As the mass protests of the Arab Spring spread from country to country throughout the Arab world, the regimes in question had an array of options to choose from in how to handle the growing unrest within their borders. The use of security forces to impose repressive violence against the protesters was a popular choice across the board for those regimes facing serious upheaval. However, another important decision these regimes were faced with was whether or not the military would be brought in to crush the demonstrations. This, of course, was a choice not always made solely by the leadership of the regime, since the military leadership in some Arab regimes enjoys a significant degree of autonomy from (and in some cases, control over) the central civilian leadership.
The decision to use the military option varied among the different regimes under threat. The Tunisian and Egyptian militaries did not use force against the demonstrators, and dictators Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak were ousted from power. In Libya, Bahrain, and Syria, the military chose to intervene. However, this did not mean that the use of military force led to government success against the dissidents: in Libya, the rebels (with NATO assistance) successfully defeated Qaddafi; in Syria, there is as of this analysis no end in sight to the conflict between the regime and its opponents, though the acceptance by the government and the opposition of a peace plan proposed by Kofi Annan may be on the horizon; while in Bahrain, the military (with Saudi Arabian assistance) crushed the protest movement.
Therefore, an important question we must ask is why the military chose, or chose not to act during the uprisings. For this there is a flurry of explanations, ranging from international factors to the perception of the military in society. However, this article proposes that the decision to act, or not, was based on pragmatic and strategic reasoning by the military leadership on whether they deemed the survival of the regime to be in their best interest. In short, the decision by the military to intervene in protests in the Arab Spring was dependent on the relationship between the military and the regime, which determined whether or not the military leadership concluded that the ruling regime was worth saving. If the military leadership viewed the survival of the regime to be indispensable to their own survival, they chose to use repressive force against the protesters. If the military leadership concluded that they could survive the overthrow of the regime, or if they deemed that they would perhaps benefit from the regime’s fall, they refrained from using force against the protesters.
This article focuses on the following countries: Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Bahrain, and Yemen. These states were certainly not the only Arab countries to have experienced sustained protests during the Arab Spring; in fact, nearly all Arab countries had some level of protest during this period. However, these Arab states experienced what can be termed as massive dissident movements that clearly threatened the stability of the ruling regime, and caused the ruling government to undertake drastic measures. These were also states where the military was deployed in some capacity during the uprising. The protest movements in other Arab states never rose to such a level where the military option was considered or utilized, or they were sufficiently crushed early on by the government’s security services.
States Where the Military Choose Not to Act Against the Protests: Tunisia and Egypt
In contrast to other authoritarian Arab republics, the military in Tunisia never developed a cozy, economically reinforcing relationship with the ruling regime. Without any major threats or past wars (unlike in the cases of Egypt and Syria) the military has historically been an obscure and unimportant institution in Tunisian political life.[i] Compared to the Egyptian military, under Ben Ali’s rule Tunisia’s military was relatively small, less politicized, and less professional.[ii] It was mostly concerned with matters such as border security and emergency relief. Furthermore, as demonstrated by Wikileaks documents, it would appear that the only political elites who benefited from the corruption of regime was Ben Ali, his immediate family and his small circle of cronies, and not the military hierarchy.
Based on these factors, it is logical to conclude that a small military force with no apparent close links to Ben Ali would not choose to crush the demonstrations.[iii] When Ben Ali ordered the military to fire on the protesters, the army chief, General Rachid Ammar, refused. General Ammar is also believed to have urged Ben Ali to leave the country.[iv] In the immediate aftermath of the revolt, the military arrested top security figures, established order in Tunis, and proclaimed itself “the guarantor of the revolution”.[v] General Ammar became a very popular figure in the aftermath of the revolution, and the military emerged as the only strong political institution left standing. At least for the time being, it is obvious that the military as a whole benefited from the fall of the Ben Ali regime.
As stated above, the Egyptian military, in contrast to its counterpart in Tunisia, has been a powerful, highly professional, and well-respected institution in Egypt. During his rule, Hosni Mubarak largely succeeded in co-opting the military leadership by giving it access to lucrative land and business deals. Therefore, it seemed paradoxical when the military chose not to intervene in the revolts in Egypt, and eventually forced Mubarak to step down. Yet we can better understand this decision-making within the context of the military’s self-interest. Within the last ten years, Mubarak lost the military’s favor by cultivating a distinct civilian class of crony capitalists within his regime, and by laying the groundwork for the eventual transfer of power to Gamel Mubarak, Mubarak’s son and heir apparent, a decision highly unpopular with the military brass. As Taylor et al (2011) state, “the generals felt their influence slipping away as Mubarak disregarded their economic interests, ignored their advice on ministerial appointments, and organized a campaign to transfer power.”[vi] The decision to oust Mubarak has allowed the military leadership to impose a managed form of democracy that did not initially erode its popularity, and allowed it to regain its formerly privileged position. Further evidence of this is the military’s campaign of arrests against members of Mubarak’s inner circle of business elites, which is both highly popular among Egyptians and weakens threats to the military’s power.
An argument heard early on during the protests about why the Egyptian military choose not to use force is that it wanted to preserve its image as a legitimate and professional institution, as well as maintain its high level of popularity among the Egyptian people.[vii] This argument could also be used for the Tunisian military, which is also popular among average Tunisians. However, in October 2011, Egypt experienced its highest levels of violence since the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) took power, when Egyptian soldiers unleashed a bloody crackdown on Coptic Christian protesters. This has led to a general feeling of shock among Egyptians, and eroded the military government’s legitimacy in the eyes of the Egyptian people.[viii] This incident, which has been followed by several other violent crackdowns on protesters by the security forces, demonstrates that the Egyptian military is not afraid to use violence against civilians when it benefits its interests.
States Where the Military Acted Against the Protests: Yemen, Libya, Syria, and Bahrain
Libya and Syria
Although the Libyan regime under Muammar Qaddafi, and the Syrian regime under Bashar al-Asad are vastly different regimes, their militaries have striking similarities. Unlike Tunisia and Egypt, the military in Libya and Syria is not an autonomous institution, but rather part and parcel of the ruling regime. In Libya’s case, throughout his forty-year rule, Qaddafi never built truly modern or autonomous government institutions. He secured his rule through brutal repression and through tribal alliances. His sons headed his most important military units, and these were pivotal in suppressing the revolt. Thus, there is no question whether that the military would have eventually moved to violently repress the Libyan protesters. The regime and military leadership were essentially one and the same: Qaddafi, his family, and his circle of cronies. In this instance, the survival of the military was of course connected to the survival of the regime.
Following his 1970 coup, Hafez al-Asad created a regime that privileged his family, tribe, and members of the Alawite religious sect of which he belonged. Under his rule, a minority religious group considered heretical by mainstream Sunni Islam dominated Syria, which has a Sunni-majority population. The upper ranks of Syria’s military, intelligence, and security services were either members of al-Asad’s family, or members of his tribe, the al-Matawirah.[ix] These institutions collectively had one all-encompassing goal: to protect the stability and power of al-Asad’s regime and the Alawite community. With the exception of personnel changes, the nature of the regime has not changed one iota under Bashar al-Asad’s leadership. Under Hafez’s rule, Syria’s second most powerful man was his brother, Rif’at al-Asad, who commanded the regime’s elite Defense Units and was also largely responsible for carrying out the Hama massacre in 1982. Today, Syria’s second most powerful man is Bashar’s brother, Maher al-Asad, who heads the elite Republican Guard, and he has been a key figure in directing the violent repression of the protest movement in Syria. Therefore, as in Libya, the military’s survival is equivalent to the survival of the regime as a whole, and this explains the military’s decision to use force against the protesters.
In the months since the start of the Syrian uprising, the steady stream of defections from the Syrian military finally coalesced into a genuine guerrilla force against the Syrian military. While the top military leadership is almost solidly Alawite, and has seen virtually no defections,[x] the majority of foot soldiers in the Syrian army are Sunni Muslims who almost certainly make up a majority of the defections.[xi] These army defectors certainly do not see the value in massacring their fellow Sunnis in the cities of Homs and Hama for the sake of an Alawite regime that disenfranchises them. However, self-interest, in terms of power, may also be a motivating factor. Certainly mid-level army defectors, like Colonel Riad al-Asaad, who heads the largest anti-government guerilla force, the Free Syrian Army, may foresee a prominent role in a post-al-Asad family Syria.[xii] Therefore, army defections among officers may be motivated, as in the case of Yemen below, by the prospect of achieving power if the Baathist regime were to fall.
The 32-year old regime of Ali Abdullah Saleh shares remarkable similarities with the previously mentioned regime in Libya. Like Libya under Qaddafi, an authoritarian strongman ruled Yemen for decades, maintaining power through tribal alliances and brute force. Also like Qaddafi, Saleh never built modern institutions but relied on tribal governing structures for national institutions, including in the military. As one Yemenite political analyst remarked: “In Yemen we don’t really have a military as an institution, we have tribal factions in uniform, many of whom can be bought over to the other side”.[xiii]
The protests in Yemen began in February 2011. The movement had similar characteristics compared to other Arab Spring uprisings: peaceful protesters demonstrated for political reform and a change in leadership, primarily in the capital city of Sana’a. However, within the span of a month the uprising quickly transformed from a protest movement to a conflict between Yemen’s loyalist and opposition tribal groups. On March 18th, 2011, loyalist snipers fired on unarmed demonstrators. The ensuing national anger prompted a high number of military defections, including the president’s half-brother, General Maj. Gen. Ali Mohsen.[xiv] The fact that several of the military defectors subsequently joined opposition tribal groups, which shortly afterwards began engaging in violent street battles with the loyalist Republican Guard, makes it likely that defections were done in the interest of self-preservation, rather than just simply revulsion with the regime. As Stier (2011) states, “Major General al-Ahmar’s announcement opened the floodgates to military defections… He has been instrumental to keeping Saleh in power and this calculated move has set him up in a position where he and other upper ranks will be able to maintain their positions in a future government.”[xv]
Although the numerous tribal conflicts and alliances within the military created divergent interests even within the military leadership, he thesis of this article still holds in this case. The loyalist forces within the Republican Guard and the Mountain Brigade are under the command of Saleh’s sons, while his half-brother heads the air force, and elements of the special security forces are led by his nephews.[xvi] The other part of the military is now in the opposition camp, having joined forces with the protesters and the most important tribal group, the Hashid tribe, headed by the powerful Al-Ahmar family. Emblematic of the situation in the months after the protests began were the street battles in Sana’a between Republican Guard units led by Saleh’s son, Colonel Ahmed, and the tribal militia of Sheikh Sadeq al-Ahmar, a member of the al-Ahmar family.[xvii] Therefore, while military forces may be divided within the country, their motivations are still determined by self-interest, namely power and survival. These interests are in turn determined by the overall relationship between the military leaders and the Saleh regime. Despite Ali Abdulla Saleh’s abdication of power and his departure from the country on January 22nd, 2012,[xviii] the presence of family members in top positions in the government, particularly his half-brother who heads the air force, may perpetuate the ongoing conflict in Yemen between the loyalist and the opposition forces.
Bahrain is an unusual case in comparison to the other regimes already discussed. During the first month of the protest movement there were notable incidents of violent repression by the Bahraini security services. The Bahraini military was deployed mostly to secure the capital city of Manama, but there are claims that it engaged in violent clashes as well.[xix] However, the decision to crush the demonstrations did not come solely from either the Bahraini regime or the Bahraini military, but also from Bahrain’s neighbors, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, which collectively form the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). The GCC voted to send military forces (primarily armed forces from Saudi Arabia) to Bahrain, which succeeded in crushing the revolt. Therefore, while the Bahraini military was certainly complicit in the GCC’s decision to put down the demonstrations, it is unknown whether the military would have decided to crush the revolt on its own, although there is a strong possibility that it would have. The uprising in Bahrain was essentially a Shia-majority country rising up against a Sunni-minority government, and the military and security services of Bahrain are dominated by Sunnis, both local Bahrainis and foreigners.[xx] Therefore, one could guess that as in Libya and Syria, the Bahraini military leadership would have likely concluded that they would have no future if the royal family was overthrown.
As stated in the introduction, in the cases of the recent uprisings, the military’s decision to act or not was wholly determined by the self-interest of the military leadership. The top brass of the military at some point during the uprising probably asked themselves this question: does the continued survival of the current regime benefit the long term interests of the military? In considering the countries above, two types of self-interest can be identified which likely influenced the military’s decision-making:
- Power and material gain
The militaries that did not fire on protesters to save the regime did so because they believed that if the old government fell, their power, autonomy, and perhaps material wealth would improve. This was certainly the case for the Egyptian military, and more than likely, the Tunisian military as well. Thus the first type of interest was significant for these two militaries. For the militaries that violently repressed demonstrators, not only power but the long term survival of the military as an institution, depended on the survival of the regime. This is true for the Libyan, Syrian, and Bahraini militaries. Therefore, the second type of interest applies in these cases, survival. In the case of Yemen, where the military hierarchy is currently divided, self-interest in the form of survival applies to the loyalist military leaders, while the first type, power and material gain, applies to the opposition force.
Conclusion: What This Means for the Future of Military Decision-Making in the Region
Arab regimes that have successfully weathered the Arab Spring so far have undoubtedly taken note of the actions of the Egyptian and Tunisian militaries, and they will probably take steps to prevent such an outcome from occurring within their borders if in the future they too are faced with large, destabilizing demonstrations. In the future, we may see dictatorships in the Arab world and elsewhere take note of what occurred in Egypt and Tunisia and take measures to prevent such an outcome from occurring within its borders. Arab governments may take steps to further ensure the loyalty of their military leadership through closer ties with the regime and through incentives like economic benefits. Regimes may also take steps to decrease the institutional autonomy of the military to make sure that it will never go against the decisions of the regime. The desired outcome for the regime will be that when it comes time for it to order the military to fire upon protesters, the military leadership will not refuse. To combat what has occurred in Syria and Yemen, in the form of thousands of foot soldiers who deserted the military and joined the opposition, Arab regimes in the future may undertake harsh measures in order to maintain discipline among the lower ranks of the armed forces. Saddam Hussein employed an efficient solution to this problem. In the mid-1990s, the Baathist regime in Iraq imposed cruel punishments, including ear amputation, for the crimes of desertion and draft-dodging, following the 1991 Shia and Kurdish uprisings which saw whole military units defecting to the opposition.[xxi]
Understanding the regime-military relationship may also provide insights into the military’s behavior in states in which popular revolutions are eventually successful. Of course, in the cases of Libya and Syria, the military leadership will have no role to play as it and the regime leadership are practically one in the same. These military leaders are likely to flee into exile along with the political leadership. In the case of Egypt, observers can see that the military government is pursuing the same interests it had under Mubarak: it is seeking to preserve its privileges, autonomy, and power within Egypt. This has proven detrimental to Egypt’s path to democratization. Along with business rivals, the military has brought more than 7,000 people before closed military tribunals, including journalists, bloggers, and protestors.[xxii] It has also recently appeared to have declared war against US-funded pro-democracy groups; ordering raids on offices of several NGO’s in December, arresting dozens of officials from organizations such as Freedom House, the International Republican Institute (IRI), and the National Democracy Institute (NDI) in February.[xxiii] The numerous protests since October 2011 have also shown that the military is prepared to use violent force against civilians as a means to preserve order. And finally, the military leadership is also taking the steps to ensure that the future Egyptian constitution will not require strong civilian leadership and oversight of the military.
This is, of course, nothing new. During the wave of democratization that brought to an end numerous military juntas in the southern cone of South America, the generals in several of these countries succeeded in preserving their privileges through intimidation during the constitution-drafting process.[xxiv] Hopefully such behavior will be discouraged from taking place in post-revolution Arab states by both domestic forces and by international allies. Strong civilian leadership over the military should be encouraged, as well as policies that prevent the military leadership from forming an alliance with the government based on crony capitalism, as witnessed under Mubarak’s Egypt and other Arab regimes.
[i] Larbi Sadiki, “Bin Ali’s Tunisia: Democracy by Non-Democratic Means.” British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies 29, no. 1 (May, 2002): 57-78.
[ii] Bruce Maddy-Weitzman, “Tunisia’s Morning After.” Middle East Quarterly18, no. 3 (Summer, 2010): 11-17.
[iii] Steven A Cook, “The Calculations of Tunisia’s Military.” Foreign Policy, January 20, 2011, available at http://mideast.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2011/01/20/the_calculations_of_tunisias_military (accessed on March 29, 2012).
[iv] David D. Kirkpatrick. “Military backs new leaders in Tunisia.” The New York Times, January 16, 2011, available at http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/17/world/africa/17tunis.html (accessed on November 18, 2011).
[vi] Jeff Martini and Julie Taylor, “Commanding Democracy in Egypt.” Foreign Affairs 90, no. 5 (September/October, 2011): 127-137.
[vii] Matt Axelrod, “The Egyptian Military Calculus.” Foreign Policy, January 31, 2011, available at http://mideast.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2011/01/31/the_tension_in_egyptian_military_interests (accessed on March 28, 2012).
[viii] Sarah El Deeb, “Stunned by bloodshed, Egyptians torn over army.” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, October 15, 2011, available at http://www.seattlepi.com/news/article/Stunned-by-bloodshed-Egyptians-torn-over-army-2220250.php (accessed on November 19, 2011).
[ix] Hanna Batatu, “Some Observations on the Social Roots of Syria’s Ruling, Military Group and The Causes for Its Dominance.” Middle East Journal 35, no. 3 (Summer, 1981): 331-344.
[x] Martin Chulov, “On the Lebanese border, the Free Syrian Army takes shape.” The Guardian, November 17, 2011, available at http://0-www.lexisnexis.com.library.lausys.georgetown.edu/hottopics/lnacademic/ (accessed on November 18, 2011).
[xi] “Syrian army defectors attack intelligence base in Damascus.” BBC November 16, 2011, available at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-15752058 (accessed on November 18, 2011).
[xii] “Cracks in the Army.” The Economist October 29, 2011, available at http://0-web.ebscohost.com.library.lausys.georgetown.edu/ehost/detail?vid=3&hid=108&sid=cabcfc21-ffc0-4f88-ae9480690a9e7f0c%40sessionmgr112&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZQ%3d%3d#db=aph&AN=66954091 (accessed on November 19, 2011).
[xiii] Tom Finn, “In Yemen, Saleh’s military forces showing signs of strain.” Christian Science Monitor, May 23, 2011, available at (accessed on November 19, 2011).
[xiv] Khalid Fattah, “Yemen: A Social Intifada in a Republic of Sheikhs.” Middle East Policy 18, no. 3 (Fall, 2011): 79-85.
[xv] Erik Stier, “In Yemen, top military commanders defect from Saleh regime.” Christian Science Monitor. March 21, 2011, available at (accessed on November 19, 2011).
[xvi] Finn, “In Yemen, Saleh’s military forces showing signs of strain.”
[xvii] Fattah, “Yemen: A Social Intifada in a Republic of Sheikhs”: 81-82.
[xix] Nancy A Youssef, “Bahrain protesters reoccupy square, while Libya protests continue.” Christian Science Monitor, February 19, 2011, available at http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Middle-East/2011/0219/Bahrain-protesters-reoccupy-square-while-Libya-protests-continue (accessed on November 15, 2011).
[xx] Patrick Cockburn, “Bahrain in state of emergency as crowd marches on Saudi embassy.” The Independent, March 16, 2011, available at http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/bahrain-in-state-of-emergency-as-crowd-marches-on-saudi-embassy-2242919.html (accessed on October 15, 2011).
[xxii] Martini & Taylor, “Commanding Democracy in Egypt”: 128.
[xxiii] Yezid Sayigh, “The SCAF’s NGO Gamble.” Foreign Policy, February 10, 2012, available at http://mideast.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2012/02/10/prosecution_of_us_pro_democracy_activists_in_egypt_the_scafs_game_plan (accessed on February 16, 2012).
[xxiv] Juan Linz and Alfred Stepan, Problems of Democratic Transition and Consolidation. (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1996): 151-219.