The Civil-Military Relations and the Future of the Arab Revolutions

By: Adel Suleiman*

The issue of the civil-military relations in the Arab world has been revived by the Turkish people’s courageous confrontation of the military coup attempt on 15 July, and foiling it. The civilian citizens faced, in an unprecedented way, the military putschists – who used tanks, armored vehicles, and even warplanes – with bare chests. In the end, the will of the Turkish people won and the military coup was ignominiously defeated. This event returned to the political scene the issue of the civil-military relations in the Arab world, an issue that has remained untouched for decades until the Arab Spring revolutions came early 2011, and people began to talk about it. The talk about the civil-military relations began timidly at first, and then escalated with the growing emergence of military institutions on the Arab Spring scene. The role of the military became prominent in light of the contradicting developments in the Arab Spring revolutions after the onslaught of the counter revolutions. Then, the talk about those ambiguous relation between the military institutions and all the civil components of the State, reduced in light of the retreat of the Arab Spring revolutions, and the relative success of the counter revolutions.

However, the failed military coup in Turkey – which the Turkish people with all its political and non-political civil components, including the elites and the public, confronted in an unprecedented way in the history – came to revive the talk about the civic-military relations.

Only one month after Turkey’s bloody events, came the third anniversary of the Rabaa and Nahda (Cairo) sit-ins’ bloody dispersal, which took place on August 14, 2013. Before the tragic events, the army had been involved clearly and explicitly in the political arena, when the Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces and Minister of Defense at the time (Sisi) announced on July 3, 2013 the ouster of the elected president and the disruption of the 2012 Constitution. Sisi also declared a road map for the future that he said would be sponsored by the armed forces. The justification for this move was the mass protests on June 30, that demanded a change through early presidential elections. According to the declared map road, the constitution was amended and presidential elections were held, where the commander of the armed forces, who announced the road map (Al-Sisi) was nominated, with the blessing of the Egyptian Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (ESCAF). This was followed by an excessive involvement of the armed forces in the civil affairs and the various aspects of political, economic, and public life. Then, the military institution has become the locomotive on which the State depended in all its projects, and also in dealing with the problems of people’s daily life, that are related to food supplies, housing, transportation, and other problems.

In fact, the State is originally civil, and the military component is owned by the people, and devoted for supporting the civil State under the command of the democratically elected institutions of governance according to the will of the people. Therefore, when the military institution seeks to influence the political decision, under any pretext, this interference is considered unacceptable, and is often prohibited, especially in well- established democracies.

The rules of civil-military relations are reviewed constantly through specialized research centers and think tanks, that are keen on keeping the role of the military institution “advisory” for the political decision, with respect to matters of national security, and “executive” in the case of taking a political decision for using the military force. These are the basic rules that have been settled by the democratic countries.

When the military institution interferes in the political affairs, and imposes its will, through the armed force, on all parties of the political game under various pretexts, while raising redundant national slogans, here, the matter turns into the so-called “military coup”, which was witnessed and suffered by many countries and peoples in Latin America, Africa and Asia, as well as in the Middle East, especially the Arab countries, which were the most afflicted by these military coups, and their authoritarian regimes, which had a significant negative impact on the development and growth of those peoples. Usually, these military coups promote the idea of:“The savior commander”, “The inspiring leader”, and “The urgently-needed president”. They (military coups) deliberately confuse the concepts related to the civil-military relations, and prohibit even the talk about this. Thus, the controls -stating the role of the military institution in the public affairs and civic life- fall and fade away.

However, the masses that took to the streets and squares as from the beginning of the Arab Spring, raising the slogans of, “Bread, freedom and social justice” did not understand this. They thought that just changing the head of the regime means that their revolutions have succeeded, and that they have fulfilled their demands. However, the result was that these unprecedented revolutionary waves were foiled as a result of a serious flaw in the civil-military relations. This defect prompted the military institutions to intervene in various forms and ways, standing in the face of any change that may occur away from them, as they consider themselves the sole owner of the right to carry out any political change, impose it by the armed force, and then describe it as a “revolution”.

This leads us to the fact that the Arab peoples should seek, at first, to adjust the civil-military relations before seeking to conduct a real revolutionary change, for establishing a modern, democratic, and civil state, that will achieve the Arab citizen’s demands of, “bread, freedom, social justice, and human dignity”.


* Adel Suleiman is an Egyptian writer and academic researcher on the strategic affairs and military regimes. He is also a retired Egyptian Army major general.
(Published in Al-Araby Al-Jadeed on Thursday, August 18,  2016, and translated for MEO)