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Book Review: The Army and Political Power in the Arab Context


Ammar Dyob


Azmi Bishara's book "The Army and Political Power in the Arab Context: Theoretical Problems" is a qualitative addition to the Arab library regarding the relationship between the army and politics. This review is not a presentation of the ideas of the book, which is a necessary task, and authors and sites addressed it, but a critical reading of it, and a attempt to discover the foundations of this problematic relationship in our countries and compare it with the European prospect, where there is a democratic governance, industrial capitalism, and constitutional and legal mechanisms to maintain politics and power without the need for military intervention in politics, except in major internal crises (Hitler, Mussolini). Military intervention abroad is one of the issues that is not addressed in this book. There is an old debate about the old and modern occupations in which the army had the central role, as was the case with the United States, especially after World War II, and Europe, in particular before that war.

First: Israel, security companies and militias

I will not discuss the issue of Israel as an occupation state, as a result of imperialism's domination of the world, an advanced military base in our region, perpetuating its backwardness and impeding its development. It is also the result of the silence of the communities "governed by these imperialist regimes" facing the presence of the Zionist state; European and American politics, despite embracing democracy based on modernist thought and relations, being the inheritors of the project of modernity and enlightenment, and presumably take into account human rights; and despite the existence of international resolutions that affirm the Palestinians' right to their land, the right of return and the declaration of their state, in spite of all this, the Palestinians were not given their rights. I believe that the army and politics, and all Western democracies, are like a "national" and global capitalist project, to impose the domination of imperialism, and later globalization, on the world, and in favor of specific regimes and peoples, namely the imperialist countries. The existence of popular and political sectors, leftists in particular, rejecting all the above, does not change anything.

In addition to the issue of Israel, there are new military-security formations, that emerged in the United States, like "Blackwater", that have no match in Europe. In Russia, their counterpart is "Wagner". These are military-security companies which do not pertain to the official military institutions; a new phenomenon, used by the state to carry out "dirty" missions abroad, as in Iraq after its occupation in 2003, and in Syria through the Russian group. This phenomenon deserves in-depth study, for example, why it was originally formed, because neither America nor Russia need it; they are countries that allocate the two largest budgets in the world for their military sector.

The subject of the aforementioned companies is in the context of the emergence of the phenomenon of militias subordinate to Arab armed forces, or the "Libyan case", which is mostly sectarian and tribal militias in addition to thugs. Dr. Bishara stresses that the Arab armies, especially after the Setback of June 1967, instead of playing a role in modernizing the state and society, and "producing a national identity" have been "reinforcing traditional sectarian structures."

Therefore, there is a huge decline in the role of Arab armies. If the state of the armed forces is as such, then the emergence of militias with the collapse of the regimes in particular, especially in Syria after 2011, and in Iraq during the rule of al-Maliki, and later within the war against ISIS, indicates a deterioration of communities as well. Thus, the army-led regimes pushed Arab peoples towards total collapse, which can be seen through the return to pre-national social structures.

Of course, equating the American-Russian phenomenon with the Arab militias is not fair, but it also deserves theoretical examination, to discuss the issue in terms of the specificity of the American system first, then, the stage of globalization and its connection to such companies. Also the study of the "Mafia-like" form of the Russian regime, which resembles to a great extent the situation in third-world authoritarian states, despite the fact that Russia is in a transition from "socialist" state capitalism to an imperialist capitalist state, which distinguishes the Putin stage, and his strategy to restore the Soviet Union which disintegrated in the 1990s, to create a new "obligatory" alliance with Russia, as well as ihis attempts to impose Russia as a global state, through his intervention in Syria, supporting Iran, the adoption of an effective policy that competes with the US in the Arab region and globally.

Second: Criticism of Huntington and the Emergence of Armies

The book discusses at length the opinion of the American thinker Samuel Huntington in his book "The Soldier and the State: The Theory and Politics of Civil-Military Relations" and criticizes his concept of professionalism of the army, which considers its role like that of doctors, engineers, or other professionals. Dr. Bishara believes that this may lead the army to obey " blindly" and commit crimes, as happened in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. The same thing is practiced by the armies of Syria, Iran and others, as the "professional" army intervenes to commit crimes and destroy cities; which Dr. Bishara refuses. He proposes an educational program for the army, to instill the culture of freedom and democracy among its individuals, so that the role of the army becomes the protection of the state and citizens, no matter how governments change. Dr. Azmi criticizes a group of theories foreign to the subject of the book, like garisson state, praetorian state and others, which, in his opinion, remain insufficient to give a more objective view of the central problem of the book "The Relationship between the Army and Politics" in modern times.

The capitalist class - with its industrial revolutions and development of democracy, and the social and political conflicts - allows neutralizing the military's role in politics, although it is natural to have a role, as Dr. Azmi sees it.

Our thinker explains the evolution of the relationship between the military and politics, and makes an important contribution in clarifying the emergence of the concept of the military globally, and how it changed from armies based on class hierarchies to armies based on the equality of individuals, and how the distinction between military elements is based on military rank and education, i.e., individual capacities and not class hierarchy. In the Arab region, the military was established within the Ottoman empire, which occupied "our states". With the European armies taking over the states and regions of the "Sick Man" (Ottoman Empire), many of them returned to play a role in establishing their own armies.

The book points out that this has been largely achieved in Iraq, while in the rest of the countries such as Egypt, Syria and Lebanon, the European armies totally eradicated the "Arab Ottoman officers". In all cases, the formation of Arab armies and security forces was the fastest modernist nucleus in the modernization of Arab society, and Dr. Bishara points out that the army played a key role in the formation of the states. He does not elaborate on the fact that it was under the control of the French or British occupation, which had an influence on the nature of the old and modern bourgeois class, the officers and their vision of politics, and all of our modern history.

As for Syria, the book has discussed in detail the role of these officers, but with regard to the experience of Egypt, Iraq or Lebanon, the book included ideas that these armies were established in relatively small numbers and light equipment. They were formed by reactivating the pre-national identities. Military groups were formed according to sectarian or nationalist structures.

The question of the stability of industrialized countries without the intervention of armies in politics, except in major crises, shows that the large budgets of the armies in the West, especially in America, require serious discussion. Why such huge armies and what are their roles in their countries' strategies?

Of course, it is not the task of the armies to deter Russia or China alone, but there are internal issues in which major crises may occur, and can only be solved by the intervention of the army and the imposition of order.

And therefore the education proposed by Dr. Azmi to marginalize the idea of ​​professionalism, in response to Huntington, his realism and conservatism, which prevents the liberalization of the armies, and keeping them governable and capable of doing heinous acts such as killing, war, and all forms of violence, which may vanish with any major crises. Note that what the US Army has done in both Afghanistan and Iraq was a completely criminal act, destroying modern societies, and praising sectarian systems that played a key role in creating long lasting conflicts.

It can be concluded here that neither Huntington's proposed professionalism, nor the educational program proposed by Azmi, may be a way to neutralize the army from interfering in politics in certain crises. The army itself, and the purpose of creating its large arsenals, are not for the protection of the state nor the interests of all classes or all citizens, but for the protection of the interests of the state which primarily represents the interests of bourjois class and to intervene in cases of large scale crises, as was the case in Germany and Italy before WWII as we mentioned, as well as a protection against a real threat from the working classes, in the form of socialist revolutions, to alter the production systems, not just the ruling regime.

The American, European and Russian intervention in the world is different. It is about the domination of the world and dividing it between them. It has never ceased, although its forms and causes have changed. The development of the mechanism of world division began before and after the Bolshevik Revolution, and during World War II. The role of national and nationalist liberation movements, during the Cold War and after the dissolution and fall of the Soviet Union, and now with the Putin phase, who is trying to restore the glory of the Soviet Union by controlling the world in a Mafia-like, eventhough for various reasons, after the state turned into a capitalist state, like in the cases of his intervention in Georgia, Ukraine and Syria.

Third: The role of the army after independence

Our thinker believes that the army that took over power and politics after the Second World War in Egypt, Syria and Iraq represented the middle classes, and came to power because of the failure of the old liberal bourgeoisie in the face of external crises, namely the 1948 Palestine catastrophe, as well as the internal agricultural issue and its inability to develop pluralism and democracy, and to establish them consistently. This army represented officers of medium and low ranks, with a lack of senior ranks.

In any case, what Dr. Bishara did not provide sufficient justification for is: why did the middle class come into power and what was the effect of that? Why was the army able to take charge and stay in authority?

"The army and the middle class do not form a single social, ideological or political class," says Dr. Bishara. "Therefore, this is an act contrary to history, and thus produced autocratic regimes, especially in Syria and Iraq, where the army played a major role, as well as in Egypt, Algeria and various countries around the world. Thus, the assumption of power and politics by the army and the "middle class" in the capitalist configuration are against history; they do not have an independent vision of the production system or political system. The natural place of the middle class is between the two basic classes - the industrial bourgeoisie and the working class - and its role and importance in all spheres increases with the domination of the bourgeois industrial class. In other words, the army and the middle class are still lacking historical legitimacy and a modernization project for the society.

The last point is problematic, there were armies that assumed this role, such as the Turkish army. Here we see that the role of the army was necessary for the transfer from the old production system "agricultural" to a modern production system, modern politics and the modernization of all structures of society. Moreover, this significant role of the large army in Turkey has caused several military coups in the history of this country. Therefore, the army in some Arab countries (Syria for example) governs as an organized disciplined force which possesses arms, and enforces order through security services and the old civil structures. Thus, autocratic leaders control the institutions of the state. Dr. Bishara describes their rule as being "authoritarian" or "sultanic in a totalitarian form". This system of government requires a huge body of military and security institutions, to encompass the unemployed; in addition to dependence on sectarianism or tribalism (as in Yemen and Lybia), and specifically on regionalism in Syria, as Dr. Azmi pointed out in his explanation of the experience of the Syrian regime, army and politics in Syria.

He believes that it began after 1963, where groups in the army were rallied for regional reasons, but it has evolved, especially after 1984, and after the end of the war against the vanguard and the Muslim Brotherhood, to sectarianism. Later, after the year 2000, and specifically since 2005, the army has represented the authority of al-Assad family. I think it is more accurate to say that the regime's "social base" represents a broad stream of those enrolled in the army and security forces, but the leadership is entrusted only to the Alawites. The regime exploited the "historical sectarian narrative," but it remained undisclosed and within the intelligence circles, and was never legalized, such as in the case of Lebanon, or post-US Iraq in 2003, for example.

The majority of military and security leaders in Syria are from the Alawite sect, although there are tribal considerations within the same sect. Since the 1980s, there has been a succession of officers' positions, but it has not been legalized and was retrogressive, as in the case of deportation of Rif'at al-Assad, or even in disputes of senior officers with the government, as in the case of the Minister of Defense, "Ali Habib," an important and influential figure.

What I mentioned does not underestimate the importance of conducting detailed studies on the issue of sectarianism in Syria, since the 1960s and its development through the 1980s.

What supports our idea here is that Bishara himself writes about multiple strata that have benefited from the establishment of the system of liberal transformation and market economy, only to turn into an economic mafia that controls more than 60 percent of Syria's economy, and its main figures are from the Alawite sect "Makhlouf, Shaleesh".

Fourth, Sectarianism as a Modern Phenomenon

There is a theoretical idea confirmed by Dr. Bishara, that sectarianism is not a continuation of the past, although he identifies the emergence of sectarianism with the Ottoman state centuries ago, and the persecution of the followers of certain sects as if they belong to a different faith, other that the Quranic text, and also because of colonial interventions in the name of minority protection.

But our thinker, when explaining the concept of fanaticism, he does not see it as an issue from the past that has remained unchanged, but the product of coups that occurred, and product of the crisis of the middle bourgeoisie class, which has revived regionalism and old loyalties, and politicized them to help create a social base for itself.

Also, regimes may tend to neutralize a large community bloc through the politicization of religions and their conflicts, and the preservation of traditions, especially when the sectarian division is in sufficient, as was the case in Egypt during the rule of Sadat in particular,and later on; that is to say, the politicization of religion had a greater effect than the actual discord between Muslims and Copts in Egypt.

And then there is an old, inherited, social sectarianism, as well as a sectarianism nourished by the European colonial intervention, yet it refused to become a political identity of the people, as intended by the European occupation, and most communities rejected politicization and preferred the formation of modern states, with the rest of the national formations.

The idea of ​​Dr. Bishara is based on the rejection of an emerging Orientalist and local vision associated with the stage of military coups, the rise of political Islam, especially after the Iranian revolution, and the rivalry between it and Saudi Wahhabism. The role of Zionism (the purely Jewish state) can also be added to that, and its effect on reviving fundamentalism, and asserting that our nations have always been, and will remain, sectarian, and therefore sectarian states must be formed.

This idea is supported by many "sectarian and liberal" writers who praise the sectarian system in Lebanon. They find it natural, correct and consistent with history, and claim that the rest of the Arab countries should pass through that phase and perhaps find stability in it, as it is the nature of our societies.

Dr. Bishara points to one of the problems facing democratic transformation: how political Islam will be incorporated into political life.

I would like to raise the subject here, with my discussion of the issue of sectarianism, to say that sectarianism is a political form of government adopted by the corrupt bourgeois classes, used by the imperialist states to plunder wealth and money, to turn our countries into markets for the disposal of their products and to control our societies by means of old conflicts, through hereditary monarchies. Let us note here that all the Arab republics have been tending towards turning into monarchies.

The role of political Islam comes in the context of the debate on sectarianism, and upon examining its role in more than one Arab country, we conclude that it does not have an economic project different from that of liberalism, and its political project is not deep-rooted in citizenship and nationalism. Socially, it endorses traditionalist conservatism, and is based on discriminatory religious beliefs, and selective culture, serving its contemporary interests. Hence, the idea remains: how can we get past sectarianism, including political Islam, as a political force that confiscate the cultural and religious roots in favor of its own vision and program? Here, I find that the Arabs and non-Arabs, are facing a decisive issue, so either they contribute to the construction of political systems according to the modern system of knowledge, and in accordance with the fundamentals of modern politics, i.e. democracy based on citizenship, and the adoption of the latter as a source of the constitution and the laws, or the sectarianization will remain, through the military; the sectarianists, including Islamists; or through the imperialist states.

Fifth: The Chapters of the Book

The book consists of three chapters, the first is theoretical, in which the thinker raises an important discussion on its problematic, and focuses on the most prominent thinkers of the West, and clearly distinguishing between the concepts dealing with forms of government and states, and their possible developments, and clarifying many confusing concepts that confound readers and those interested in political developments. The second addresses the Syrian issue, in which Dr. Bishara briefly analyzes how the Syrian state was established and its problems at the time, and raises the issue of national identity and its contradictions, and the differences between "traditional" forces regarding it. He then goes on to divide his discussion of the army's relationship with politics to four stages, starting by the era of independence of states, passing by the formation of the military committee in Egypt, and its developments, and how the local, regional and sectarian dimensions overlapped in it, and the exclusion of "sectarian" groups for the benefit of other "sectarian" groups. He discusses at length the stage of the 1960s and the discord that happened during that stage, and developments in the Baath Party itself, and how the military controlled it, the disputes between its leaders, especially between Hafez al-Assad and Salah Jadeed, then al-Assad family exercising full control on the military. This brings us to the important idea that the army was ruled by, and did not rule by itself, which is the case of Iraq, Sudan and many countries. The third chapter concerns Egypt, and discusses the developments in the Egyptian army, beginning with the July 1952 revolution, the differences between the Free Officers, the absence of any possibility of the state turning into a citizens state, and the continuation of the military grip on power, the attempt of Abdul-Nasser to exercise full control over the state institutions, which continued during the rule of al-Sadat, and turning the country into a security state during the rule of Mubarak.

The author expands on the developments of the Egyptian army, and how some constitutional articles are imposed, bringing us to the concept of "officers' state" or a state inside the state, and shows us many ideas that explain why the Egyptian army was able to restore the old regime to power in 2013, and The author expands on the developments of the Egyptian army, and how some constitutional articles are imposed, bringing us to the concept of "officers' state" or a state inside the state, and shows us many ideas that explain why the Egyptian army was able to restore the old regime to power in 2013, and overthrow the democratically elected leadership. During the rule of Sadat and Mubarak, the army formed a private economic sector, and the profits of its projects were added to its budget. Any attempt to subject this sector to the institutions of the state were rejected. It had a bank account of his own, and the rule of Hosni Mubarak did not constitute marginalization of its role, as it is widely believed, unlike the case of Tunisia or Libya. The army still held strong institutions, and although the budget allocations varied from one to another, it remained a separate, independent sector.

The revolution of 2011, prompted the military to intervene to stand up against the "instability", as the political forces were unable to agree on the form of a democratic state, and problems continued to keep these forces distant. The military used this to their advantage, attracting and neutralizing popular and political sectors, paving the path for the military coup, thus crushing the nascent democratic experience. The army's move and the coup d'état show that this army was indeed a state within the state, and it did not believe in the neutrality of the army nor the need for its professionalism. What we have seen recently in 2018; the re-election of General Abdel Fattah Sisi to the presidency, gives way to the argument that affirms that the army has always had a role in politics, but that role changes from one era to another. "With a more advanced society, the role of the army is more regressive, with a more regressive society, the role of the army is more advanced." Says Bishara. His idea requires a complex debate. Can it be said that the role of the American or European army is regressive? Yes, it is, when it intervenes to suppress the people in times of major crises in favor of the ruling regime, or when he is employed in military occupation projects, for example "the presence of the US military in Afghanistan and Iraq .." as well as the presence of the Russian army in Syria. The second idea of ​​the excerpt illustrates the role of the army in the underdeveloped countries. It played a role in mobilizing the community through agrarian reform, public education, industrialization, and national battles, but the "post-independence" army led the regimes to autocracy, the defeat in national wars with Israel , and contributed to the establishment of totalitarian regimes and failed states, and to the formation of institutions in accordance with the local formations, not according to the idea of ​​citizenship.

Here we note that the coup of the Egyptian army on community "progress" after 2011, is certainly a regressive role, which Dr. Bishara explains when he ridicules the idea of professionalism as an attribute of the Egyptian army, and a concept defended by Huntington.

Also, regarding European armies, despite that its role was described as "regressive", they stay neutral unless the situation is aggravated, leading to a social revolution on the capitalist system, in that case, they act as regressive and "criminal" forces. Our example here is Hitler, Mussolini and others, and before that, their roles in the colonization of the world before World War II.

Our book contains valuable opinions regarding most of the countries where military coups took place. It distinguishes them from revolutions, and describes how some coups turn into revolutions, differentiates between revolution and reform and how the revolution turns into reform or vice versa. The book also explains the change occurring in the role of the army when it assumes power, that Egypt, Syria, Algeria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen are different experiences, and that even these same experiences change according to historical conditions.