Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Accountability remains core to the Arab Spring

At the start of the Arab uprisings in 2011, one thing was immediately apparent. If the Arab societies in turmoil failed to make the security and military institutions more accountable, their revolutions would probably fail. What we have seen since confirms this.

In countries such as Libya and Syria, separate, but related, dynamics were at play. The collapse of Muammar Qaddafi’s regime in Libya showed not so much the risks from a lack of accountability, but the catastrophe that could follow from too sudden a security void, when no provisions had been made for a transition to a more stable order.

In Syria, the supporters of Bashar Al Assad realised early on that the key to his survival was to maintain unity in the security organisations that had sustained his rule for years. Even as the Syrian army began crumbling from deaths and desertions, the security hierarchy managed to remain more or less unified, leaving the core of the regime intact.

In Egypt, the picture was more complicated. When the revolt against the regime of Hosni Mubarak happened, it was primarily directed against the security apparatus controlled by the interior ministry. The army was viewed by the population as a counterweight to it, an astute reading of a situation that had developed for some four decades in Egypt.

In a fascinating book titled Soldiers, Spies, and Statesmen: Egypt’s Road to Revolt, the Egyptian sociologist Hazem Kandil offered a historical reading of the relationship between Egypt’s security organs – in particular the relationship between the political leadership and the army, and between the army and the civilian security forces of the interior ministry.

For Mr Kandil much can be understood about Egypt’s post-1952 revolution period from examining the dynamics between these institutions. Just as Gamal Abdel Nasser established Arab Socialist Union, a political party, as a counterweight to the power of the military, then under the control of his friend and rival Abdel Hakim Amer, later both Anwar Sadat and Mr Mubarak built up the interior ministry’s security apparatus to contain the army.

The Egyptians’ disgust with Mohammed Morsi’s incompetence in 2013 led to massive demonstrations directed against him, and a call for the army to remove him from office. The military obliged, marking, as Mr Kandil might say, a return to the military’s political dominance. This was consolidated by Abdel Fattah El Sisi’s election as president in 2014 and is being done further through the current parliamentary elections.

In all these cases it was the actions, or omissions, of the security-military apparatus that defined the ultimate outcome of the uprisings. Only in Tunisia, where the military has been relatively small, have the security organs been less decisive in shaping political developments. Yet even there, the passage of an antiterrorism law last July, following the Bardo and Sousse attacks, raised worries the legislation might restrict liberties.

The tremendous power of security and military institutions – to which we can frequently add the judiciary – has largely defined the postcolonial Arab world. There are a number of reasons for this, not least that these institutions have accumulated vast power mainly to guarantee regime survival.

There is also the fact that security organs often reflected social realities in the postcolonial phase. Particularly during the 1950s and 1960s, they were instruments of social promotion for those on the social periphery. This, coupled with the often malignant nature of military and security politics, made for institutions far less turned towards the protection of society at large than towards self-preservation and consolidation.

The Libyan and Syrian regimes understood the implications of what they did in 2011 when they provoked civil wars to retain power once their populations rose up against them. They saw that war would not only serve to heighten solidarity within the regime’s ranks by increasing polarisation; but also that as security broke down the ensuing vacuum would mean chaos, making the regimes appear almost palatable in contrast.

That tactic failed in Libya, but may have succeeded in Syria. The international focus on ISIL has completely reversed the outlook towards the Assad regime, to the extent that American officials have admitted that were it to collapse too quickly, jihadist groups might gain. Needless to say the US fell for the oldest trick in the book of security regimes: portraying themselves as better alternatives to the calamities they create.

Post-revolutionary societies aspire to stability after a period of upheaval. Security institutions, on the contrary, require endless tension and threats to justify their existence and the rules they enforce. That is why for revolution to succeed, this contradiction between the aims of both sides must, first, be resolved.

In democracies there are means of accountability to keep the security bodies in line. But in much of the region proper institutions of accountability simply do not exist, allowing the instruments of repression to push their advantage. This dilemma will continue to profoundly define the Arab world.

No comments: