The real enemies of the Arab Spring

For people in the Arab world to be able to throw off the yoke of military rule, a new balance must be struck between political and social forces and the military. Though it is now years since the Arab Spring, this goal still seems a long way off. By Ali Anouzla

Essay by Ali Anouzla

What we see today in one Arab state after another is the military taking over power. The precise situation in each country varies, but it’s the same picture that has been repeated for more than half a century from Algeria to Sudan, through Mauritania and Libya, and back to Egypt.

In Algeria, the greatest achievement of the current uprising is that it pushed the army to come out into the open and to announce that it is the de facto ruler. The commander-in-chief of the armed forces, Ahmed Gaid Salah, is today the real strongman after the ousting of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika and his cronies.

The truth is that the army has always ruled Algeria and it is seen as the kingmaker. It was the army that brought Bouteflika back from exile in the UAE 20 years ago and appointed him as ruler in perpetuity of the Algerian people. And the army ruled alongside him, albeit from behind the scenes.

In Sudan, the so-called "Transitional Military Council", which is nothing but a continuation of ousted President Omar al-Bashir's regime, is manoeuvring around the demands of the civil uprising in order to reinstate a new form of the same old military rule which has governed Sudan since its independence nearly 60 years ago.

The picture in Mauritania is even clearer. General Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz came to power in a military coup. He takes it in turn with his defence minister, General Muhammad Ould Al-Ghazwani by means of dodgy ballot boxes, with the upshot that power remains in the hands of the military.

In a military stranglehold

Meanwhile in Libya, the picture is grim: a retired brigadier is seeking to impose himself by force as military ruler in the same way as did the tyrant Muammar Gaddafi who oppressed the Libyan people for four decades.

Poster in the Libyan capital Tripoli in May 2019 (photo: picture-alliance/dpa)
„Ganz im Stile des Tyrannen Muammar al-Gaddafi“: Der libysche General Khalifa Haftar hatte Anfang April eine Offensive auf die libysche Hauptstadt Tripolis gestartet, wo die international anerkannte Einheitsregierung ihren Sitz hat. Regierungstreue Truppen und Einheiten Haftars liefern sich seither erbitterte Kämpfe um die Kontrolle der Hauptstadt.

Returning to Egypt, the army not only holds political power, which it has done since the 1952 coup, it also heads a vast economic and media empire that controls the state and has a monopoly in every walk of life.

All in all, the picture looks very bleak, especially when you realise that, among the political forces and even among the revolutionary activists, there are some who still believe that the army could be a new social engine of popular revolution. Yet it is the military that controls the Arab state and that has suffocated society for over half a century.

The most common misconception in this Arab world of ours lies in the belief entrenched in the collective Arab psyche of the army establishment as a "sacred" institution. The army is accorded a "blessed entitlement" to protect our societies, to preserve national unity and to maintain territorial integrity.

No knights in shining armour

Over the past seven years, however, as people in Syria, Libya, Yemen and Egypt have taken to the streets to demand their right to self-determination, this conviction has been shattered before our very eyes. The region is still under the thumb of military regimes – juntas that will stop at nothing to ensure their survival, even if they end up ruling over a mere postage stamp of land, with all the rest destroyed.

It is high time we removed the aura of nebulous sanctification that surrounds Arab military establishments and curtailed their political role, which necessarily comes at the expense of their professional function as protectors of the sovereign state and its people.

The first priority is to re-shape perceptions and break the reverence in which the military is popularly held. Debate is urgently needed about its role in the state, about accountability for its huge budgets by democratically elected parliaments, and about shedding light on excessive and often unjustified arms deals, since those arms are often not used.

And when they are used, they are all too often directed against their own people. In many cases, they are merely used to secure political support for the ruling regime, or as a means of bragging, as is the case in the Gulf. There states compete with each other to buy sophisticated and expensive weaponry to display in their military salons in Abu Dhabi and Riyadh.

Moroccan author and journalist Ali Anouzla (photo: AFP/Getty Images)
Ali Anouzla ist marokkanischer Autor und Journalist sowie Leiter und Chefredakteur der Website "". Er hat mehrere marokkanische Zeitungen gegründet und redaktionell geleitet. 2014 erhielt er den Preis "Leaders for Democracy" der amerikanischen Organisation POMED (Project on Middle East Democracy).

What the tragic war in Yemen has revealed is that the armies of the UAE and Saudi Arabia have not been able to use these weapons effectively on the ground, enduring losses at the hands of ill-equipped militias that are barely fathomable, given their relative capabilities.

The pedestal needs to go

Without adjusting the political, societal and military balance of power, there can be no democratic transition towards a civil state. We need to restore the army to its traditional role as a professional force without the halo of national reverence and to reduce its legal room to manoeuvre in public outside the barracks. We also need to codify its constitutional role in the state and in society.

Many Arab states have suffered and continue to do so from military rule. Indeed, the military has led coups, sometimes against elected civilian governments, as happened in Egypt and Mauritania. In many cases, the military has morphed into oligarchies, as is now the situation in Algeria and Sudan. In these two countries, cabals of thieves, opportunists and corrupt businessmen have been able to enslave the people, plunder their wealth and steal their dreams.

It is time to shed much more light on the role of military institutions in the Arab world and to look again at their contribution in the light of current developments in the region. The military has emerged as a key player, controlling the fate of people who have suffered from their rule for many decades. And yet, people still see the army as their saviour and deliverer! That is the greatest calamity.

Ali Anouzla

© 2019

Translated from the Arabic by Chris Somes-Charlton