The Role of the Military in Contemporary Arab Politics
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The Role of the Military in Contemporary Arab Politics
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Vladimir Ahmedov 
Occupation: Senior Research Fellow
Affiliation: Institute of Oriental Studies RAS
Address: Moscow, 107031, ul. Rozhdestvenka, d. 12

The armed forces and security apparatus are among the most important institutions of every Middle Eastern country. They have always played a crucial role in vital events both in their specific countries and the whole region. This fact was determined not only by the frequency of wars and military crises but mainly by the role of the military in domestic politics. In the past few decades, the army and in particular security apparatus presented a focal point of Arabian countries’ politics. It was the center of the power and decision-making mechanism in Middle Eastern countries, while in the 1980-s Arab rulers managed to curb the appetites of their military for power and military coups. Further developments proved this tendency irreversible. Thus, the author’s goal is to look at the region’s armed forces both as the military establishment and the key social-political institution. The author also examines the interaction between politics and military, military and society and tries to show the main reasons behind the army’s seizure of power in many Arab countries from the social, political, and economic backgrounds of military rule.

army, security, Middle East, Arab Spring, Syrian Crisis, Syria, Egypt, Turkey, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Islam, Secularism, Islamists
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1 Recent developments suggest the Middle East region is on the edge of profound political changes. Therefore, the opinion that the Middle East now passes through a crucial moment in its history can hardly be called exaggerated. After the Arab Spring, the region entered turbulent times when Arabian states were deeply frustrated with uncertainty about future developments. The Arab revolts changed the power balance in separate countries and the whole region. It created a variety of perspectives for further developments and at the same time a dangerous possibility of a political vacuum.
2 During the last several decades, the Middle Eastern political system has coped with challenges with relative success. There has never been a popular revolution in the Arab world. Government inefficiency and corruption among elites often provoked considerable dissatisfaction in the Arab societies but officials were able to fragment or suppress opposition groups that were strenuously calling for reforms. Besides, autocratic governments in the region experienced little pressure from the outside to give people a voice in politics. Therefore, many Arab leaders grew accustomed to pro forma rhetoric about the merits of democracy and could not take the risk of embracing its real form as they knew it might mean their withdrawal from politics. On the one hand, an increasingly sophisticated population has become more connected to the world due to the Internet and aware of the democratic institutions’ potential. On the other hand, the rising Islamist movement was fueled by poverty and Arab rulers’ disability to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict. A powerful military and oligarchic circles were highly skeptical about the possibilities of reforms that could challenge their privileges. Meanwhile, major nations, including the United States and Russia, preferred stability to the uncertainty of democratization in the region. They had a bitter experience with the election process because in some places it boosted Islamic fundamentalist parties. For instance, in Algeria, during the parliamentary election in Jordan in 1989, and parliamentary election in Palestine in 2005.
3 However, Arabian stability was no more than an illusion. Arab leaders were older than leaders of the rest of the world. Arabian political systems remained remarkably closed as their economies were tied to politics and could no longer support citizens in a way as before. Furthermore, the growing population of young people became a greater challenge as the quality of Arab educational systems was poor. Not having education and jobs, young individuals found themselves “socially unattached” when the informational environment became saturated with alternative messages. Governments had never had a monopoly over informational flows and, as the result, lost an important tool of control over populations. Arab governments asserted what they were doing for many years though, and it had worked out. From this point of view, Arab leaders were convinced that previously effective methods would be useful in the future and the moderate change would be less disruptive to them than a sudden shift.
4 Without a doubt, it was a question of time when fragile stability in the region had to turn into chaos, especially because the need for change in the Arab world — what was called “النهضة”, or renaissance, — was widely accepted even among progressive part of the local political elites. Besides, many Arab regimes failed to provide the population with living standards higher than simple subsistence and resolve the most vital problems of the countries and the region. It proved the full inability of authoritarian regimes to elaborate on new mechanisms of power succession. Furthermore, they showed their weakness to achieve a fair peace treaty with Israel that could guarantee the return of occupied Arab lands and were not able to defend the countries from the foreign invaders.
5 The situation in the Arab world today has changed. Revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya threw the previous regimes out. However, new authorities did not succeed in creating a new political and social order in the countries as well. In Yemen and Syria, where the growth of revolutionary movements was very close to the peak until the last two years, the leaders and their opponents found themselves in a deep impasse. Regimes in other countries were concerned about their incapacity to face new challenges as successful as in the past, especially those belonging to the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council).
6 Local leaders had to simultaneously respond to external and internal pressures. The first came from the powerful international forces and regional players, like Turkey and Iran. The second proceeds from the ordinary people and the remaining ruling elites. Both from the outside and inside there were attempts to impose different views and models of development and reforms on the Arab countries. American threats and Anglo-American military presence indeed can achieve some of the desired immediate changes in both local regimes and in the whole Middle East — Libyan scenario is likely to repeat itself in Syria. However, eventually, local conditions in the Middle East are determined not by the foreign armies but the strength of the collective dignity and well-being of the local population. Indigenous pressure for political change reflects a complicated combination of political discontent, economic stress, environmental vulnerability, and the indignities of ordinary people who feel abused by the security-minded national power structures, Israel, US, global economic forces, multinational institutions, etc. This mixture of grievances is usually a death sentence to the reforms, thus some regional leaders respond by making political moves those causes and consequences remain unclear.
7 The best scenario for the local leaders would be to engage in public policymaking and steer change towards genuine democracy anchored in native identities and values. Otherwise, reforms will be neither credible nor lasting if they are driven by foreign military threats and defined exclusively by Middle Eastern leaders or ruling groups willing to preserve their autocracies and oligarchies. Successful democracies are usually built in countries that already have a healthy civil society, namely local institutions elected from below before national governments, professional unions or syndicates, and other non-governmental organizations providing individual input and participation in the governance.
8 At the same time, lack of democratic developments and weakness of legal institutions in the Arab countries determined the growing role of political Islam and militaries in ensuring control over key political processes, including reforms. Revolutionary Egypt is a good example. One of the first decrees of the Supreme Military Counsel concerning the political parties in Egypt permitted previously oppressed Islamists to establish political parties.
9 In the Arab countries, the army played the leading role in political processes, for example, in the victory of the revolutions in Tunis and Egypt. During the Libyan uprising, the army split but the role of the military from both sides was decisive. In Syria, the army (or at least its bigger part) stayed under the pressure of the security apparatus which opposed the population. Meanwhile, in Bahrain, the untied GCC armies (mainly Saudis) suppressed the revolutionary movement [Akhmedov, 2012, pp. 29–33].
10 One of the main features of the Arab armies is their secular nature. It is extremely important today when the Arab leaders face the Islamist threat in the process of reforms. Nearly all armies in the Middle East try to prevent the infiltration of radical Islamists into the officer corps. The army stays the only instrument of the Arab states that can act in case of the regional war that might happen as a result of the Arab-Israeli conflict’s escalation. Therefore, the analysis of the military role in contemporary Arabian politics presents today more practical than academic interest [Akhmedov, 2004, pp. 5–9].
11 Modern Arab history shows social and political developments in the Arab countries after they achieved independence that facilitated the strengthening of the military in the political sphere. The period of the 1950s-1960s in the Arab World was a time of numerous military coups when the armed forces became the most effective national institutions. In some countries, the army was the only effective governmental unit. The 1950s–1970s was the golden age of Arab militaries when every military officer could become the leader of the country [Rubin, 2002, pp. 1–2]. It appeared to be the source of traditional aspiration in Arab countries for the preservation and consolidation of the armed forces. The army was perceived in society as the main guarantee for the countries’ sovereignty and security [Be’eri, 1982, p. 80]. The 1980–1990s in many Arab countries were shaped by the social and political liberalization controlled by the state. The process was usually accompanied by the transformation of political systems. As the result, the authoritarian administrative measures began to be even more conflicting with the problems of the social-economic developments [Akhmedov, 2008, pp. 35–46].
12 In the 2000s, Arab rulers started to strive for control over the armed forces’ activities more actively trying to limit their influence on the external and internal policy. Generally, there were two ways used by politicians to prevent the military from seizing the power. First, political leaders provided individual material incentives and financial support for the whole army. The politics of Arabian leaders in the last twenty years gave them the power to avoid active military participation in the decision-making process. Until recent days, there were two Arab leaders: Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, and Libyan leader Moammar Kaddafi whose power was rooted in the military career. However, they got out of duty later than twenty-five years ago.
13 The former president of Egypt Hosni Mubarak invested recourses in depoliticization of the army to prevent its spontaneous interference in the politics and transmute the army into a force completely dependent on the ruling regime during the reforms. Egyptian legislation prohibited the military to engage in politics, participate in the work of political parties and organizations, and involve in the country’s economic life. The government granted the military different economical and legal privileges for peaceful activities [Akhmedov, 2006, pp. 17–24].
14 Many Arab countries created specific forms of control over the army to balance its role of a single internal “power center” and limit the increasing military influence over the civil society. In general, the most common method was the expansion of Special Forces and security apparatus to simultaneously restrict the abilities of the regular troops and influence major political processes. For example, in Saudi Arabia, the National Guard could be viewed as a counterweight to any threat from the regular militant forces and a counterbalance within the royal family to Sudairy control over the regular armed forces. Unlike the regular units, the National Guard was formed only by the principle of tribal connections [Cordesman, 2002, pp. 6–15].
15 Personal connections to the army were actively used by policies that pursued avoiding military coups. The army’s role as an important institution in the political system of the Arab countries was determined by the extensive power of the countries’ leaders. Especially it was salient in the decision-making process regarding war and peace, total mobilization, and state of emergency. Usually, the head of state in Arab countries was a Supreme Commander-in-Chief. This status helped him to carry out personnel management through all military posts, and it was highly important for implementing personal control of the army. Like this, Egyptian president H. Mubarak and the late Syrian President Hafez al-Asad were commanders of national air forces. King Hussein of Jordan graduated from the British military academy and paid great attention to the army. The same was true for the next generation of Arab rulers. King Abdullah was given command over Jordan Special Forces units and would have continued his military career if he had not become a king. Nevertheless, Syrian president Bashar al-Asad without any military background managed to cope with military requirements rather quickly and won the army’s support. In the Gulf Arab monarchies, mainly in Saudi Arabia, the members of the ruling family hold high military ranks and control key units. Such politics creates a control mechanism to ensure the loyalty of the armed forces to the state [Akhmedov, 2006, pp. 17–24].
16 Military units were strictly ranged depending on their closeness to the regime, from the more apolitical and multi-ethnic regular units to elite forces closely connected to the regime via communal and religious interests. Those elite groups were subjected to higher ideology levels as well as favored with greater privileges. It was more likely that they would be used in quelling internal unrest due to their reliability in the fight against anti-regime rebels from different religious, ethnic, and geographical backgrounds. Syria could be an evident example.
17 Tribal forces were forged out of the tribal elements loyal to the Saud family. Until recent days, the National Guard was recruited largely from the loyal tribes in the Nejd and Hasa. The National Guard was the successor of the so-called irregular “White Army”. The National Guard was created in 1956 and directly administrated by the King until King Faisal appointed Prince Abdullah as its commander in 1962. At the end of the 1990s, the National Guard had about 75,000 actives and 27,000 tribal recruits when the regular Saudi forces consisted of 120,000-130,000 people. Besides the National Guard, there was Special Security Forces equivalent of a special weapons assault team (SWAT) directly accountable to the Minister of Interior Prince Nayif. It was supposed to deal with terrorism and was established in response to the poor performance of the National Guard during the revolt at the Grand Mosque of Mecca in 1979. The force had its detachments in every major Saudi city and province, its exact strength remained unclear. However, the anti-terrorism units have been steadily expanded since the 1990s and equipped with light armored vehicles, automatic weapons, and non-lethal chemical weapons. Saudi Special Forces included regular Army Airborne brigade, Royal Guard Brigade, and Marine Regiment [Cordesman, 2002, pp. 12–34].
18 The units similar to Special Security Forces could be also found in Syria. The 10,000-strong forces of the Republican Guard together with the presidential guard regiment carried out physical protection of the Syrian President and his family, provided security in central Damascus, particularly in the Presidential Palace area. Special Forces presented elite commandos unit consisted of around 10–15,000 people, organized into 8–10 independent regiments and the 14th Airborne Division. In 1984, Special Forces blocked an abortive attempt of rebellious troops to seize the Syrian capital. These politically relevant military units were stationed in and around Damascus. Only people of unquestioned loyalty were included in its officer corps [Армия и власть... 2002, pp. 153–188].
19 The excessive expansion of the security troops in Arab countries can be explained by the aspiration of the political leaders to decrease their dependence on every single military unit. However, the growing security apparatus lead to wasted resources and growing military expenditures which became a heavy burden for the budget. It also reduced authorities’ ability to control the groups those responsibilities overlap and was poorly coordinated. The security troops competed with each other and spied on each other that reflected negatively on the intelligence-gathering process.
20 In the late 1990s, in many Arab countries, the military was gradually losing the internal control function in favor of various security forces. The maintenance of internal security required special equipment and training that regular militaries did not have. Nonetheless, regular militaries preferred not to be involved in the internal political conflicts which, in their opinion, may detract the army from its prime function of protecting the country from the external enemies. Besides, the danger of friction between the army and the citizenry could lead to divisions in the army ranks. Thus, the role of Special Forces and security apparatus in the socio-political life of Arab countries was more and more important. This was partially due to the authorities’ effort to depoliticize national armed forces [Akhmedov, 2012, pp. 72–90].
21 The experience of the last decades showed that regular armies succeeded in settling internal conflicts based on ethnic-religious factors (Iraq, Syria, Algeria, and Turkey), although the final settlement of the conflicts could be achieved with political means. However, when the situation was mostly determined by political and ideological factors, the regular army failed to preserve internal stability. In Lebanon, the national army was not involved in the civil war of the 1970s–1980s. Since Israel withdrew from southern Lebanon in May 2000, the Lebanese government deployed national armed forces at the border. The strength of the Lebanese army was significantly limited by the more powerful Syrian troops (until the 1995 — A. V.) and numerous local militias like Hezbollah (prohibited in Russian Federation), AMAL, Islamic Jihad, and paramilitary Palestinian fractions [Армия и Власть... 2002, pp. 89–99].
22 This “no role” of the national forces changed after the Israeli-Lebanese war in the summer of 2006. Regular army troops were deployed in the south of the country under the UN resolution No. 1701 to control the situation in the unstable region, mediate between the UN contingents and Hezbollah fighters and prevent any confrontation with Israeli border troops. In 2008, former army commander Michel Suleiman became the new president of Lebanon. During the events of 2008 summer, the Lebanese army proved to guarantee internal stability and security and, thus, gradually acquired its modern role in state and society [Ziadeh, 2013, pp. 90–120].
23 While maintaining control over the army, Arab leaders paid precise attention to the selection of the personnel. Promotions and assignments in the Arab armies were mostly based not on professional skills but rather on political loyalty and devotion to the regime. A similar approach was inherent in most world armies to a certain extent but the degree of Arab armies politicization exaggerated it. As the result, the officers’ corps found themselves divided into professionally skilled and simply “politically correct” officers. Therefore, political expectations and regimes’ preferences prevailed over military effectiveness. Often top positions were given to people with useful family, ethnic or tribal connections.
24 Special formations based on ethnic and sectarian religious membership were used as elite forces and deployed in sensitive places, especially close to the rulers’ residences and the capital. In Iraq, elite units were mostly formed from Sunnis, close to Saddam’s home area. The same practice could be seen in Syria where troops were recruited mainly from the members of Assad’s family. However, Jordanian rulers had always relayed on the highly professional units not significantly distinguished from other armed forces. At the same time, the regular forces in Jordan were overwhelmingly comprised of East Bank Jordanians where the number of Palestinians was traditionally limited. Egyptian leaders, in their turn, did not pay much attention to the religious membership during the selection of personnel. In Lebanon, the multi-communal political system and numerous ethnic militias weakened the army’s role as solid support of the central government. This situation lasted until the Israeli-Lebanese war of summer 2006 [Akhmedov, 2006, pp. 17–24].
25 In Turkey, where the state building was based on the principles of nationalism and secular power, the process of recruiting followed the general rules. Turkish authorities denied the independent Kurdish national formation and, therefore, did not make any ethnic distinction among citizens, even taking into account the fight against Kurdish separatists. However, after the “Islamist" Party of Justices and Prosperity had taken the power, things changed dramatically. The army stopped participating in the political life of the country. The formation of the military budget was taken from the military hands and given mainly to the civilian politicians. Finally, hundreds of high ranking officers were fired after the numerous trails and investigations because of the involvement in the military coup attempt in 2003. Thus, the army was taken under the strict control of civil authorities and abolished from any attempt of planning military coups. The goal was achieved by the new democratic methods, i.e. Turkish authorities decided to exploit their majority in the legislative bodies. They also used the popularity and support of the major part of the Turkish population due to the successful social and economic policy. This political performance changed the whole complex of civil-military relations in Turkey and paved the way to the new social and political order in the country based on the new constitution (the old one was adopted after the 1980’s military coup). A dangerous challenge to the Turkish authorities was building a new political system came from their Arab revolutionary neighbors those militaries played the decisive role in the political processes [Ахмедов, 2006, pp. 17–24].
26 Nearly all Arab armies in the Middle East tried to prevent the penetration of Islamists into the officer corps. The bitter experience of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat showed that any mistakes might take a severe toll on the authorities. The military contingent, as a rule, did not share the ideas of radical Islam because, in the 1950-1960s, the revolutionary-minded officers in Arab countries were more receptive to the secular ideas. Compared to other strata, officers were better educated and traveled more. Thus, they had more opportunities to acquaint with the ideas of European democracy. Moreover, both pragmatism and patriotism of the professional military helped them to gradually transform traditional ideas. Frequent purges in most Arab armies also significantly reduced the number of radical Islam followers among the officers [Zimmerman, 1979, pp. 23–25].
27 However, in the 1990s–2000s, things started to change alongside the complex social and economic conditions. Growing poverty and rising unemployment rates pushed many a rural youth to the cities. In many Arab countries, military careers were still relatively lucrative, compared to other options open to individuals from rural and peripheral areas. At the same time, young people who received a college education in the capitals were more reluctant to enlist in the army. Economic development in trade, tourism, and service sectors of the economy, availability of new professional trajectories in communication sectors, and relative amelioration of middle class gave young people in the urban areas an impression that professionals and high-tech employees could earn more than soldiers. New high-tech technologies were booming, and Arab armies certainly had a hard time keeping up with the necessity to train elite personnel.
28 To sum up, no one Arab leader could ignore the opinions of the military and institutional interests of the army forces. The military had priority in advising the government, setting budget articles, and preserving internal order. The latest events in the region led to the declaration of the regular armed forces’ role. The conventional armed forces were affective for power protection due to the asymmetric wars in the region. Thus, alternative military organizations and means (militates, paramilitary troops, subversions units, etc.) stepped forward. On the contrary, structural flaws in military establishments limited its political role and utility. Politicization and Islamization of the military personnel in Arab armies undermined their professionalism.
29 Nevertheless, the author did not mean to imply the ineffectiveness of conventional military forces and security apparatus. In the region that went through the waves of Arab revolts and may expect new ones coming soon, military power can be more important than political leaders in command. Arab governments have to accept the internal autonomy of the military and return to the existence of the regular armies to achieve their goals of unified and protected states’ establishment.


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