A new role for the military institution in the second phase of the Arab Spring

Citizens and soldiers in Sudan's demonstrations for democracy
The military institution in the Arab world has become a determining actor in the second phase of the Arab Spring, by putting an end to the dictatorship in Algeria and Sudan. Possibly, it could play the same role in other countries, could even be a guarantor of democracy against any return of usurpation of power by kings and presidents.

In the Arab world, there is no sociology of the army, there are almost no studies that address the different stages of the Arab armies from independence to the Arab spring. It’s a taboo subject par excellence in Arab university.

In reality, the military institution in the Arab world is undergoing silent changes, which consolidate over time. In the past it was synonymous with coups d’état such as Egypt, Syria, Libya, Sudan, Mauritania. Now the situation is different.

There was one exception, Arab military history reserves a place of honor for Sudanese general Siwar Adahab, perpetuated a coup d’état in 1985 against dictator Jaafar Numairi, and in 1986 handed over power to a civilian president. This historic gesture had no great impact for two reasons: on the one hand, there was another coup d’état led by General Omar Bachir, and on the other hand, in the 1980s there was no movement for democracy in the Arab world.

20 years later, there was another such gesture. The Mauritanian army ousted President Mouhayia Ueld Tayah in 2005. He handed over power two years later to a civilian president, Mohamed Uel Chij Abdelah. The latter made serious mistakes, especially by Islamizing the administration, and the army carried out another coup d’état led by Mohamed Ben Abdel Aziz. This general did not establish a dictatorship but a semi-democratic regime and will relinquish power at the end of his legislature.

The outbreak of the Arab Spring cannot be understood without a fact of enormous importance. This is the decision of the Tunisian general on 11 January 2011 when he rejected President Zin Abidin Ben Ali’s order to repress the demonstrators. Amar’s position was crucial to Benali’s decision to escape to Saudi Arabia.

The Egyptian army adopted the same position, dropping President Hosni Mubarak. Unfortunately, the Minister of Defense, General Abdelfatah Sissi perpetuated a coup d’état against President-elect Mohamed Murci. Sissi is more of a secret service man than an army officer. The role of secret services in the Arab world is always negative.

At present, we are attending the second stage of the Arab Spring. The determining actor along with the people is the military institution. In Algeria, the army forced President Bouteflika to resign. And the same thing happened in Sudan, the army threw out Omar Bashir. This is generating an interesting debate, an opinion that asks for trust in the army because times are changing. And another opinion expresses its mistrust by alleging the army’s dark past in the Arab world.

The facts speak for themselves, the military institution in Algeria and Sudan showed political maturity. The Algerian army seeks a formula that consists of respecting the Constitution but also responding to the legitimate demands of the people. For his part, the Sudanese are determined to pave the way for democracy, the measures he has taken confirm this trend.
In our book “Revolution for Dignity in the Arab World” (Icaria 2012) which addresses the role of the military institution in the Arab Spring, we have studied some elements that indicate that armies will eventually defend democracy.  We quote the following:

First of all, there is an increasingly fluid relationship between the military and civilians. In the past, soldiers and their families lived in isolated neighborhoods, but in the last 20 years, this phenomenon disappeared. Soldiers live within civil society. This contact generates influence and exchange between both parties. Now the problems of the citizens are the same as those of the soldiers.

Secondly, the soldier in the past was naive, with no cultural level. For the regime, it was easy to control.  Today the opposite is true, most soldiers have a high school diploma or have studied at university. Therefore, they do not want to be a simple instrument to repress.

Thirdly, soldiers are increasingly aware that they are in the service of dictatorial and corrupt regimes and not in the service of the people. The general feeling is that these soldiers do not want to continue in this task and neither do they want to be an instrument in the hands of the dictatorship to repress the people. In Sudan, it has been the soldiers who have demanded change and not the high-ranking officers.
Finally, dictatorial regimes are increasingly aware of the malaise within the army. For this reason, they rely much more on the secret services when it comes to repressing the people.

The role of the armies of Tunisia, Algeria and Sudan is the beginning of a new stage in the history of the Arab military institution. Political activists must open a dialogue with the armies. Because sooner or later, the Arab armies will be the guarantor of democracy and the best instrument to stop the abuses of dictatorships.

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