Thursday, September 22, 2011

Figureheads fall, but security forces are the test of change

When the time comes to gauge the democratic success or failure of this year's Arab uprisings, one criterion will be more important than most others: whether the instruments of repression of the old regimes - above all the security services, the army and the police - have been replaced by qualitatively different institutions that respect the rule of law, civilian oversight and human rights.

While much differentiates the revolts in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Yemen and Syria, all have one thing in common in that protesters have sought, or are seeking, to overthrow authoritarian regimes backed up by networks of militarised intimidation. These vary from country to country, which is why organs of repression are often valuable, indeed essential, windows through which to examine a country's leadership, sociology and political culture.

In Libya, for example, the security services were in the hands of the Qaddafi family and their tribal allies. Favoured units of the Libyan army were controlled by the leader's sons and were designed to act as a praetorian guard, while other components of the armed forces were left to languish. A similar situation holds in Yemen, where family members of President Ali Abdullah Saleh are in charge of vital military and security branches responsible for regime survival.

In Syria, since the 1960s and 1970s, authority over the military and security agencies has reflected and sustained the rise of the minority Alawite community. At the same time, the Assad regime has used Alawite security and military appointments (like those in the Baath Party) to keep a headlock on the system, guarding against coups and uprisings, and as a source of communal patronage.

A different situation exists in Egypt, where the military and security agencies embody the timeless power of the state. When protesters demanded that President Hosni Mubarak leave office last January, the military command was able to engineer the removal of the man without hastening the collapse of the security edifice that he had supervised. Unlike Syria, Libya and Yemen, where a leader's departure means the departure of those who managed repression, in Egypt security institutions have remained more or less intact. Mr Mubarak was expendable, as was the former head of military intelligence, Gen Omar Suleiman. And they were expendable precisely to ensure the survival of the system they had dominated.

Central to the motives of those who have taken to the streets throughout the Arab world is an aspiration for freedom and democracy. However, the long-term health of the countries involved and the realisation of their revolutionary potential, will be defined by how repression is exercised after the autocrats. If one repressive order merely replaces another, then little will have been achieved.

What is happening in the societies that have rid themselves of oppressive leaders, or are trying to, is not necessarily encouraging. In Libya, tribalism, regionalism and the divide between Islamists and secularists (and the myriad splits within those categories) make for a devilish brew. The new order will be shaped by the de facto power balance as the war seemingly begins winding down. Who prevails could be determined by the tense interaction between the disparate elements in the transitional authority. This is not ideal for building up accountable security institutions.

In Egypt, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces has exploited the rifts within the ranks of those who opposed Mr Mubarak to assert its will. Recently, the council expanded the emergency powers introduced during the Mubarak years, representing a significant setback to the high expectations last January. Far from following the lead of the Egyptian government, the supreme council is calling the shots. The most organised opposition force, the Muslim Brotherhood, has also increasingly sided with the military as elections loom, probably in November. All this makes it considerably more difficult to reform, let alone overhaul, the vast Egyptian security apparatus.

In contrast, Syria's President Bashar Al Assad and his acolytes know there is no middle ground allowing their regime to change while also staying in place. This explains the ferocity with which the Alawite-dominated security services, praetorian divisions of the Syrian army, and irregular militias have crushed mostly peaceful demonstrations. They perceive the challenge to Assad rule as an existential threat to their community, an attitude the regime has hardened to quash all political alternatives. The question is: even if Mr Al Assad is ousted, the more this would this occur? A negotiated exit will more likely facilitate a process placing the security apparatus under civilian authority than if the Assads are removed through violence.

Stalemate in Syria, or in Yemen and in Bahrain, where the standoff of several months ago has not been resolved, is upheld by built-in mechanisms of equilibrium. It is a truism that armed deterrence in most Arab states is primarily directed inward. Arab armies and security services rarely win foreign wars, but until recently they were quite adept at stifling domestic discontent. The regimes did this by balancing interests and patronage, blending coercion with co-optation, neutralising political or social forces apt to undermine the status quo, and securing regional acquiescence for their policies.

Some observers prefer to use the term "Arab revolutions" over "Arab Spring" when describing the transformations in the Middle East and North Africa today. But revolutions frequently devour their own, substituting fresh oppressive orders for those that existed before. Overcoming that foul predisposition will be the benchmark of success in a new Arab world, not vague rhetoric about the allures of liberty.

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