The ongoing political developments in Syria and Egypt are important for many reasons, including democratic transitions, popular sovereignty, the rule of law, the quest for social justice and more. One issue, however, that has been highlighted in these two countries has been the central political feature of the modern Arab world since its creation after World War I: the struggle between military officers and civilian politicians for control of the institutions of government.
Syria and Egypt today reflect two very different examples of this struggle in its most acute form, with both sides battling with all their might to defeat the other. This is neither a new nor an isolated matter. The civilian-military struggle has defined the Arab world since the 1930s, and has occurred in different forms across the Middle East. Security agencies that dominate government decision-making represent the single most destructive force that has made a mockery of both stable state-building and credible citizenship. This is why the battle for control of power in Syria and Egypt today is so intense.
The first military coup d’état in modern Arab history occurred in Iraq in 1936, when General Bakr Sidqi and two politicians, Hikmat Sulayman and Abu Timman, overthrew the government of Yasin al-Hashimi. After that, especially after the 1948 debacle that saw Israel defeat Arab armies, military coups have been a regular occurrence.
In the 1970s, the flow of massive oil income throughout the region allowed two other things to happen: the modern Arab security state was able to cement itself and dominate all aspects of life; and officers who assumed power (such as Hafez Assad in Syria, Moammar Gadhafi in Libya, Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia, Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen, and, after Anwar Sadat’s assassination, Hosni Mubarak in Egypt) remained in power for periods ranging from 25 to 42 years – either on their own or by bequeathing power to their sons.
We have experienced 76 years of this ugly legacy of soldiers and intelligence officers running our countries, without their having either the preparation or the legitimacy to do so, and generally with catastrophic results. Entire economies have been shattered and gutted; tens of millions of young people cannot find gainful employment, because their public education systems turned them into mindless incompetents. The institutions of state have been transformed into hollow shells of their former stature, and civil servants often become agents of mass corruption and inefficiency.
At the same time, disparities between rich and poor have widened sharply, as family- and crony-based circles of wealth surrounding ruling families have expanded everywhere in the region. Major national challenges related to economic expansion, social equity, educational reform, environmental protection, health care and other such basic needs have been paid lip-service at best. The result is that the majority of Arab citizens have had to endure a degrading combination of national mediocrity and personal vulnerability that they are totally helpless to change.
The widespread and continuing Arab uprisings, in the face of brutal government responses, are explained in large part by the determination of ordinary citizens to end this miserable situation, salvage their statehood and citizenship, and shift to a new condition in which citizens play a direct role in shaping government institutions and defining public policies.
In Egypt the old men with guns seek to maintain their perpetual control of state power by manipulating the courts, parliament and the election system, while in Syria the ruling military establishment around the Assad family seeks to do the same thing through the continuous use of vicious force against civilians.
The determination of civilian populations to continue their struggles against their military masters, even at the risk of death, is a sign of just how awful it feels to live in an Arab country where soldiers and clandestine security agents tell you what to read, what to say, what to think, what to study, and even what to feel in your heart.
They have gone too far, especially after 76 long years, and the harder these military regimes try to stay in power, the more fiercely their citizens will confront and challenge them.
Three generations of Arabs have been numbed, insulted and dehumanized by this legacy of homegrown political brutality; the fourth generation has made it known that it will not quietly endure such mistreatment, and has risen up in mass revolt to end the rule of incompetent soldiers, their criminal associates, and their insatiably greedy families.
I am firmly convinced that this is the single most important of the multiple contests now taking place across the Arab world.
Until civilians with populist legitimacy assume oversight of their military and security agencies, the Arab world will remain the global laggard and laughing stock that it has become over the last three generations.
Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly by THE DAILY STAR.