Historical Roots of Arab Military Despotism

Conference Participants in Doha Focus on the Historical Roots of Arab Military Despotism

“Over the space of a few decades, the official name of the country known as Libya has changed five times”, remarked Azmi Bishara in his keynote address to “The Army in Politics During the Transition to Democracy in the Arab World”. The meeting, taking place on October 1-3 in Doha, is the fifth in a series of conferences devoted to studying the transition to democracy in the Arab world. Bishara’s point underscores the internal turbulence faced by the Arab state—unable to agree on a definition of itself in any stable way over the course of a generation, the legitimate leadership of the Arab state was an open question. As a result, the army, a rare professional and regimented institution in the Arab East, was in a prime position to take the reins of power.

There was a certain logic for the esteem in which the military was held in the former Ottoman Arab realms, as Bishara, borrowing from the late Orientalist Bernard Lewis: that the Ottoman Janissaries were the world’s first professional standing army. Adds Bishara, “it was not a coincidence that this body was made up of captives taken from their hometowns and trained for outright and total loyalty to the Sultan”. With time, the Janissaries came to act independently of the Sublime Porte, coming to pull the levers of political power for themselves, until Sultan Mahmud II (ruled from 1785-1839) put an end to their expanding power. Having reined in the once ferocious Janissaries, Sultan Mahmud II quickly turned himself into an absolute despot, overturning long-standing constitutional norms and traditions and becoming a uniquely modern despot as pointed out by Bishara.

As pointed out by Khaled Ziada, the Head of the Beirut Office of the ACRPS and also a speaker during the third panel of the first day’s proceedings, Sultan Mahmud II’s changes to the Ottoman system were not in any way easy. Fearing that his attempts at modernization—which in fact were copied directly from an increasingly assertive Mohammed Ali Pasha, soon to establish adynasty in Egypt—would be depicted as an imitation of the West, Mahmud II ensured that his forces would be known as the “Mohammedan Manousri” (or “Muslim and Victorious”) Army.

As Bishara, Ziada and other speakers at the conference pointed out, the then-nascent military in the Ottoman Empire would quickly prove its revolutionary potential. Following defeat at the hands of Peter the Great’s Russia, the Ottoman Empire was eager to adopt and employ Western technology and education. The army here was the entry point for rational, scientific learning to enter the Arab lands under Ottoman control: officers from what would become Syria and Iraq studied engineering as part of their courses at the artillery college in Istanbul. As European colonial powers carved up the Middle East, the peoples of the region learned to look to their military officers as the saviors of their nations. As Ziada elaborated to the audience, this was most clearly visible in the persons of Fawzi Kaoukji, the Lebanese-Syrian officer who led the military effort against Zionism in Palestine; in Yousef Azemah, who led Syrian resistance to the French during the brief moment of Syrian independence at the Battle of Maysaloun; and Aziz Ali Al Misri, an Egyptian who had studied military sciences at Istanbul before taking part in the Great Arab Revolt and later attempting to steer Egypt to independence from Britain.

The great tragedy, weighing down clearly on attendees at the conference, was that while the Turkish military leadership—under the lead of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk—succeeded in preserving the territorial integrity of a future Republic of Turkey, Arab militaries have so far not been as successful either in thwarting foreign enemies or in administering public affairs. Since the days of Sultan Mahmud II, the ability of despots in the Arab East to first climb to power through the military hierarchy and then cast the officers aside has remained strong. The parallels which Azmi Bishara made during his keynote lecture included Egyptian presidents Anwar Sadat and the present incumbent in Cairo, General Sisi. The latter, Bishara pointed out, had an uncanny similarity with Chile’s former Augusto Pinochet—he had unseated an elected politician only months after he himself had been made Minister of Defense. Yet while Pinochet may have created a “Chilean miracle”, being able to take tough executive decisions without complex wrangling from the opposition, the audience was invited not to hold its breath waiting for a miracle on the Nile.

“The Army in Politics During the Democratic Transition in the Arab World” will continue on Sunday, October 2 and Monday, October 3 at the campus of the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies. Follow our hashtag #ArmyInPolitics on Twitter to receive live updates.