Militaries will remain a powerful political and economic force in the Arab world

Militaries will remain a powerful political and economic force in the Arab world

The MENA region and its militaries have had a tumultuous past. Militaries have held the prime position in the political and economic sphere in the region, and have asserted their own interests in their governments. The Arab world today is in large part the product of the ambitions, incentives, and actions of prominent military officers, argues David Prina.

History and background

For many states in the MENA region, the first three decades after independence proved the most volatile time for civil-military relations. Between 1951 and 1990 there were 71 coup attempts, 37 of which resulted in the displacement of the previous government for at least some time. States such as Syria, Iraq, and the Sudan each experienced more than ten coup attempts, while other countries like Jordan and Morocco only experienced one or two. Only three Arab nations have escaped any attempted coup in their history: Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Bahrain.

The military-driven political instability of the early years after independence gave way to the much more stable civil-military relations of the 90s to today. Since 1990 there have been 13 total coup attempts, 6 of which were successful. The much more stable civil-military environment is a result of a combination of factors, one being that when militaries were particularly strong, officer-led corps were able to establish themselves as the center of political life in their states. Thus, officers were able to push their corporate interests as the interests of the state, and once established were reinforced by continued military rule, either through direct rule or representation through civilian leaders aligned with their goals.

Officers in Egypt and Syria portrayed themselves as a source of strength against foreign domination and political stability, and pushed the idea that they would help modernize their nations. Indeed, until the Camp David Accords, much of the legitimacy of military rule was derived from their claims of being able to stamp out Israel. When able, military governments and military-backed governments sought to root out possible political opponents such as organized labor groups, Islamist organizations, and rival ethnic groups to maintain power — coopting some as allies while disbanding or punishing others.


Arab leaders, some of them having been brought to power via coups themselves and seeking to close the door after them, employed a process termed “coup-proofing.” This involved empowering those groups most loyal to the leader with the best equipment and training; appointing officers with close familial, ideological or ethnic ties; stationing questionably loyal troops where they could do the least damage; or coopting the military establishment with substantial benefits in a patronage network.

The much vaunted Iraqi Republican Guard and Syrian 4th Armored Division, with personal loyalties to Hussein and Assad, respectively, were emblematic of this trend. These policies produced militaries that were effective at squelching dissent at home, but performed poorly on the battlefield as the rest of their forces were ill-equipped and poorly trained for fear they might pose a threat to the regime.

The military officer in the Arab world, with some notable exceptions, has access to substantial privileges and resources. In some cases this has taken the form of direct ownership of industry such as in the Egyptian military’s National Service Products Organization, among other industries, amounting to somewhere between 5% and 40% of the Egyptian economy. Assad’s military owned businesses and allowed military officers privileges relating to imports. Iran’s Basij has substantial control over a number of construction, transportation, and importation ventures, which increases its profile as a powerful actor within the state.

Egypt: An exception to the rule?

In recent years, Egypt seemed an exception to the relatively stable civil-military status of modern Arab states.  After nearly sixty years of no overt military seizure of power, Egypt has twice experienced a usurpation of its political leadership in the last five years.

The military influence upon Egypt’s politics has waxed and waned over the years, and the military had been happy to go about its business with Mubarak in command. However, with the upheaval of the Arab Spring threatening Mubarak’s position, and the fear that Gamel’s eventual ascendency might threaten core military interests, it is in the realm of possibility that military leaders saw an opportunity to both win public approval and nip a potential rival in the bud.

President Morsi’s support from the Muslim Brotherhood also represented a political challenge to the military’s traditional role as kingmaker. It also provided a challenge to the military’s economic strength. Morsi’s early proposals to modernize and expand the Suez Canal, the country’s most important strategic asset, excluded provisions for military oversight and supervision.

However, with Morsi’s ouster, the military took control of the Suez Canal project. In his first year in office, President Sisi was able to count on the support of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Coast States, who pledged $12 billion in aid to Egypt upon the news of the coup.

Gulf Military Spending

Source: Center for Strategic & International Studies

Future trends

As the Syrian war continues to siphon off resources, and as oil prices continue to fall, governments in the region will be faced with increased uncertainty at their ability to continue financing allies. Military-backed governments, like Egypt’s, dependent upon oil or foreign support from other oil-producing states, may be challenged to provide the same level of social services to their people, especially if their financial backers are undergoing financial hardship.

Saudi Arabia in particular is facing record debts as oil prices drop, while they conduct counter-insurgency efforts in Yemen and continue to support rebels fighting Assad. Fear of a resurgent Iran will likely keep the preferences of military leaders and the ruling regimes of most Arab states aligned.

In the short run, with radical extremist groups continuing to be the biggest threat to governments in the region, do not expect the political influence of the military to wane. As security issues continue to be salient throughout the Arab world, it is difficult to imagine the current security climate would produce a distancing between military and civilian governments, especially in the Gulf Coast states.

In the long run, though, military-run regimes may face a conundrum. Arab militaries, especially in Egypt, have billed themselves as the guarantors of stability, security, and modernization. If the Syrian civil war and extremist groups continue to sap time, energy, and resources without substantial progress being made or development promises being delivered on, the military establishment stands to lose credibility with their respective peoples, and their legitimacy as leaders may erode.

David Prina is a PhD candidate at the University of Maryland, College Park. He studies civil-military relations, political economy, international relations, transnational governance, simulation-based roleplaying and the political economy of the Internet. He is currently a research assistant at the ICONS Project, a partner organization with the University’s START Center, employing simulations as a platform to conduct research and educate students.

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