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To Reform Broader Middle East, Get Leaders to Trade in Epaulets

Author: Steven A. Cook, Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies
January 20, 2005
Christian Science Monitor

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Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf was supposed to step down last month as his country's Army chief of staff. On Dec. 19, however, Mr. Musharraf confirmed months of thinly veiled hints and reneged on his promise to parliament to formally trade in his epaulets.

This development has dampened hopes for a democratic evolution of Pakistani politics and is cause for significant concern, but the situation in Pakistan is far from unique. Throughout the broader Middle East, military officers wield decisive political influence, often hindering progressive political, economic, and social change. As the Bush administration enters its second term, encouraging civilian control of military establishments must be a critical component of its ambitious agenda for reform in the region.

While the era of outright military regimes in the broader Middle East is over, officers tend to dominate political systems without actually becoming involved in day-to-day governance. This is done through a combination of institutions, some of which allow for a measure of pluralism such as national parliaments, while others serve to protect the officers' particular vision of political development.

For example, while Pakistan has an elected National Assembly in which a variety of political parties are represented, the military-directed National Security Council has exerted critical influence over parliamentary affairs, national education policy, and economic affairs.

Although the region's military elite enjoy a range of benefits from the authoritarian status quo, officers are not necessarily opposed to reform. It is the specific type of political and economic reforms that matter. For example, much of Egypt's reform agenda is focused on economic development. The officers support these initiatives because economic prosperity will likely instill the Egyptian regime with greater legitimacy, relieving a certain amount of political and social pressure on Hosni Mubarak's government. Economic development also benefits Egypt's military establishment, which has considerable business interests ranging from bottling spring water and manufacturing kitchen appliances to aviation and security services.

Still, Middle Eastern officers have their limits. Egypt's military leadership has signaled that it is not willing to risk regime stability for economic reforms that have the potential to produce social dislocation; in nearby Syria, commanders would not want reforms to impinge on their robust smuggling operations to and from Lebanon. Algeria's autonomous officers have proven they will go to great - even violent - lengths to maintain their economic security.

On the political side of the ledger, a relatively freer press may emerge and new political parties might be approved, but it is unlikely that officers of the broader Middle East will voluntarily accede to political changes that dramatically alter prevailing power relations.

Just as in Pakistan, the connection between the Egyptian presidency and the officer corps represents the fulcrum of the political system. Every Egyptian president since the overthrow of the monarchy in 1952 has been a military officer. It remains an open question how Egypt's senior commanders would respond to efforts to sever this link.

US policymakers have tended to neglect the ways in which autonomous military establishments can place a drag on the political development of countries in the broader Middle East. This is primarily due to the fact that previous administrations believed that authoritarian stability best served the constellation of American interests in the region. In reality, Washington's close connection with Middle Eastern strongmen helped stoke anti-Americanism and contributed to an environment where terrorist organizations can thrive. While security cooperation with Middle Eastern militaries has become paramount in the war against Al Qaeda and its affiliates, there is no reason why Washington cannot promote reform in the region and fight terror at the same time.

Recognizing the political influence that officers wield in a variety of countries throughout the Arab and Islamic world is a good first step. Washington should encourage changes that:

  • Close channels through which officers have been able to influence politics;

  • Prevent the military elite from engaging in activities not strictly related to defense and national security;

  • Provide civilians with the means to override the commanders;

  • Alter the prevailing ethos within the officer corps that justifies its influence and intervention in government.

The US should also provide incentives - such as increased military aid - that will encourage officers to remove themselves from politics.

Military officers in the broader Middle East have played important roles in the institutionalization and modernization of their countries. Yet over time, they have become defenders of authoritarian political systems. Washington should not neglect civil-military relations in its efforts to promote political reform in Muslim societies. To do otherwise would encourage the persistence of authoritarian politics and risks undermining the administration's efforts to forge a more liberal and open political order in the region.


Steven A. Cook is a Next Generation Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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