with his allied militias based in Zintan. This reconstituted military-militia, however, is facing stiff opposition from Ansar al-Sharia and other tribally and regionally based militias that have prospered in the vacuum of state authority, key of which are those centered in Misrata.

Militaries and militias in pre- and post-Arab Springs in Syria and Yemen are similar to those in Libya. In both countries the national military was cleaved into kataib commanded by presidential allies tied to him by blood, tribe, or sect. Civil war in Syria elevated the role of the kataib most closely connected to President Bashar al-Assad, while marginalizing the broader military whose role has been assumed by a newly created National Defense Force trained by Iran, Hezbollah fighters, and mercenaries. The Yemeni military, through which former President Ali Abdullah Saleh exercised his tribally based power, supplemented by tribal militias, appears to be the last remaining sovereign institution standing between continued territorial integrity and a failed state, as frantic U.S. efforts to shore it up attest. In reality, however, after the collapse of General Ali Mohsen’s forces in September, the only remaining hard core of that military is the division commanded by Saleh’s son Ahmad, as militias associated with the Islamist Islah movement are becoming the principal armed forces of northern Sunnis. The rising strength of militias connected to the Zaidi Houthis’ Ansar Allah movement in the North and Hirak secessionists in the South, to say nothing of various jihadi forces of which the strongest is al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and of growing tactical alliances between these various challengers, suggest that like the Syrian military, the Yemeni one will be insufficiently institutionalized to survive post-Arab Spring challenges in a unified, coherent form.

The Iraqi military, rebuilt on the foundations of the one disbanded by U.S. “Pro-Consul” Paul Bremmer, seemed to be a rather sturdier structure than the Syrian or Yemeni militaries, primarily because it was the main focus of U.S. state building efforts, hence the most important vehicle through which Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki could impose his control on the country. The collapse of much of that military when confronted by Sunni tribal militias and those of the Islamic State this spring and summer, however, revealed how fragile are the foundations a sectarianized state provides for its national military. Maliki and his successor, Haider al-Abadi, like their Syrian and Yemeni counterparts, were forced to turn increasingly to loyalist militias in the increasingly Hobbesian conflict in their country. And it is to those very same Shiite militias to which the United States has had to turn in its patchwork effort to contain the Islamic State in Iraq.

In the republics, men with guns are on the march. In Egypt and Tunisia the vast majority of them serve in national militaries that remain under a unified command and which continue to underpin national sovereignty. Although militias spawned by Islamist militants have emerged, in neither country do they pose a mortal threat to the military or the state. In Lebanon the army retains symbolic power as the embodiment of national sovereignty, as well as considerable coercive capacity. The latter is circumscribed, however, by Hezbollah and the military’s own internal divisions, key of which is that the largest source of recruitment into it is provided by northern Sunnis, the very community most alienated by the military’s increasingly intense combat with Syrian and Lebanese Sunnis fighting against Assad’s forces along the border. Algeria’s opaque military appears to have reasserted itself following the civil war and a struggle for power with President Abdelaziz Bouteflika and elements of security services allied to him, but it is neither as unified nor as central to the national narrative as the Egyptian or Tunisian militaries.

It is only in Egypt where the military was strong enough on its own to beat back forces unleashed by the Arab Spring. In Tunisia the military has essentially guarded the political arena in which contesting forces have vied for power, while simultaneously confronting various jihadist elements. In Algeria there was no Arab Spring to challenge indirect military rule, so the military has lain low, undermining other competitors for power within the state. But in all the other republics militaries have fragmented in greater or lesser measure, so are unable to serve as the key instrument of any attempted Thermidor, a role that is increasingly assumed by militias of various sorts. Whether in militaries or militias, however, power in the republics both before and after the Arab Spring has been exercised by those commanding armed forces, so it is their relationships to social forces, such as tribes and sects, and to other state institutions that determine the character of the regimes over which they preside.

In the monarchies, by contrast, power has been held by ruling families, not militaries or militias. At first glance royal power appears largely undisturbed by neighboring revolutions. This view, however, may be myopic. There are indications of what could be a historic power shift from royals to officers, possibly analogous to that which occurred some two to three generations ago in most of the republics. Frightened by Arab upheavals, royals have bolstered their militaries, not only enlarging them, in some cases via conscription, but also by providing them with yet more hardware, and by placing greater emphasis on the security dimension of their domestic and foreign policies. The focus on counter-terrorism, with lines being drawn in the sand between patriots and jihadis, real and imagined, raises political stakes and tensions while creating conditions associated with the realization of Max Weber’s “paradox of the sultan,” whereby a ruler’s growing dependence on the forces of coercion ultimately results in his subordination to them.

In this brief paper I explore the re-militarization and militiaization of the republics and apparent militarization of the monarchies as key features of the Arab Thermidor. The republics will be further divided into the categories of “bullies” and “bunkers” that Clement Henry and I, and hopefully others, have found useful. Were space to permit, the monarchies would be divided between the paradoxically “liberal,” yet in some senses more militarized Morocco and Jordan, on the one hand, and those of the Gulf Cooperation Council, on the other. Alas, it does not, so the eight Arab monarchies shall be considered together. In all cases speculation will be offered on both the causes and potential consequences of regime militarization.

The “bully” republics: Egypt and Tunisia

True revolutions, if by that we mean those resembling the French, Russian, or Iranian ones, can only occur when states are sufficiently strong, cohesive, and institutionalized for their power to be seized and then exercised by an alternative social force. In less integrated, weakly institutionalized states, assaults on regimes will likely exacerbate underlying socio-political tensions, resulting in fragmentation of power and even of the nation state itself. In the Arab world, therefore, only Egypt and Tunisia were likely sites for true revolutions. In the others, revolutionaries would not only have to seize state power, they would have to build it. In Egypt the revolution has obviously failed, while in Tunisia the prospects for a democratic transition, which may or may not be tantamount to a revolution, remain alive. It is from the Egyptian case, therefore, that we can draw more decisive conclusions about the causes and consequences of the failed revolution as they pertain to the role of the military.

The key actors in Egypt’s “coup-volution” of 2011 were then-President Hosni Mubarak and the presidential establishment associated with him and his family, the military, the Ministry of Interior, the remainder of the state apparatus, key of which was the judiciary, the Muslim Brotherhood, and secular “revolutionaries.” The onset of the coup-volution was unexpected by all, as similar upheavals were in other Arab countries. The revolutionaries did not see themselves as such, at least at the outset, when their self-perception was as protesters. They were thus not Bolsheviks, “Garibaldini” of 1848-49 Roman Republic fame, or Khomeinists and their fellow travelers in Iran in 1978-79. In these historical instances opponents of the regime had been such for years and in all cases had come to the conclusion that they would have to overthrow incumbents by force. To do so they would have to neutralize if not altogether destroy the regime’s military. The revolutionary strategy thus focused on removing not just the ruler, but at least the high command, if not all of the military. In the case of the Iranian Revolution, for example, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini himself is reported to have thought long and hard about how to neutralize the military, ultimately devising a strategy intended to drive a wedge between commissioned and non-commissioned officers, attracting the latter to the revolutionary cause. In this he succeeded brilliantly, recruiting to the revolution non-commissioned air force technicians, homafars, who much begrudged their low status and poor pay and resented their much indulged, commissioned officers. The homafars then served as shock troops, wedging further open the commissioned, non-commissioned divide, contributing substantially to the military’s collapse.[1] The Bolsheviks did much the same, relying on mutinous naval officers, while Garibaldi recruited, among others, defectors from various forces on the Italian peninsula to defeat armies loyal to the Papacy and their Bourbon protectors before then being overwhelmed by invading French forces collaborating with counter-revolutionary Austro-Hungarian ones.

Egypt’s “circumstantial” revolutionaries, by contrast, were reformers surprised by their own success. They had no strategy other than calling for the fall of the regime once they had tasted power in Tahrir Square. Instead of devising ways and means to divide and conquer the military, they welcomed it, with its high command still in place, into the bosom of their revolution, where they hoped it would protect those demonstrating and fighting on the street from the forces of the Ministry of Interior. For its part the high command had its own reasons to dump Mubarak and bring the Ministry of Interior to heel. The Muslim Brotherhood constituted the third component of this coalition of unanticipated opportunity, into whose hands power was transferred on Mubarak’s departure. This minimum winning coalition of three, however, quickly became two, as the military and the Brotherhood jettisoned other “revolutionary” forces, of which they were both contemptuous and frightened, on the assumption that acting in concert they could govern and contain further opposition. Over the following two years the minimum winning coalition was reduced to one, the military, as the Brotherhood rendered itself vulnerable to exclusion and the revolutionaries fragmented yet further into political disorder and disempowerment. During that period the main battleground between the military and the Brotherhood was the state itself, key components of which were the Ministry of Interior, the judiciary, and the sprawling local administration, in that order. The Brotherhood made greatest headway in the ministry, where then-President Mohamed Morsi finally succeeded in late 2012 in appointing Major General Mohamed Ibrahim as Minister of Interior, who, if not an active sympathizer, was at least someone who would follow Morsi’s orders.[2] Fearing that its temporary political ally but long time mortal enemy, the Brotherhood, would begin to consolidate control over the Ministry of Interior’s large if rather disorganized and poorly trained armed forces, the military began in earnest to prepare the grounds to strike back, doing so in summer 2013. Presenting its coup as the fulfillment of the destiny of the January 25, 2011 revolution, the military thus succeeded in not just overwhelming the Brotherhood, but in subordinating the Ministry of Interior, the judiciary, the local administration apparatus, and other elements of the state to its control, to say nothing of the revolutionary remnants in civil society.

The military base being too narrow upon which to build a new regime, President Sisi will now have the luxury of selectively inviting into his winning coalition of one those state and non-state actors who will be of political, economic, and administrative use, with the candidates including crony capitalists, the broader bourgeoisie, other remnants of the Mubarak regime, Islamists other than the Brotherhood, traditional and tribal notables, unionists, etc. This wide range of options attests to the remarkable strength of the military and profound weakness of other actors, the former’s prodigious superiority built on both soft and hard power. Indeed, the military has paid rather greater attention to bolstering the former than the latter, knowing that receptivity to its rule is more vital than its ability to fight. Key to burnishing its image has been distancing itself from its primary external supporter, the United States, against which it has positioned itself as the embodiment of a new Nasserism. The contradictions in this posturing, including real dependence on both the United States and the Saudis, the latter of whom were Nasser’s most important Arab opponents, to say nothing of Sisi’s cultivation of Egyptian “feudalist” equivalents to those expropriated by Nasser, will presumably become more evident to Egyptians as time passes. At present, however, the general willingness to gloss over such contradictions attests to the profound imbalance between the military and all civilian actors, and to the desperate hope for better lives, which only the strongman from the military is thought capable of delivering. Both these conditions are, however, likely to be temporary, as civil society will reconstitute itself and most lives are unlikely to be dramatically improved. Ultimately real pre-revolutionary conditions, both political and economic, may emerge. Those conditions would likely favor a hypothetical “proletarian” revolution rather than the “bourgeois” protest movement of 2011. In that case, unlike over the past three years, the military would be a if not the primary target of the revolutionaries, rather than its hoped for accomplice. In the meantime, however, the military is the only institution left in the state and the broader polity sufficiently coherent to exercise power, a condition that attests to the de-institutionalization of even the most structured of Arab republics.

The bunker republics

As in Egypt, upheavals in the bunker republics were instigated by protesters, not hardened revolutionaries. But unlike in Egypt, rulers drew upon trusted kataib in efforts to crush those protests, thereby converting these confrontations into all out or near civil wars. The resulting pressure on these weakly institutionalized militaries neutralized or divided them, with the task of repression assumed by existing or newly formed militias, whether from within the military or from society at large, or even from outside the country. For their part the protesters turned fighters formed their own militias and like the regimes, also drew upon external supporters. The entire process was thus one of militiazation, fragmenting not only militaries, but states and nations as well. “Tribes with flags” as these states had been – although their true, heterogeneous nature disguised by the homogenizing repression of their authoritarian rulers – these states are now dissolving into numerous tribes with their many flags. Nowhere has a reconsolidation or new consolidation of power occurred. Indirect rule by militaries has thus been replaced by direct or indirect rule by militias, either associated with or in opposition to preexisting states. As in Egypt, the resultant chaos may create a longing for the certainty and relative safety of direct military rule, but in the bunker republics social divisions combined with near or total collapse of regimes and militaries may prevent that from occurring.

The monarchies

Arab monarchial coup-proofing strategies have included a mix of placing members of ruling families in command of militaries, keeping armies relatively small, counter-balancing militaries with security services and dividing the military itself, and recruiting mercenaries. With very occasional exceptions, such as in Morocco in 1971 and 1972, these strategies have met with success, as the continuation of these monarchial regimes attests. Possibly it is the confidence based on this success that has caused the key monarchs in the GCC, led by the Saudis, to bolster militaries – their own and others – to counter upheavals, without any apparent regard for the consequences for control over their militaries. In December 2013, the GCC announced the formation of a Joint Military Command to be headquartered in the Saudi Arabian capital of Riyadh. Saudi Prince Mutaib bin Abdullah, promoted by his father to minister of his country’s National Guard as part of the intricate positioning for succession, stated that 100,000 officers and men would be recruited for this new command. He added “the National Guard is ready for anything that is asked of it.”[3] In March 2014, the GCC invited Jordan and Morocco to form a military alliance in return for unspecified “financial aid.” In theory this would bolster GCC forces by 300,000 men. Most of the GCC states have also announced intentions to build up their military capacities. In April Kuwait, which by 2014 had rebuilt its forces to the pre-1990 level of 17,000, announced it was establishing an office in Pakistan to recruit Pakistani trainers for Kuwaiti soldiers.”[4] In March 2011, Kuwait had supported the Saudi-led “Peninsula Shield” invasion of Bahrain with naval forces. Qatar in November 2013 and the United Arab Emirates two months later announced that conscription would be introduced, while Kuwait indicated that it was considering this step.[5] The UAE declared in early 2014 it wa4 doubling its defense imports to $3 billion by 2015.[6] Since 2007 the UAE has been second only to Saudi Arabia in acquiring U.S. military hardware through the Foreign Military Sales Program.

These and other measures reflect a large quantitative, possibly even qualitative change in the role of monarchial militaries, at least in the GCC. They are being assigned the key role in implementing an “Arab Thermidor,” wherever it should be needed, as has already been seen in Bahrain. It might well be that members of these ruling families also are motivated by the perceived utility of personal control over at least some component of the military in anticipated succession struggles. Saudi King Abdullah’s attempts to ensure succession through his line, for example, appears to rest heavily on control over the National Guard, which during his rule has been developed into a more potent force than the military, to say nothing of it becoming the personal fiefdom of he and his sons. Al-Khalifa control of the Bahraini military, al-Sabah control of the Kuwaiti one, and so on throughout the GCC, is likely also to become steadily more relevant to leadership succession as these ruling families multiply and divide and contestation for power between princes intensifies.

Monarchial militaries, in other words, are becoming double-edged swords. Increasingly capable of subduing revolutions at home or in the near abroad, they are being drawn more directly into intra-elite politics, where they could end up cutting into monarchial rule. As the stakes of militarization and military intervention steadily increase, so does the possibility of intra-family divisions between moderates and hard liners grow, as seems most apparent in Bahrain, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Such intra-family divisions may in turn open up possibilities for non-royal officers, or even for non-commissioned officers working in league with revolutionary forces, as in Iran. In sum, monarchial militaries have as a result of Arab upheavals been substantially strengthened. At present they remain firmly under monarchial control, but their potential to intensify divisions within these ruling families and thereby to create opportunities for rule by commoners, whether officers or civilians, grows in tandem with their size.

Implications and conclusion

Arab upheavals and reactions to them have resulted in a profound militarization of the Arab world. In the republics this has taken the form of remilitarizing Egypt, further entrenching the power of Algeria’s military and possibly preparing the Tunisian military for an unaccustomed role in the future. In the other republics a Hegelian dialectic has pitted the kataib of regime supporting militaries against militias emerging from protest movements, with both sides attracting external support, including additional militias. In the monarchies ruling families have bolstered their militaries by increasing their capabilities and by roping them together in collective commands. They have done so primarily to confront and put down further upheavals, wherever in the Arab world they might occur, but probably also as part of intensifying intra-family power struggles. Lying atop this militarization is the U.S. presence in various forms, included as primary supplier and trainer, operator of autonomous bases, or orchestrator of counter-terrorist campaigns.

This is a novel and dangerous development for the Arab world. The very existence of several of its key states is now in question as civil wars and insurgencies rage on. Those conflicts have already sucked in external forces and threaten to draw in more, while destroying whatever cohesion once existed in their militaries and other state institutions. Militaries that in the past were either parade ground forces, such as those in Tunisia or several GCC states, or that had through peace lost their raison d’etre, such as in Egypt, are now being reinvigorated not only to combat internal threats, but as possible expeditionary forces to confront “terror” and instability in neighboring countries. This growth of military power may in many, if not all, cases be at the expense of whatever civilian control, whether royal or commoner, now exists. Re-imposition of direct military control will trigger civilian oppositions likely to take the form not of protest movements akin to Arab Springs, but of more classical revolutionary types, in which violence directed at instruments of coercion is a fundamental tactic. The temptation for regimes to rely more upon coercive power domestically and to project it beyond the border will grow stronger as militaries are strengthened. U.S. policy toward the region, increasingly focused on counter terrorism, is not restraining any of these processes. Indeed, it is contributing to them.

The Arab Thermidor, in sum, has stimulated militarization and militiaization that threaten the region’s state system, to say nothing of its citizens. This growth of coercive power is in many if not most instances supported by a United States and Europe frightened of terrorism being projected against them or infesting failed states a la Afghanistan or Somalia. Militarization and militiaization may also come to be supported by other external actors interested in playing an enhanced role in this volatile region, not the least being Russia and China. By comparison the original Thermidor of July 27, 1794 looks pretty tame and simple, even if devastating for its victims, then and afterward.

Robert Springborg is the Visiting Kuwait Professor at the Paris School of International Affairs at Sciences Po in Paris.


[1] On the vital role of air force technicians (homafars), see Stephanie Cronin, Armies and State-Building in the Middle East. London: I.B. Tauris, 2014, pp. 133-135.

[2] Ibrahim El-Hudaiby, Changing Alliances and Continuous Repression: The Rule of Egypt’s Security Sector. Arab Reform Initiative, Debating Egypt (June 2014)

[3] Awad Mustafa, “GCC Seeks to Form Military Bloc with Jordan, Morocco,” Defense News (April 14, 2014)

[4] Kenneth Katzman, “Kuwait: Security, Reform, and U.S. Policy,” Congressional Research Service, CRS Report, 7-5700 (April 29, 2014), p. 15.

[5] Ola Salem, “UAE Cabinet Introduces Mandatory Military Service for all Emirati Males,” The National (January 20, 2014)

[6] Caline Malek, “UAE Defence Imports to Double to $3bn by 2015,” The National (February 27, 2014)

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