Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen, and Muammar Gadhafi of Libya—the three deposed or killed over the last two years—were all originally military men. Ben Ali of Tunisia is only a partial exception, as he was a senior officer in Tunisia’s powerful paramilitary police forces. Syria’s Bashar Al-Assad is also only a partial exception, as the inheritor of a dynasty founded by his father, Hafez, who was an air force officer.
Much of this can be traced to the lamentable history of military coups in the Arab world, where the military became the primary route to power for whichever group had the most supporters in its country’s officer corps. It also hints at the difficulty in establishing a democratic political system in the wake of a profound upheaval—the newly independent republics were able to get militaries up and running, but have had less success with independent courts and parliaments.
In this sense, Tunisia, despite its serious problems, has fared relatively well on this front. Its military has always been small, the result of a decision by its former rulers to build up paramilitary police units as its coercive muscle. Ironically, this ended up serving the people of Tunisia well, to some extent. When the people’s defiance became so strong and widespread that only the military could quell it, it chose to stand aside and let Ben Ali fall.
Today, Tunisia is regularly wracked by mass public protests, but the chance of a military coup is remote, giving the country’s politicians breathing room to settle their differences relatively peacefully. The Tunisian armed forces are also still intact, and have been able to go into action against terrorists in the mountains in the west of the country in the wake of the uprising against Ben Ali.
Next door in Libya, the situation is much worse. Gaddafi kept the military relatively small as well—although in a sense he had little choice, given Libya’s even smaller population—but he used it as an instrument of control. When he was overthrown, his military machine was destroyed or disbanded. However, this has left the new government dependent on the goodwill of militias it now struggles to exert control over.
Without an effective military, Libya is at the mercy of militias whose loyalty to the state, not to mention basic professionalism, is questionable. It therefore faces two threats: blackmail from its own military forces and deteriorating security, as these forces struggle to deal with terrorists—like those who attacked the US consulate in Benghazi, who have assassinated journalists and politicians in recent weeks, and who blew up the foreign ministry on the anniversary of the consulate attack after detonating bombs in other public places—that have claimed dozens of Libyans’ lives.
The militias themselves have also proven deadly to ordinary Libyans at times. A protest at the base of the Libya Shield militia in Benghazi in June turned deadly when it allegedly opened fire on the protesters, killing around 30 of them.
At time of writing, much of Libya’s public and many of its politicians are clamoring for the government to rebuild the security forces. While this is undoubtedly necessary, the people charged with this task should also heed the lessons of history and seek to strike a balance between military effectiveness and protecting the fragile political gains of the struggle against dictatorship. Building a professional and apolitical military would protect a post-revolutionary state from the twin evils of widespread violence and chaos on the one hand and military rule on the other, while still allowing the government to protect its people. However, this is easier said than done.
Perhaps a good way to start would be—in the absence of an overwhelming external threat—to keep the military relatively small, like Tunisia, with a total military strength of 50,000 out of a national population of 10 million. Critics of this approach might say that this implies that militaries are inherently untrustworthy, but this itself ignores the sad fact that in politics, trust must be grounded in something substantial. This is doubly true in societies emerging from great upheaval, where the institutions and norms of democratic civil society are young and as yet undeveloped.