By Selin.M. Bölme

Over the last 40 years, many countries in the world have been democratized. Between 1974 and 1990 the number of democratic governments in the world nearly doubled.



Military: on which side?

The military in the Middle East has long been an important political actor playing a central role in the region’s political history.

According to one view, this privileged position of the armed forces stems from the historical praetorian or patrimonial character of the region, which goes back to the Ottoman Empire reign.

The security forces either control the state directly or act as the essential apparatus for an authoritarian civilian regime; therefore, they have a decisive impact on the fate of democratic transformation in the Middle East.

Bellin argues that “democratic transition can be carried out successfully only when the state’s coercive apparatus lacks the will or capacity to crush it.

Where that coercive apparatus remains intact and opposed to political reform, democratic transition will not occur.” Bellin called this the region’s true exceptionalism.

In her view, the robustness of authoritarianism requires not only the capacity of coercive apparatus but also its will to repress opposition.

Brownlee also underlined the relation between the capacity of the regime and its security apparatus. Both scholars refer to the Thead Skocpol’s thesis that revolutions are only accomplished when the state’s coercive apparatus loses its will or its capacity to repress its foes.

The empirical research of Albertus and Menaldo also proved that increased coercive capacity under autocracy has a strong negative impact on a country’s level of democracy as well as the likelihood of democratization.

In the Middle East security forces in many states have had this capacity and will, but how have they managed this?

Bellin pointed out the factors that determine the capacity and will of coercive apparatus. The first of these factors is fiscal health. In other words, when the military cannot pay the salaries or guarantee supplies of arms and ammunition, the coercive apparatus disintegrates from within.

Hence the economic capacity of the state is important. The oil-rich countries or major recipients of different rentier revenues do not hesitate to spend money for the army.

Michael Ross claimed that rentier revenues have a repression effect by helping authoritarian leaders build up their internal security forces to quell the protest movements. Even poor countries make it their first priority to pay the military in order to strengthen their security apparatus.

The region’s states are world leaders in the proportion of GDP spent on security.

According to the latest report of the Homeland Security Research Center, while the market leaders are China and the United States, in relative terms of GDP share the Middle Eastern countries spend two to four times as much as the international superpowers.

In this respect, foreign aid is crucial particularly for poorer countries in the region to strengthen their security apparatus. Bellin underlined the role of international support in shaping the robustness of security forces.

If the security establishment loses this crucial financial, technical, or political support, it is most likely to lose not also capacity but also the will to hold on to power. In order to maintain the foreign aid, authoritarian leaders manipulate “the danger of radical Islamist.”

The Arab-Israel conflict is another excuse used by these regimes to explain and increase their military capacity.

Stepan and Robertson show that the threat posed by Israel to the Arab countries is often indicated as a reason for spending money on the strong security establishment and constructing large militaries in the Middle East.

This state of emergency played an important role in reinforcing authoritarianism in the region. Although the Arab-Israel conflict is a significant dynamic in regional politics, it is not a determinant of the region’s authoritarianism.

For instance, it cannot explain the reason for large militaries in countries far from Israel’s fly zone, such as Saudi Arabia, Morocco or Tunisia.

The institutionalization level of the security forces is another important factor that determines both the capacity and will of the security establishment against the internal uprisings.

According to Bellin, a better-institutionalized security establishment, in which entry and promotion standards are rational and the military, based on primordial ties to executive authority, is more willing to allow political reforms.

The less institutionalized patrimonial militaries are more resistant to democratic reforms. Under patrimonialism, officers have reason to fear that their positions will be in danger from political reforms while their counterparts in institutionalized armies believe that they can protect their gains and power after the reforms.

In most Middle Eastern countries, the military is governed by patrimonial logic. Extensive patrimonial ties can help the regime endure challenges and defeat its domestic foes.

In Jordon and Morocco, for example, the king regularly appoints his male relatives to key military posts; in Saudi Arabia and Syria entire branches of the military and security forces are family affairs.

In contrast, in Egypt, Tunisia and Turkey the military is highly institutionalized. This is one factor explaining why the military supported the uprising against autocrats in Egypt and Tunisia during the Arab Spring.

The potential cost of suppressing the dissident movements, Bellin argues, also has an effect on the capacity and will of security forces and the regime.

The political and economic cost of repressing relatively small groups is lower than repressing the large ones. Hence, under the strong authoritarian rule supported by a large military, the mass protests still have a chance to force the regime to reform.

However, if the cost of the reform is higher than repressing the protesters and the regime has the capacity to do so, the authoritarian elites may choose to repress the uprising without paying attention to how large it is.

The strong relation between the regime and its coercive apparatus is one of the main factors supporting robust authoritarian regimes in the Middle East.

Even though the support of the armed forces is not always guaranteed, militaries are loyal to the authoritarian rulers as a consequence of the patrimonial structure in most Middle Eastern countries.

Citizens in Middle Eastern countries are not much different than the people elsewhere in terms of demanding rights.

It is not difficult to find riots, uprisings and protest movements in the history of the region: the 1982 Hama riots in Syria, the 1950s strikes and uprisings in Saudi Arabia, the 1977 bread riots in Egypt and economic protests in Jordan and Morocco during the 1980s.

Nonetheless, these riots were suppressed violently by governments, which spend much of their wealth to build strong security apparatuses to block the population’s democratic aspirations.

to continue in part 7


Selin Bölme received her B.A. in Public Administration department of Hacettepe University. She graduated with an M.A degree on Israel foreign policy from International Relations department of the same university. She received her PhD from International Relations department of Ankara University upon completion of her doctoral thesis titled, US Military Base Policy and Turkey: A Study on Incirlik Air Base. She has been working as a researcher for SETA Foundation since the establishment of SETA.


(The article is a chapter from: Bakis, J. Karakoç, Karakoç, Jülide, Authoritarianism in the Middle East Before and After the Arab Uprisings. Palgrave Macmillan, UK 2015.)




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