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Strategic Culture, Civil Military Relations and the Arab Spring
Glen Segell, 4/1/2012

The Arab Spring is a term coined to express the wave of unrest, uprisings, protests, civil wars, regime changes and economic and political reconciliations in the numerous countries with predominant Moslem populations in North Africa, the Middle East and the Arabian Peninsula throughout 2010/2011. Pundits abound in speculation to the cause of such multiple and simultaneous events including the usual conspiracy theories ranging from US involvement to Islamic fundamentalist movements to the “apocalyptic end of the world is near” to the “Facebook Connection”.

None of such pundits have considered that no matter the speculative causes the outcome in each country could neither be predicted nor pre-determined. Despite the tendency to group all the countries under the single term Arab Spring there are unique circumstances. Each country has a unique political system and each countries society, leaders and armed forces interact and respond with each other in a unique manner. This paper argues that the different outcome in the different countries has been determined by strategic culture. Colin Gray wrote about strategic culture “That culture referring to modes of thought and action with respect to force” [1] and “This flows from geography and resources, society and political structure.”[2]

Resources such as oil are an important consideration in determining the ability of the states’ leader to provide concession to the demonstrators and to placate them such as took place in Saudi Arabia which has oil but not in Tunisia which doesn’t have oil. Geography in terms of proximity to Europe and resources such as oil have determined external involvement such as took place with NATO in Libya but not in Syria. However most important for determining the different outcome of the Arab Spring in individual countries is society and domestic political structure.

A common feature in the Arab Spring was popular discontent expressed through demonstrations. The initial cause and timing of the discontent was a specific incident in Tunisia regarding a dispute with a municipal official. The Arab Spring spread throughout the region as individuals and societies in each country progressively saw first in Tunisia and then in Egypt that it might be possible to affect change. Such demonstrations, in democratic countries, is a regular practice. In countries with a political structure and system of democracy, leaders observe, listen, meet and reach agreement with demonstrators. Should the demonstrators be anarchists then they are arrested and dealt with through a judicial system.

Such practices have prevailed in some but not all Arab Spring countries. Strategic culture explains the different practices and outcomes in such circumstances. Strategic culture flows from the political structure, in particular relations between military leaders and the state leadership (civil-military relations). Such relations have influenced and determined the process and outcome of the Arab Spring demonstrations. In each country the ability and desire of the state leader to use his armed forces and/or the ability and desire of the armed forces to respond, intervene or rebel has determined the outcome. The responses of the leaders in the Arab Spring countries can be divided into three groups. Each group has had a different outcome.

The first group consists of countries that have chosen not to use their military but have offered concessions through a political process to the protestors. In doing so there has not been a change in the states political system and the state leader has retained his position. In part this reflects a mature and stable political system that is able to manage crises situations without resorting to violence. In part this reflects the leader’s position of strength and his ability to wield his political power effectively. In part this also reflects the perception of society that their demands have been met, even though in many cases they are aware that the offers of concessions may never be fulfilled. Nevertheless the mere offer of concessions has given them the feeling that they have the ability to influence. Consequently the protestors have been placated and the unrests have subsided.

States in this group include Bahrain who experienced extreme civil protests, Algeria, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco and Oman who experienced major protests. Lebanon, Mauritania, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Western Sahara who experienced minor protests. A common denominator used in all these countries by the protestors was the slogan “the people want to bring down the regime”. This was recognized by the incumbent state leaders who addressed the call for their demise, successfully quelled it with little or no military response and without bringing down the regime.

Such appeasement through political or economic offers granted not a regime change but a change in the existing regime’s relations with its citizens. For example, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir announced that he would seek not re-election in 2015 as did Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki at the end of his current term in 2014. Such promises have been heard in the past and not adhered to but the mere ability of the crowd to influence the incumbent leader to issue such a statement granted the protestors symbolic power and placated their protests.

Substantially and not symbolically, King Abdullah of Jordan sacked two governments (Prime Minister Rafi and Prime Minister Bakhit and their cabinets), Algeria lifted the 19 year old state of emergency, Lebanon offered a 40% increase in wages, Oman granted lawmaking concessions to its elected legislature, made economic concessions, and dismissed its ministers, Saudi Arabia held municipal elections, promised women the right to vote and be elected in municipal elections in 2015 and to be nominated to the Shura Council while Kuwait dissolved its parliament and Prime Minister Nasser Mohammed Al Ahmed Al-Sabah resigned.

There was a reciprocal significance in this group of countries regarding the relations between the civil and military leadership. The state leader did not call on the military to quell the protestors by force. The military adhered to the political decisions and did not interfere. This was a unique occurrence in a region where a primary role of the military is domestic and not the defense of the sovereign state from an external threat. It is unique because most of the states in this group are tribally dependent monarchies. The military elites are integrated with the civil elite through such tribal links and hence have an inherent interest in the well being and continuity of the civil leadership. One explanation that can be offered is that the nature of the demonstrations both in size and intensity did not pose an immediate or severe threat to the leadership. Time will tell if such an explanation is accepted and if so then the concessions offered may well be superficial.

The second grouping consists of two states: Tunisia and Egypt. In both cases the Presidents had military backgrounds and had entered their protracted rule through an event similar to their demise: revolt, revolution or coup. In both cases the Presidents were unable or unwilling to enter negotiations with the demonstrators to offer political and economic concessions. In both cases the President considered and tried to use the military to quell the demonstrations but in both cases the military decided not to respond in a fashion that would ensure the position of the President. In doing so the militaries of Tunisia and Egypt turned on their benefactors resulting in quick transfers of power and relatively little bloodshed. Civil-military relations literature ascribes such events as the “officer corps professionally formed cohesion and institutional autonomy.[3]” The cases in the two countries are similar in this theoretical aspect but different because of exacting nature of the military and of civil-military relations in each country.

On 17 December 2010 a Tunisian street vendor set fire to himself in after a dispute with a municipal official leading to mass street protests on social, economic and political issues. President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali stepped down as President after 23 years on 14 January 2011. The rift between the President and the military was evident when Chief of Staff Rachid Ammar refused the President’s order to fire on demonstrators. Significant steps have been taken towards a change in the political system. Elections have been held and a coalition of parties now rules. Although both President Moncef Marzouki and Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali have a history of opposition neither have a military background and both are dedicated to democracy and human rights.

Following 18 days of civil protest on social, economic and political issues President Mubarek of Egypt resigned on 10 February 2011 after 29 years in office. Significantly the commanders of troops deployed to quell demonstrations in Cairo’s Tahrir square informed demonstrators that they would not obey orders to shoot. This left the senior military negotiating with the President for the transfer of power. Ironically after Mubarek’s resignation  Mohammed Hussein Tantawi the Chief of Staff became de facto head of state. One military man replacing another in state leadership. Although elections have been held for the Parliament the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces retains the Presidency though with no indication that the military participated in the civil protests that led to this situation. Although the unrests have subsided there does not appear to be any significant changes for the man in the street.

The third grouping of countries affected by the Arab Spring comprise Libya and Yemen In both cases the Presidents had military backgrounds and had entered their protracted rule through an event similar to their demise: revolt, revolution or coup. In both cases the Presidents were unable or unwilling to enter negotiations with the demonstrators to offer political and economic concessions. In both cases the incumbent state leader chose to pursue a vicious and violent attempt to retain his state leadership position and commanded the military to quell the demonstrations. In part this is explained by the personal propensity of the state leader to do so. His character or psychology. In part it is explained by his ability and capability to do so. The military were available and willing. However in both cases they were unsuccessful. In both cases their military were not unified and fragmented with defections to the rebels.

Civil-military relations literature ascribe the intent of the military to support their Presidents in Libya and Yemen resulting from an intertwining of the military and government with various social groups such as sect, family, region and tribe.[4] Thus having absolute or partial control over the military and given their willingness to support the state leader, led the incumbent leader to utilize the services of the armed forces. The cases in the two countries are similar in this theoretical aspect but different because of exacting nature of the military and of civil-military relations in each country.

Colonel Gaddafi who had ruled Libya from 1969 found himself facing extreme and organized street protests in February 2011 following similar in neighboring Tunisia and Egypt. He chose to respond with military force. This led to a bloody civil war. The majority of his 50, 000 strong forces, half of them conscripts, were formed into brigades commanded by family members. The mainstay of these forces were in “regime protection units” located near the capital Tripoli, strategic sites and his homes. He also had well paid mercenaries. However in the vicinity of the eastern city of Benghazi regular forces dropped their arms or defected while citizens took to arms.

One of those who defected was his Minister of Justice Mustafa Abdul Jalil, who would become his successor. In defection he became the President of the National Transitional Council. Noting Mustafa Abdul Jalil’s decisions and actions as Judge and Minister of Justice may well inform of the future. As Chief Justice of the Appellate Division of the Libyan Supreme Court in 2002 he ruled on the case of the death sentence of five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor on the charge of AIDS inoculation to 400 Libyan children where 50 died. In December 2006 the Court of Appeal presided over by Jalil confirmed the sentences. Jalil also played an important role in the controversial outcome of the Megrahi case (Lockerbie bomber) who was pardoned and repatriated to Libya in 2009 for humanitarian reasons.

Gaddafi or his sons might well have maintained rule had it not been for United Nations resolutions leading to intensive NATO air power and naval support for the rebel National Transitional Council. Gaddafi was reported killed on 20 October 2011. The rebel forces have achieved their goal of a change in leadership. However it is a hollow victory for the population as there has not been significant institutional reforms nor any indication of  change in the political system.

In Yemen, unlike the unrest in Tunisia which was a single event, the unrests have been ongoing for over a decade. The regimes opponents have repeatedly called for a pluralist system. They want regional needs and identities (not religious or tribal) to be addressed through a loose, federalized state system. Saleh, despite his ineptitude, survived for so many years because so many different entities in the country needed to and wanted the system to continue. He succeeded in remaining in rule, but his efforts to exert control over the whole of Yemen were akin to a failure. In many areas, his military officers were virtually confined to their bases unable to operate without the consent of local authorities.

Protracted and violent clashes took place with pro-government forces from February 2011 until President Ali Abdullah Saleh resigned in November 2011. At the onset off the unrest the President ordered the military out of barracks to quell the protestors. He certainly had the capability. Yemen spends 40% of its government budget on the military and has built up its forces since independence in 1960. After Saudi Arabia it has largest armed forces on the Arabian Peninsula. The turn in the tide of the battle came a month into the unrest when Major Genetal Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar (1st armored division), defected taking hundreds of troops and several tanks. The 119th Brigade also defected and both launched repeated offensives. In June the President’s Palace was shelled and he left to Saudi Arabia for medical treatment. Despite his departure fighting continued by units led by those loyal to him. He later returned to Yemen and continued to suppress the uprising with figures of 1000 dead being quoted.

Unable to turn the tide of the battle, international pressure, ill health and his age led him in November 2011 to Saudi Arabia where he signed a deal transferring leadership to Vice President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi. In doing so Saleh became the fourth state leader of the Arab Spring of 2011 to leave office. Problematic to the agreement is the lack of any provision to broaden popular participation in government or combat corruption. These were major demands of the demonstrators. Those connected to Saleh's regime continue to dominate the parliament and are overseeing the “transition process” but with little interest in fundamental change. One positive result, in order to cease the battle between the loyal and defected forces it was agreed to form a military commission to restructure the armed forces.

There is no doubt that the writing was on the wall for a change in leadership in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen. Their leaders had been in power for many years and with age were weakening in their ability to rule: Gaddafi age 79 with 41 years in rule, Saleh age 79 with 33 years in rule, Mubarak age 83 with 31 years in rule, and Ben Ali age 75 with 23 years in rule. Such factors were clearly evident in their daily role as leaders where many functions had already been delegated and take over by others. In all four countries the demise of their leadership was through an event similar to their rise to power: revolt, revolution or coup by those younger, more aspiring and more able to invoke the affection of their followers..

During their protracted rule, they had experienced civil unrest and protests on many occasions but had managed to control them retaining power. The strategic culture resulting from the political structure, in particular relations between military leaders and the state leadership, explains how they retained rule for so long as well as the outcome of the current unrest. There is no doubt that protracted authoritarian rule leads to corrupt and unsuccessful rule while the youth and discontent of such countries have many times organized not simply to voice their protest, but with the intent of carrying out a regime change. Such social movements need opportunity, strategy, and capacity to organize but success is based on the response of the incumbent rule.

Clearly the ability of a state leader to control and use the military and the desire of the military to support the leader is a factor. In instances where the military has totally supported the state leader, the leader has remained in power. In instances where the military has turned against the state leader, the leader has fallen. Where the military has vacillated or fragmented, there has been violent civil conflict. Such an observation should have been obvious to the leaders of Libya, Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen. These countries were all run by leaders who had become heads of state through military means. The armed forces of their states were more oriented toward domestic security roles and propping up their regimes rather than defending the state from external threats. They should have known that they needed to rely on their military for support of their policies; otherwise their range of policies would be limited by the military and not by the discontent of the citizenry.

Such observations pose certain challenges for the new leadership in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen. Should they move towards embracing democracy they must grasp the fundamentals of strategic culture noted early in this paper as “That culture referring to modes of thought and action with respect to force.” and “This flows from geography and resources, society and political structure.” They need to consider the purpose, composition and control of their armed forces. Any proclamation towards democracy requires a political structure including absolute elected civilian control of the military as a prerequisite principle of human rights. The role of the military is to defend the external borders of the state but without threatening neighboring states or the region. It is not to prop up the President against the population. Elected civilian control of the military ensures the military do not diverge or intervene in the policies of the democratic process and the institutions of the state.

In particular in Libya and Yemen the military and structures have disintegrated posing a challenge to reconstruction that may constitute a new struggle over distributions of power. Inexperienced and new civilian leaders may face concessions for the purpose of retaining stability. It is possible Egypt may seek military commanders for stability and experience though not necessarily as Presidents which may lead to limiting democracy. The true changes in the political system and a move to democracy are notable in Tunisia. A country which barely had a military and whose President was unable to rely on it to prop him up. A case still in progress for civil-military relations is Syria. Demonstrations started on 26 January 2011 and continue with violent responses by the incumbent President Bashar el-Assad.

It is turning back to the first group of states that there is real hope for an Arab Spring. Algeria, Bahrain, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Morocco, Mauritania, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Western Sahara  all experienced demonstrations and unrest. These states showed a strategic culture and civil-military relations where the demonstrators were listened to and offered concessions without leaders resorting to the use of violent force. A significant change of the regime’s nature may well take place without a change in the regime’s leadership. The leaders may well have grasped that their future lies not as before in relations with the military and controlling it but in modes of thought and action with society.

Glen Segell is Research Fellow, Institute for National Security Studies, Tel-Aviv, Lecturer, Bar Ilan University, Editor, London Security Policy Study.



1. Colin S. Gray, Modern Strategy, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1999, Chapter 5.

2. Colin S Gray. “National Style in Strategy: The American Example”, International Security 6 no.2 (Fall 1981) p.22

3. Feaver, Peter D, "The Civil-Military Problematique: Huntington, Janowitz, and the Question of Civilian Control," Armed Forces and Society, vol. 23, no. 2, Winter 1996, pp. 149-178; Sarkesian, Samuel C. The Professional Army Officer in a Changing Society. Chicago: Nelson-Hall Publishers, 1975; and Mehran Kamrava, "Military Professionalization and Civil-Military Relations in the Middle East," Political Science Quarterly Vol.115 No.1 (Spring 2000) pp.67-92

4. Eliezer Be’eri, Army Officers in Arab Politics and Society, New York: Praeger, 1970; and Dankwart Rustow, The Military in Middle East Politics and Society, Columbus, Ohio State University Press, 1963