A Study in Contrasts: Militaries in Political Transitions in Asia, the Middle East and North Africa – Analysis

The Economist recently highlighted the contrast between post-revolt Asian societies and Middle Eastern and North African societies in the woes of a pro-longed, messy and bloody transition that is pockmarked by revolt and counter-revolt, sectarianism, the redrawing of post-colonial borders, and the rise of retrograde groups as revolutionary forces.

Almost 30 years after they brutally crushed pro-democracy student protests, Korean police are projecting themselves as K-cops, the counterpart of K-pop, South Korea’s most popular cultural export and successful soft power tool. Korean police are largely today everything Middle Eastern and North African security forces are not.

Restructuring Korean police and ensuring that its legitimacy and credibility was publicly accepted was no mean task. Much like Middle Eastern and North African security forces, Korean police emerged from regime change as the distrusted and despised enforcer of repression that had brutally suppressed dissent, killed hundreds if not thousands, and tortured regime critics.

It took almost, a decade for the Korean police to launch deep-seated structural reform that gave substance to a public relations campaign designed to recast the force’s image and engender public trust. By contrast, transition in the Middle East and North Africa is in its infancy and given state and institutional resistance will likely take far longer than it did in Korea and Southeast Asia.

Even so, there are lessons to be learnt from the Asian experience in political transition that has progressed to the point where Korea is projecting its K-cops internationally as models of professionalism in crowd control and the management of protest. The Korean police force has ditched the use of tear gas in favour of the lipstick line, unarmed female officers deployed as a front line defense to defuse tensions with protesters. Big-eared cartoon mascots are ubiquitous on all the police’s insignia, including traffic signs.

The message underlying the approach to policing as well as the marketing campaign is as much driven by a desire to capitalize commercially on Korea’s success as it is by a desire to enhance the country’s prestige is the notion that policing in line with standards of freedom of expression, protest and dissent and adherence to human rights is more likely to ensure public order than brute force. Despite the fact that regimes in the Middle East and North Africa largely see heavy-handed repression of dissent as key to their survival, some like the United Arab Emirates and Oman, have engaged the Koreans’ advisory services in a bid to put a better face on what remain autocratic regimes.

The appeal to autocracies is that smarter policing reduces the risk of repression boomeranging with resentment of security forces becoming a driver of protest as it did for youth groups in Tunisia, Egypt and Syria. By the same token, the risk for activists is that failure to reform security forces in the immediate aftermath of the toppling of an autocrat by a popular revolt, could create the circumstances conducive to a reversal of hard-won political change. Early stage security sector reform would also help enhance the credibility of a post-revolt government and confidence in its sincerity and willingness to initiate structural changes aimed at breaking with the autocratic past.

Failure to reform security forces in Egypt was at the heart of the reversal of the gains of anti-government protests in Egypt in 2011 that toppled President Hosni Mubarak. The police and security forces two years later played a major role in persuading the military to overthrow Mohammed Morsi, Egypt’s first and only democratically elected president, and introduce a dictatorship even more repressive than that of Mr. Mubarak.

Political scientist Terence Lee in his recently published study of military responses to popular protests in authoritarian Asia used the examples of the brutal repression of protest in Korea in 1987, Burma in 1998 and a year later on Beijing’s Tiananmen Square to argue that the military is the ultimate arbiter of whether a popular revolt will succeeds. In doing so, Mr. Lee appears to assume that the role of the role of the military and security forces is interchangeable. That may be true for Asian countries like China and Myanmar where police, security forces and armed forces are effectively branches of the military.

In the Middle East and North Africa where the military and law enforcement are separate entities with different vested interests, protesters need to play one against the other and adopt different post-revolt strategies towards each of them. The need for differentiation is reinforced by the fact that Middle Eastern and North African leaders irrespective of whether they hail from a dynasty or the military distrust their armed forces.

To maintain control, Middle Eastern and North African rulers have adopted strategies towards their militaries ranging from emasculation; provision of economic perks; reliance on elite units populated by members of the ruler’s tribe, clan or family; hiring of mercenary forces; to the creation of parallel armed forces that keep each other in check. Ironically, if Myanmar were in the Middle East or North Africa it would have been in category of its own as the only autocracy ruled directly by the military in uniform.

The flip side of the rulers’ different strategies is that not all Middle Eastern militaries are likely to act as monolithic units in case of a popular challenge to the regime as was the case in Tunisia and Egypt — and Myanmar in the case of Southeast Asia — or contain a reformist faction strong enough to swing the balance against an autocrat like happened in the Philippines and Indonesia or Syria, Yemen, and Libya, Arab countries where the military was built around tribe, sect and clan, have in the wake of mass protests descended into civil war or anarchy.

For protesters, forging an alliance with the military is a double-edged sword particularly in the aftermath of the toppling of an autocrat when the interests of demonstrators and soldiers diverge. Protesters run the risk of being marginalized because they are ill-equipped and don’t have the time and wherewithal to make the transition from contentious street politics to power and backroom electoral politics.

In a perverse way, Tunisians owe the fact that their country emerged from the wave of Middle Eastern and North African protests several years ago as the only relative successful democratic transition to their ousted ruler, Zine El Abdeine Ben Ali. Under Mr. Bin Al, who rose from the ranks of the security forces, the military saw its budget significantly reduced, its manpower downsized and its top leadership side lined, if not physically eliminated.

As a result, the interests of the militaries in Tunisia and Myanmar were not dissimilar. In Tunisia, marginalization meant that the military had a vested interest in a change of regime that would dismantle the security force state. In Myanmar, liberalization albeit with retention of some degree of behind-the-scenes control was needed to eliminate the cost of international isolation for the nation and the ruling generals themselves.

In Egypt, Mubarak’s effort to create a dynasty of his own by grooming his eldest son as his successor posed a threat to the military. Not only was he a man who had not risen in the ranks of the military, he was a neo-liberal that threatened the statist interests of the military, the largest force in the Egyptian economy.

Alliances in political transition between militaries and activists tend to be short-term and short-lived. That is evident from the transitions in both Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa. The interests of the two diverge as soon as an autocrat has been toppled.

For the militaries in for example Myanmar and Egypt, change was not about the ideals of the revolt, but about restructuring an autocratic system in ways that ensured that their vested interests were protected. Myanmar appears to be a process of two steps forward, one step backwards. Egypt has been one of regression that led it from military rule to the election of the country’s first democratically chosen president to a military coup against him and the rise of a repressive regime that makes the Mubarak era look benign.

There are no easy solutions to the management of post-revolt diverging interests. Popular forces do not have the time or the experience to make a quick and effective transition from contentious street politics to the backroom dealings of power or electoral politics. That is true even if layers of civil society that had developed over time in countries like Myanmar played a key role in forming an opportunistic alliance with the military. It is certainly true in the Middle East and North Africa where the main drivers of the revolt often were not the usual suspects – workers and trade unions or political groupings and parties-but what sociologist Asef Bayat called social non-movements like for example soccer fans.

Acknowledging the post-revolt divergence of interests however does not answer the question why countries like the Philippines and Indonesia were relatively successful in making a political transition towards democracy irrespective of how imperfect those democracies may be. Lee boils the answer down to what he calls increased personalism of the autocrat as well as within the Philippine and Indonesian militaries.

In Lee’s view the popular revolts provided an opportunity for some senior officers unhappy with the emergence of military personalities and the personalization of their country’s autocracy to hitch their political ambitions to those of the protesters. That may indeed be true for the individual motivations of dissenting officers. It explains dissatisfaction within the military with Marcos’ interference in appointments and promotions. Lee is also right in his observation that in Asia the militaries remained loyal to the autocratic regime like in Burma in 2007 and on Tiananmen Square because there was an absence of personalism.

Yet, the aspirations and gripes of individual officers can only be part of the picture and not all autocrats interfered with military appointments. In fact, a majority of autocrats in Asia, the Middle East and North Africa did or do not.

Similarly, the fact that Marcos failed to build institutions that would have fortified autocracy fails to provide a satisfactory answer. Neither does the fact that senior military officers close to General Suharto enjoyed political and economic perks that others in the command did not. Libya’s Colonel Moammar Qaddafi and Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh also avoided embedding their authority in institutionalized power sharing.

By the same token, Suharto’s tactic of divide and rule resembles those Arab militaries that were organized around a core of elite units bound by tribe, clan or family as was the case in Syria, Libya and Yemen. The difference was that the disenfranchised in those militaries were not members of the tribal, clan or family elite that uniformly benefitted from the autocrat’s perks but the military’s rank and file. As a result, the interests of the military’s command and key units and those of the regime remained in sync in times of domestic political crisis. The defection of senior officers or even key units in Syria and Yemen during the recent uprisings and subsequent violence do not fundamentally question that notion.

The cases of the Philippines and Egypt demonstrate moreover that the military’s relationship with its US counterpart plays an important role. In both the Philippines and Egypt, a US decision to drop Washington’s support of the autocrat influenced military thinking, The relationship with the US was important to the Egyptian military given that it was independent of and not supervised by the Mubarak government. The military relied on annual US aid to the tune of $1.3 billion and arms deals that satisfied its appetite for arms and equipment and underwrote the armed forces’ military industry.

As a result, the notion of personalism as an impetus for militaries to embrace political change leaves unanswered the question why personalism that characterizes Middle Eastern and North African autocracies has not played a role in attitudes of the military or key segments of Middle Eastern and North African militaries.

One difference between Asia and the Middle East and North Africa is the concept of neo-patriarchy developed by the late Palestinian-American scholar Hisham Sharabi that serves to popularize autocratic personality cults. In Sharabi’s analysis, Middle Eastern and North African autocrats unlike their Asian counterparts with North Korea as an exception positioned themselves as authoritarian father figures who franchise their authoritarianism throughout the society. The autocrat is the father of the nation who sits on top of a pyramid of authoritarian fathers such as the head of government, the provincial governor, the village head and the paternalistic head of the nuclear family.

In characterizing Asian autocracies, Lee draws a distinction between two kinds of autocracies: ones that are built around the person of the autocrat and ones that are built around a sharing of power by underlying institutions. In Lee’s view, autocrats who build their power around themselves like in the case of Marcos and Suharto are more prone to the risk of the military siding with protesters.

That theory seems to be invalid in the Middle East and North Africa where except for perhaps in the case of Iran power sharing is not the norm. More frequently there is deliberate competition between institutions like in the case of Syria’s multiple security services that is designed to keep various forces in check.

Attempting to develop a conceptual framework that enhances frameworks developed in recent decades and explains why, when and how militaries turn against the autocratic status quo and opt for political change is important not only as a key to understanding developments in the Middle East and North Africa and predicting of the role of militaries in popular revolts but also to deepening knowledge about civil-military relations.

The contrast in the analysis of Asia as opposed to the Middle East and North Africa is stark.

Intellectuals and scholars accepted until the eruption of popular revolts in 2011 the notion that the Middle East and North Africa were exceptional in their autocratic resilience and stability.

“Academics directed their attention toward explaining the mechanisms that Arab states had developed to weather popular dissent… We in the academic community made assumptions that, as valid as they might have been in the past, turned out to be wrong in 2011… Academic specialists on Arab politics, such as myself, have quite a bit of rethinking to do… Explaining the stability of Arab authoritarians was an important analytic task, but it led some of us to underestimate the forces for change that were bubbling below, and at times above, the surface of Arab politics,” wrote political scientist and Gulf scholar F. Gregory Gause III.

By contrast, Asia became the hand maiden of contemporary concepts of protest with the Philippines in 1968 coining the phrase, people power.

Other factors that influence the attitudes of militaries towards popular revolts and highlight differences between Asia and the Middle East and North Africa are national identity, the role of regional powers, and donor support of civil society in autocratic societies.

As a summary outline, national identity in the Middle East and North Africa has proven to be far more fragile and contentious than in Southeast Asia. That has raised the spectre of a redrawing of borders in the Middle East and North Africa and the emergence of new states based on ethnicity or sect.

That is not to say that national identity is not a factor in Asia. Yet, Singapore traumatized by its departure from Malaysia has successfully managed communal relations while identity politics remain prominent in Malaysia itself as well as in Myanmar and southern Thailand. Nonetheless, unlike the Middle East and North Africa, Southeast Asian nations are not looking any time soon at a redrawal of their borders.

Similarly, transition in Southeast Asia benefited from the absence of regional powers like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, all of which sought and seek to impose their will on other countries in the region.

Finally, Arab autocrats with Egypt in the lead successfully restricted donor aid to civil society organizations in ways that their Southeast Asian counterparts appear not to have.

All of this, amounts to a first tentative stab at developing an agenda for research that would enhance scholarly and policy understanding of the why, when and how of the role of militaries in processes of political change. Southeast Asia and Korea have the benefit of hindsight. The Middle East and North Africa is a messy and bloody work in progress.

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