Academic journal article Middle East Quarterly

The Military in Politics: Is the Military Bulwark against Islamism Collapsing?

Academic journal article Middle East Quarterly

The Military in Politics: Is the Military Bulwark against Islamism Collapsing?

Article excerpt

In 1975, Freedom House ranked only 25 percent of the world's countries to be "politically free." Three decades later, the proportion had increased to 46 percent, with 122 electoral democracies.1 Democracy may have taken root in Eastern Europe, East Asia, Latin America, and much of subSaharan Africa, but the Middle East has largely been left behind. Except for Israel, Middle Eastern countries have long histories of authoritarianism, influenced by both culture and religion. In modern years, this has manifested itself in the rise, if not of direct military rule, then of states supported by militaries focused more on inward threats than on external enemies. Middle Eastern militaries, whether in Algeria, Egypt, or Turkey, have served as the main bulwark against the spread or empowerment of Islamists. However, Western policymakers must prepare for the day that the regional militaries will switch sides, casting their lot with Islamists rather than more secular autocrats.


Beginning in the 1960s, many academics analyzed how Asian and African states changed from traditional societies to modern, developed nation-states.2 Other scholars focused on the nature of control and political survival in these new states.3 In the Middle East, during this period, the military became the predominant power within emerging nation- states. First in Turkey, then in Iran and Egypt, and later in Iraq, Yemen, and Libya, military leaders seized power and established or abolished monarchies. Military leaders also retained predominant power in Syria, Algeria, and Tunisia. In Jordan and the Persian Gulf emirates, more traditional leaders survived only by forging close ties with the military and establishing vast security services.

In some countries, the military coexisted with traditional Islam and even Islamists. During the Cold War, in Saudi Arabia and Iran, Islam was seen as a force resistant to communism. Indeed, while demands for U.S. apologies for the 1953 coup against Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddeq are now a staple of the Islamic Republic, the irony is that Iranian Islamists and the Central Intelligence Agency found themselves sharing opposition to the populist premier because of his closeness to the Iranian communist party. So long as extremists - the Muslim Brotherhood or Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's followers, for example - were contained, Islam was a positive, non-threatening force. With time, however, Islam grew to threaten military stability and rule. The ramifications of this shift in power politics are great.

After World War I, Arab leaders created nation states alongside British and French mandates. This process was gradual and came at the expense of the pan-Islamic alternative. PanArabism grew to become the dominant ideology even as Arab leaders divided Arab-speaking areas into separate countries. Almost a century later, pan-Arabism is on life-support, paid lip service to only at Arab League meetings and among some intellectuals and artists. A similar rise in Islamist sentiment has come at the expense of ethnic identity in Turkey, Pakistan, and Somalia. For the masses, Islamism is simply more attractive. In Algeria, Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen, Islamist movements continue to threaten regime survival as these states rely increasingly on the military or, in Somalia's case, militias, to prevent an Islamist takeover.

Political Development in the Middle East

In Arab countries today, the "street" has little political significance. Whereas the nationstate was alien to Middle Eastern political culture, authoritarian regimes and patrimonial leadership have long been part of the regional heritage, in which religion demanded submission to God and the leaders who claimed to be his representatives on earth; culture demanded similar submission to tribal and political leaders.

Patrimonialism makes authoritarian regimes resistant to democratic reform.4 Many political leaders today thrive on personality cults. …

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