Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi’s suggestion that our region needs a joint Arab military force to deal with escalating threats from armed factions in lands such as Libya is one of the most ridiculous ideas to emerge in the Arab world for years. The idea of joint Arab action for common security needs is good in principle, but given the legacy of Arab military actions at home and abroad it makes no sense whatsoever, on many counts.
The most important is that the resort to military force across the Arab countries in recent decades has been a recurring catastrophe. Arab countries are falling apart one by one under the destructive impact of runaway militarism, in the absence of legitimate democratic governance systems. We need less militarism, and more civilian control of armed forces and police, not a new collective military adventure that would take the incompetence and national corrosion of officers’ rule from the national to the regional level.
We need less, not more, military involvement in Arab affairs because of the national destruction, distortion and decay our region has suffered in the past half-century or so as a result of five main sources of debilitating military action.
First, chronic military attacks or involvement in our region by foreign powers from east and west. This tradition dates back at least two centuries in the modern era, and over two millennia in longer historical terms.
Second, the capture and frequent ruin of government systems by armed forces, police and intelligence agencies. Iraq, Syria, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Tunisia and Egypt, above all, because Egypt started this corrosive trend in 1952, are damning case studies in why soldiers should not run countries.
Third, the wasteful and destructive impact of Arab-Israeli wars. The Arab-Israeli conflict is a major reason for why military officers used to take control of Arab governments and transform them into dictatorships in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, while decades of disproportionate defense spending (that failed to check the Zionist threat) was a key reason for Arab domestic developmental weaknesses and state collapse in some cases.
Fourth, the military involvement of some Arab countries in the affairs of other Arab countries. Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Libya are currently the best examples, but this has been a problem since the 1950s and reached crisis conditions in countries such as Yemen, Kuwait and Lebanon.
Fifth, the growth of nonstate militias and sectarian or tribal armies in countries where national integrity has collapsed (often due to the consequences of the first four points above). As some Arab countries fragment and central governments withdraw from large regions over which they are sovereign, the vacuum is filled by armed groups who often repeat the state’s example of applying militarism at home and abroad.
Military and security agencies have often played constructive and legitimate roles in many Arab countries, by protecting their territory and maintaining domestic order. But such application of militarism is overwhelmed by evidence of the problems we suffer from widespread militarization of our societies.
So for Sisi, another Egyptian general turned president by a coup, to now suggest that we need more joint military action confirms why we should not allow soldiers to run our countries. Sisi has not been able to bring order to his own country, especially in Sinai, so how can he expect anyone to take him seriously when he suggests that we can improve our troubled Arab condition by taking the proven incompetence of ruling militaries at the national level to a wider regional level?
Libya, Lebanon, Syria, Yemen and Iraq should be lessons enough in how Arab and foreign armies that move into Arab countries only create conditions of chaos and a lack of governability. These open the way to local armed sectarian and tribal groups, and nowadays create a fertile environment in which killers such as Al-Qaeda and ISIS can take root.
Sisi said in his comments that, “the need for a unified Arab force is growing and becoming more pressing every day.” That is mind-boggling nonsense. A joint Arab military force to intervene in places like Libya is impossible, first of all, because Arabs fighting each other is a main reason why Libya is such a mess, and, second, because politicized Arab militaries used at home and abroad tend to promote chaos and destroy Arab countries, rather than maintain order and national integrity.
What is becoming more pressing by the day is the need to promote legitimate democratic, pluralistic governance in Arab countries where national military and police forces can play their important national defense role under civilian oversight.
Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly by THE DAILY STAR. He can be followed on Twitter @RamiKhouri.