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Analysis, March 30, 2002

The Daily Star

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‘Coup-proof’ Arab regimes must tread carefully in changing world
Looking after their militaries’ interests may still be a matter of survival

Recent shuffling of top commanders may indicate rulers’ bids to bolster themselves

Ed Blanche
Special to The Daily Star

On March 21, King Fahd of Saudi Arabia appointed a relative, Admiral Fahd bin Abdullah al-Saud, as commander of the kingdom’s navy in a major command shuffle. Several months earlier, Prince Khaled, who was joint commander of coalition forces during the 1991 Gulf War, was named deputy with Cabinet rank to his father, Prince Sultan, the defense minister since 1962. Last July, Saudi Arabia’s longtime intelligence chief, Prince Turki, stepped down “at his own request” and was replaced by Prince Nawaf, a close confidant of the kingdom’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Abdullah.
On March 7, King Abdullah of Jordan named his younger brother, Prince Faisal, as commander of the Hashemite kingdom’s air force. Three days before that, the monarch named a new chief of staff of the armed forces. The king’s half-brother, Prince Ali, heads the royal security force.
On Jan. 23, President Bashar Assad of Syria also named a new chief of staff, Lieutenant General Hassan Turkmani, shortly after appointing a new head of the General Intelligence Directorate, a key post that carries wide powers to ensure domestic stability.
A few weeks earlier, President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt named a new commander of the 2nd Army soon after appointing a new military chief of staff, General Hamdi Weheiba, the commander of his elite presidential guard, to replace Lieutenant General Magdy Hatata, who himself had at one time commanded the presidential guard and been mooted as a possible successor to Mubarak. In July 2001, Mubarak had announced a wide-ranging shuffle of senior military commanders, moving several to provincial governorships around the country.
All these changes in the upper echelons of the military in several pivotal Arab states, all of which took place within the space of a few months, underline how the armed forces and intelligence services are key elements in most Arab regimes and have the primary mission of ensuring the stability and survival of those regimes.
In the arcane, intrigue-filled milieu of palace politics in the Arab world, it is often easy to imbue such changes with deep political significance where none may actually exist, but it is also true that within these autocratic regimes such changes have a more profound political resonance than similar developments in Western democracies.
Between 1945 and 1970 there was an endless chain of military coups throughout the Arab world. In 1949 alone, Syria experienced three coups in rapid succession and, until the late Hafez Assad, a Soviet-trained fighter pilot and defense minister, seized power in November 1970 there had been 21 coups or attempted coups in Syria. All told, between 1961 and 1969, there were 27 military takeovers or attempted coups d’etat in nine Arab countries. All this turmoil shaped the regimes that eventually emerged and which, by and large, have remained in power for decades.
The durability and resilience of such regimes over the last 30 years or more in Jordan, Syria, Egypt, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Algeria, Morocco is probably due in no small measure to the fact that the military and intelligence forces in those countries had been purged, pampered and programmed by the ruling elites to prevent them seeking to seize power; generally, at the expense of those forces’ capabilities to wage conventional war against an external enemy, namely Israel.
Professor Barry Rubin of the Middle East Review of International Affairs, commented: “Perhaps the biggest asset of Middle East militaries is that they often have more influence than their Western counterparts in obtaining the level of financial support they seek. They need not worry about public criticism.
“The first requirement of any government is to ensure its own survival. In the Arab world, this has meant find a way to prevent the armed forces from seizing power in a coup. Simultaneously, governments have given the armed forces privileges while also trying to weaken them in order to redirect their interests away from politics. Ironically, though, the armed forces have been kept out of politics only by measures that subordinate them to the government’s policy decision, making the governments dependent on keeping the officers happy.”
With the Arab world’s grudging acceptance of Israel’s existence after a series of wars roughly speaking, one every decade since the late 1940s the region is now witnessing the end of that era of dominant Arab leaders who established regimes that have endured and even become dynastic in nature. Younger leaders are emerging, in most cases succeeding fathers in transfers of power that have so far been surprisingly smooth and trouble-free.
The military forces of Syria, Jordan, Morocco and Bahrain have supported these changes in what are generally speaking authoritarian regimes which have made little real effort to introduce political pluralism over the years, but which since the end of the Cold War have to face the prospect they will have to embrace political, economic and social reform or go under.
As the older generation of Arab leaders passes away at a time when the developing world is moving increasingly toward  democratic systems that embrace accountability and political and economic reform, and as the region stumbles awkwardly toward a comprehensive peace (although that prospect sometimes appears so distant as to be incomprehensible) that will undermine the justification for large-scale military spending, Arab militaries face the dire prospect of losing much of their influence. How they, the officer corps in particular, react to that after decades of featherbedding will be a critical factor in determining the smooth succession of a new generation of Arab leaders, a process already under way.
Analyst Risa Brooks wrote in a recent paper for the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London that comprehensive economic reform in Arab states “is potentially destabilizing, especially where it threatens military prerogatives by, for example, causing weapons acquisition to decline, reducing officers’ perquisites and/or standards of living, privatizing the military’s economic activities, establishing legislative accountability or requiring transparency in military activities. Similarly, political liberalization and democratization can only proceed so far
before challenging the military’s institutional and financial prerogatives. Hence, short-term
stability is bought at the expense of the long-term political and economic transformation of those regimes.”
She wrote: “Political-military relations will be crucial in the impending leadership successions in key Arab states. The uncertainties surrounding succession offer opportunities for profound leadership change. Leadership stability cannot be taken for granted, even where designated successors exist. A comprehensive assessment of the challenges that new leaders will face must take account of the various aspects of political control, and must not assume that military support with be forthcoming.”
Rubin pointed out while an economic “peace dividend” is one incentive to seek peace in the region, “military budgets are unlikely to decline” despite their importance for maintaining internal stability in Arab states. “A purely ‘rational’ argument based on economics will not appeal to leaders who know they need a strong and happy military to survive.”
Bashar Assad has the support of key figures in the elaborate military and intelligence structures his father built up over the years, and has appointed his loyalists or followers of those figures in the power elite who support him, but the Old Guard retains considerable influence and is resistant to change and thus cannot be ignored. Bashar underwent a crash course in leadership under his late father, but the elder Assad had not completed his plan to position those who would support his son before he died in June 2000. Bashar’s recent appointments were intended to consolidate his authority and more can be expected.
King Abdullah, like his late father King Hussein, relies on the loyalty of Jordan’s armed forces. Constitutionally, members of the royal family cannot hold political office, but they can occupy command positions in the military and given that more than half the kingdom’s 6 million population is of Palestinian origin (significantly, few serve in the military), it is only prudent that Abdullah, a career army officer who gained the rank of major general before his father died, place his relatives in key military commands.
In Saudi Arabia, Crown Prince Abdullah has been the de facto ruler since his half-brother King Fahd suffered a stroke in 1995, leaving him in poor health. Whether Abdullah, who is in his mid-70s, will ever ascend the throne remains unclear, but his age could militate against that. Prince Sultan, his rival for the throne, is also in his 70s, so it is possible that the grandsons of the founder of the Al-Saud dynasty, King Abdel-Aziz, could well produce the next monarch. There have been consistent reports of schisms within the royal family, which numbers some 5,000 princes, and it is possible that the jockeying for control is already underway.
Abdullah commands the National Guard, a largely Bedouin force whose primary mission is to protect the House of Saud, while Sultan, as defense minister, controls the regular military, which is composed mainly of men from urban backgrounds. Naming Prince Khaled as his father’s deputy would seem to be intended to ensure that the military remains under the control of Sultan’s side of the family.
In Egypt, the military has to some degree been supplanted as the power behind the regime by a new commercial elite that has emerged under President Hosni Mubarak’s economic privatization program. But the question of the succession in Cairo remains unclear since Mubarak, who is also in his 70s, has never designated an heir apparent; not publicly anyway. The transfer of power in Egypt following Nasser’s death in 1970 went smoothly, with Anwar Sadat taking the reins. Mubarak, a former air force commander, became president 11 years later, without any opposition, after Islamic militants assassinated Sadat for making peace with Israel.
He has proved to be a resilient and adroit leader and currently has no obvious challengers, but there have been several attempts to assassinate him and this has stirred some uncertainty since he had not named a vice president. It is widely believed that the military will play a key role in choosing his successor, who will likely be a military figure or someone with close ties to the military.
In this regard, Mubarak’s dismissal in 1989 of his defense minister, Field Marshal Mohammed Abdel-Halim Abu Ghazala, stemmed from that officer’s popularity in the military which the president saw as a potential threat. The two officers who followed Abu Ghazala as defense minister (currently Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, a highly decorated veteran of four wars against Israel) did not command the same support as he did.
Norvelle De Atkine, a retired US Army colonel who instructs US military personnel assigned to the Middle East, says that over the years, Arab leaders have, by taming their militaries, “learned how to be coup-proof.” But Rubin stresses that “the decline in the Middle East’s armed forces’ tendency to seize power is not irreversible, but is likely to remain the predominant trend. No ruler can ignore, however, the views of his generals and the institutional interests of the armed forces.”

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