How do you explain the prominent role of the military in political life in the post-colonial Middle East?
The role of the military in the political spectrum in the Middle East is becoming more significant by the day. Over the last few years, several Middle Eastern countries have experienced governmental changes during which the military played a part, most notably is Egypt. Yet this is not a modern trend; throughout the past century, the military has taken a high position in the society of various Middle Eastern countries, particularly since the fall of colonisation. (Cronin, 2013) Through this essay one will attempt to examine the reasons behind the power that the military has been given by investigating these countries throughout their colonisation as well as the immediate time following the fall of colonisation. It will also be important to determine the role that this has in modern day Middle Eastern politics by scrutinising how the military and politicians interact with each other. Through these topics, one will be able to explain why the military plays such a prominent role in the post-colonial Middle East.
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When examining the Middle East, it is imperative that we study the role of democracy in states in which the military plays a prominent part. The majority of Middle Eastern countries are Islamic. (Khadduri, 1953) The role Islam plays in how society operates in these countries is impossible to ignore and it in turns influences the regions politics. Everything in an Islamic democracy comes under the influence and jurisdiction of God. (Khadduri, 1953) This is far from democratic yet the people who live in these regions accept the system because of their moral convictions. By accepting and living with the system they are living with God and accepting his rules as laid out through the Islamic penal codes.
The Middle East experienced many problems in the early 20th century following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the colonisation of many states in the region by European powers. Following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, countries in the region carried over some characteristics to their new successor states, particularly praetorianism and patrimonialism. (Cronin, 2013) The colonising states were therefore forced to introduce reforms to stem the excessive power from previous regimes. These reforms were introduced to correct the abuses, forcing the army to establish a European model. (Cronin, 2013) The Army officials were now absorbed into European ideals of nationalism, constitutionalism and socialism, allowing them to become the most radicalised group in society. (Khadduri, 1953) The military officers for the most part operate upon their own morals, and if the politicians fail, the military will overthrow them; effectively giving all the power to the military. (Khadduri, 1953)
Economically, countries like Egypt suffered under colonisation and this led to an increase in Military power in the region. The thriving Egyptian textile industry was abandoned and the raw materials were shipped to the United Kingdom where they were fashioned into finished products and then exported back to the Middle Eastern Market for resale. (Khadduri, 1953) This created a need for employment, which led to increased members of the lower classes joining the military (removing people from the prospect of productive labour).
Politically, colonisation played a fundamental part in the make-up of the modern day Middle East. The creation of Jordan as an independent state in 1946 stemmed from the Palestinian War. (Sela, 1992) The British were forced into the creation of state in which the boundaries were drawn on a map in London. This created a state that had opposing social groups and ideologies and no majority assembly creating political tension. (Sela, 1992) Similar actions occurred throughout the Middle East, as European powers attempted to redraw state lines and move different social and religious groups into new countries in an attempt to cut out future rebellions. (Sela, 1992) These newly founded societies relied heavily on the role of the military in an effort to maintain the peace as different political leaders came and went.
Following the collapse of the British Empire and the independence gained by former French colonies, the Middle East became a deeply unstable region. (Khadduri, 1953) As many countries throughout the world were experimenting and introducing new political ideas and platforms, the Middle East was being restricted by its religious ideology. (Khadduri, 1953) The failure to gain a platform that appealed to the masses during this time as well as the vulnerability and highly conservative nature of the Middle Eastern regimes made the army the main power in these Islamic states. (Khadduri, 1953)This power derived from a failure on the part of the politicians, who never addressed the problems that derived from a society whom did not accept a democracy. (Cronin, 2013) The control of government by the military was therefore indicative both of serious defeats in the democratic processes in the Middle East and the eagerness with which the Middle Eastern political leaders sought to pursue a high political life.
Our assessment of the role the military has in Middle East politics is largely formed around the history of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s in the region. (Rubin, 2001) Throughout these decades military coups were frequent in the Arab world. The armed forces during this time were highly politicised, and the publically elected rulers generally failed to control them. Also during this period, the military was seen as the most effective national institutions and in some cases, the only effective one. (Rubin, 2001)
Military officers during this period believed that politics was too important to be just left to the politicians, whom they alleged were incompetent and corrupt individuals. (Rubin, 1987) The 1948 Palestinian defeat along with the failure to gain Arab unity was perceived by military officers as subservience to Western states. (Sela, 1992) The failure by the politicians to modernise and develop the economies in the region was also among the criticisms that motivated officers to seek power. The military coups could also be interpreted due to the various ethnic, religious, social-class, and regional groups that were represented in the military at the time, those who were in fact, largely excused from the political and social elites. (Rubin, 1987) These coups were therefore social revolutions which occurred with the assistance of the military.
The current era of Middle Eastern politics was shaped by these military regimes and the elected rulers who learned how to stem the threat. These officials who survived the age of military coups were determined to prevent military officers from staging any fresh coups and had substantial success in preventing their armies from intervening in politics. (Rubin, 2001)The rulers also were able to build a loyal military that could successfully maintain internal order. (De Atkine, 2000) However the price of this loyalty damaged their ability to function as actual armed forces during wars, as their much of their training was gained whilst stemming revolts. (De Atkine, 2000)
The failure to gain a political platform that was accepted by the majority of society forced Middle Eastern countries to resort to the conservative authority seen in the region before colonisation. This conventional power derives from a monarch through the clergy and the army; the two most influential fields in a modern Middle Eastern state. (Rubin, 1987) Following the inception of independence in the region, the government sought to secure the future of the state through these two fields. Islam would become the focal point of law in the region while a large army would consolidate independence. (Khadduri, 1953)
The army became synonymous with providing its members with a good education; these educated officials became the most trusted members of society and were publically backed to work within the public service. (Khadduri, 1953) Subsequently it was assumed that the military would be able to enforce a united society amongst the various communities within the Middle Eastern States. (Kleber & Naumann, 2013) The military would become the catalyst in modernising the society. The military officers inadvertently became expected to set up; state-controlled economies, introduce a just distribution of wealth, and encourage a new national responsibility based on egalitarianism and political participation. (Kleber & Naumann, 2013)
However, it should be noted that the military’s loyalty lies with the regime rather than the consensus of the general population, the democratic system in place, or the state as a concept. There are exceptions however such as Turkey (where the armies are the guardians of the republic) and of course Israel. The program of most Arab governments over the last few decades has been to cut this power that the military has. In some Middle Eastern countries however, the military is at the centre of the social order and the governmental ideology; for example, the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps main aim is to support radical Islamic rule and this is mainly due to Islamic tradition. (Bazargan, 1997)
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In the 1950s, the radical military officers who sought to gain power always had their views tied to secularist beliefs. Moreover, the armed forces had more influence from foreign ideas and personnel than any other institution in Middle Eastern society. (Bazargan, 1997) Perhaps the loyalty of the military is merely down to a pragmatic and patriotic attitude which discouraged traditional the Islamic devotion.
Even Israel’s army was traditionally dominated by secularists. Judaism may now more than ever be becoming an important factor in the Israeli Army but they are still quite low in the higher ranking positions. (Cohen, 1997) Also the Turkish army is explicitly secular, believing it to be one of the Turkish republic’s most important values. (Ozcan, 2001) Israel and Turkey however are relatively unique, in that they ‘explicitly stress the military’s role in national integration: bringing people from different areas, backgrounds, and social levels together to forge them into a single nation.’ (Ozcan, 2001) These two countries have a very broad draft policy in their conscription and put a relatively large proportion of their citizens through some experience of military service. (Rubin, 2001)
The armed forces can also play an important socio-economic role. They can absorb any excess labour, which might otherwise result in unemployment and therefore be politically disruptive; Egypt’s previous regime was a good example of this. As noted above, though, as economies develop the armed forces can be a drain on the workforce, removing people from potentially productive employment. (Kleber & Naumann, 2013) The armed forces can also be used for development projects, and Egypt also furnishes a good example in this respect. (Rubin & Kearney, 2001)
The increased numbers has not improved the power the military has however. As governments in the Middle East have been deemed by Political Scientists to have successfully stemmed the power of the Military by forcing their political exclusion. (Rubin & Kearney, 2001) Political scientists believe that the role of the armed forces in the region has been decreasing significantly in the last 30 years. (Rubin & Kearney, 2001) This could be mainly due to the attempts by these countries to build and have access to weapons of mass destruction. At first glance, it would seem that the access to these weapons would only enhance the strength of the regions military. However, it should be noted that these governments control these weapons very closely and only allow certain military personal know about them. (Rubin & Kearney, 2001) This would seem that the governments want to place more importance on these weapons than their own regular armed forces.
In part, these countries attaining these weapons are attempts to deter the perceived deadlock between them and the military, and shifting the balance of power to their side. Clearly, these weapons of mass destruction add a new dimension to the doctrine and strategy of Middle East armed forces, as decisions can be directly enforced by those who give the order, the government. (Rubin & Kearney, 2001) These weapons have already been used in the Iran-Iraq war–with both sides firing missiles at the others’ cities and using, especially in Iraq’s case, chemical weapons with great effectiveness in battlefield situations. (Bazargan, 1997) This has significantly lowered the power that the regular armed forces have, as the regular citizen may no longer see them as the guardians of the Arab state and instead shift the allegiance they had to these weapons. Israel has had nuclear capability for a long time however these weapons have had very little impact on its policy making or military structure.
It should be emphasized, that even the presence of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle Eastern region does not render the existing regular armies irrelevant. On the contrary, if such armaments break the existing deterrence deadlock they could make the armed forces a more important tool for power projection for the governments. (Rubin & Kearney, 2001) This in turn will shift the power the government believed it has gained right back to the military.
In recent years, the attempt to consolidate power by the governments in place has failed. The recent uprisings in the Middle East region have brought two major patterns to the attention of the public and Political scientists. Firstly, the politicization and mobilization of larger parts of the civilian population has called into question the belief that the Islamic/Arab societies are unable to engage in collective action as they are beset with political apathy. (Albrecht, 2012) A perspective on the uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, Bahrain, Libya and Yemen – with minor revolts in Jordan, Oman, and Morocco would have to make political scientists rethink that these societies are unable to mobilise. (Albrecht, 2012)
Secondly, due to the increased importance put on military exclusion from Politics by the governments many Political Scientists came to believe that the armed forces had come to accept their role as protectors of the internal peace. (Albrecht, 2012) Yet this is not the case as it is evident that the military has played a part in the course of the recent uprisings. Therefore it is clear that the political engagement of the military in the region is at a much higher degree than first estimated, based on the research in the last thirty years.
Throughout the last thirty years, attempts have been made to combat the power the military had in the Middle East by their respective governments. During the previous decades the rulers in place feared the possibility of a military coup at any time and in turn this led to any military officer believe they could rise up and gain power. Attempts have been made to deter the military from political interaction yet this seems to be a failed attempt as the armed forces play such a vital role in maintaining order in a very conservative region. It is hard to see this power ever fading either; as the people in the region place a high emphasis on the role of the military and will side with them over the democratic process. It is clear that colonisation played a large part in the public support for the military as throughout their colonisation and in the immediate period after the people regarded the armed forces as the keepers of peace and the guardians of independence. And with the Middle East being as unstable as ever, it is difficult to see the heroic standing the military has in society fading any time soon.
- Albrecht, H., 2012. Military Engagement in Mobilizing Societies in the Middle East. [Online] Available at: http://www.eui.eu/DepartmentsAndCentres/RobertSchumanCentre/Research/InternationalTransnationalRelations/MediterraneanProgramme/MRM/MRM2013/ws02.aspx [Accessed 22 MArch 2014].
- Bazargan, D., 1997. Iran: Politics, The Military and Gulf Security. MERIA, 1(3).
- Cohen, S., 1997. Portrait of the New Israeli Soldier. MERIA, 1(4).
- Cronin, S., 2013. Armies and State Building in the Modern Middle East: Politics, Nationalism and Military Reform. Oxford: I.B.Tauris & Co Ltd.
- De Atkine, N., 2000. Why Arabs Lose Wars. MERIA, 4(1).
- Khadduri, M., 1953. The Role of the Military in Middle East Politics. The American Political Science Review, 47(2), pp. 511-524.
- Kleber, V. & Naumann, N., 2013. Power struggles define the Middle East in 2013. DW, 28 December.
- Ozcan, G., 2001. The Turkish Foreign Policymaking Process and the Influence of the Military. In: B. Rubin & K. Kirisci, eds. Turkey in World Politics: An Emerging Multi-Regional Power. London: Boulder Co.
- Rubin, B., 1987. Modern Dictators: Third World Coupmakers, Strongmen, and Populist Tyrants. New York: s.n.
- Rubin, B., 2001. The Military in Contemporary Middle East Politics. [Online] Available at: http://www.gloria-center.org/2001/03/rubin-2001-03-04/ [Accessed 21 March 2014].
- Rubin, B. & Kearney, T., 2001. Armed Forces in the Middle East. London: s.n.
- Sela, A., 1992. Transjordan, Israel and the 1948 War: Myth, Historiography and Reality. Middle Eastern Studies, 28(4), pp. 623-688.
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