|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
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 kingdoms 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 Arabias longtime intelligence chief, Prince
Turki, stepped down at his own request and was replaced by Prince Nawaf, a
close confidant of the kingdoms de facto ruler, Crown Prince Abdullah.
On March 7, King Abdullah of Jordan named his younger brother, Prince Faisal, as commander
of the Hashemite kingdoms air force. Three days before that, the monarch named a new
chief of staff of the armed forces. The kings 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 detat 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 governments policy decision, making the governments dependent on keeping the
With the Arab worlds grudging acceptance of Israels 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
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
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
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 militarys economic activities, establishing
legislative accountability or requiring transparency in military activities. Similarly,
political liberalization and democratization can only proceed so far
before challenging the militarys institutional and financial prerogatives. Hence,
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. Bashars 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 Jordans
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
kingdoms 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 fathers deputy would seem to be intended to ensure that the military remains
under the control of Sultans 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 Mubaraks 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 Nassers 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, Mubaraks dismissal in 1989 of his defense minister, Field Marshal
Mohammed Abdel-Halim Abu Ghazala, stemmed from that officers 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 Easts 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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