As part of the regular season of weekly seminars held at the ACRPS, the Program for the Study of Democratic Transition in the Arab Countries convened a joint meeting of three scholars to discuss the roles of the security and military establishments in transitional phases in the Arab region. The seminar, held on Wednesday, 11 October 2017 was addressed by Abdulwahab El-Affendi, Dean of the Doha Institute’s School of Social Sciences and Humanities; Abdelfattah Mady, Joint Coordinator of the Democratic Transition Program; and Omar Ashour, a Visiting Scholar at the ACRPS. Haider Saeed, a Researcher at the ACRPS, moderated the event.
The first of the three presentations was titled “State Legitimacy and the Legitimacy of the Army: Some Primary Considerations” and was delivered by Dr. Abdelwahab El-Affendi. El-Affendi offered that the military’s willingness to mutiny and challenge the state’s monopoly on violence was a phenomenon clearly visible in a number of Arab countries. In some cases—the speaker gave Libya and Yemen as examples—this led to a complete fragmentation of the military into distinct militia competing for legitimacy.
El-Affendi contrasted this with the Sudanese situation, in which the armed militia, he said, could be divided into one of three groups. The first of these did not recognize the legitimacy of the existing state, viewing the standing army as the armed wing of a specific (i.e., the ruling) political faction. El-Affendi placed all of the various armed rebel groups in various parts of Sudan, and which splintered off from the army within this broad category. A second category of Sudanese armed group includes the armed militias which are armed by the government to combat rebel factions. A third, distinct group of Sudanese faction was made up of militia formed along tribal lines and which have independent sources of arms and training, and which are active in inter-tribal politics. What all three groups had in common was their refusal to disband. El-Affendi suggested that the only way for Sudan to resolve this situation was to undertake a comprehensive and far-reaching political reform process. Such a process, said El-Affendi, would place a strong national army capable of providing security for all at its center.
In contrast to this ideal state of affairs, El-Affendi opined that Arab armies had abrogated their commitment to protect their countries’ territories and citizens, instead becoming the main threat to their own governments. El-Affendi suggested that, ironically, the politicization and internal fragmentation which was the downfall of Arab armies in the post-colonial order was the result of their own success: feted as the less corrupt, more regimented and “modernist” saviors of newly independent states let down by weak and ineffective civilian populations, the taste of government proved to be the undoing of the post-colonial Arab armies.
The second speaker, Abdelfattah Mady, delivered a paper titled “Soldiers and Governments: When do Soldiers Leave Power and How to Deal with their Influence on Politics?” in which he gave a comprehensive view of the problems associated with driving the military out of government and then establishing civilian control of professional armies. Mady’s paper, which draws on the introduction to a book of his which is yet to go to print, compared the post-Arab Spring case of states like Egypt with examples from non-Arab states. Mady suggested that the reality of life in a democratic, modern state did allow for some variations from the norm of complete military subjugation to civilian authority. Instead, he suggested that the political influence of a “military-industrial complex”, the involvement of high-ranking officers in drafting national security policies and even the post-retirement political careers of high-ranking officers all provided evidence that, even in mature democracies, civil-military relations were never straight forward.
According to Mady, these were two distinct processes: the first, the process of removing the military from control of civilian governments, was a matter of the “transition to democracy”; the second, remedying the political influence of military officers implied democratization. Giving a broad overview of cases from around the globe, Mady suggested that the most significant factor in transitions from military to civilian governments was the existence of a popular, widespread social movement with deep roots in the population and which could offer a credible political alternative. It was only with such popular support for an end to military rule, said the speaker that a transition from military to civilian rule could be brought about.
Mady concluded with an exposition of the historical and political factors that led to military interventions into politics in several Arab countries. Mady also described the common features which brought together Arab experiences not only of military rule, but all Arab governments as well. The speaker also explained the battery of factors which could pave the way for the rise of democratizing forces.
Omar Ashour delivered a paper explaining the challenges facing the reform of the security services in Arab countries, and particularly given the repressive behaviors of the police and security forces within the Arab world and the role which these played in sparking the popular revolutions of Egypt, Syria, Libya, Yemen and Bahrain. Ashour described the security services of those countries as “more akin to violent gangs than professional police forces”. With the sole exception of Tunisia, explained Ashour, all attempts to change the Arab security forces have failed or in fact reversed. Ashour offered that one way of moving forward was to codify a concept of “human security” and place it at the center of security/police reform: in this way, he explained, the Arab region’s police forces would be turned into effective organs for the implementation of the rule of law. Ashour also offered examples of transitioning countries where successful democratization went alongside security sector reform, including South Africa, Indonesia and Chile.
Ashour further claimed that the difficulties faced by most Arab countries in reforming their security sectors were largely rooted in the lack of the appropriate social and political conditions. Specifically, stark political polarization had impacted the reform of the security sectors in Arab countries, and had led to the collapse of any social consensus on that point. This had also allowed opponents of security sector reform to regroup and strengthen. Ashour also pointed to the weakness and limited resources of newly elected governments in dealing effectively and forcefully with corruption, making difficult to undertake a complex and costly procedure such as security sector reform. Finally, Ashour pointed to international factors in dragging back the reform of the police and security services in Arab countries: while countries like Qatar, Turkey and the United Kingdom offered technical and material assistance towards the reform processes of Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, other players in the region worked to foil these transitions.
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