Springborg: The resurgence of Arab militaries

Like the previous post also at Monkey Cage, Robert Springborg makes an interesting argument about the Arab uprisings have empowered militaries:

The Arab upheavals and reactions to them have resulted in a profound militarization of the Arab world. In the republics, this has taken the form of remilitarizing Egypt, further entrenching the power of Algeria’s military and possibly preparing the Tunisian military for an unaccustomed role in the future. In the other republics, regime supporting militaries have been pitted against militias emerging from protest movements, with both sides attracting external support. In the monarchies, ruling families have bolstered their militaries by increasing their capabilities and by roping them together in collective commands. They have done so primarily to confront and put down further upheavals, wherever in the Arab world they might occur, but probably also as part of intensifying intrafamily power struggles. Behind this militarization is the U.S. presence in various forms, including as primary supplier and trainer, operator of autonomous bases and orchestrator of counter terrorist campaigns.

This, he argues, may be particularly significant for the Arab oil-rich monarchies that are significantly beefing up the abilities of their armed forces, which Springborg says is a “double-edged sword”. 

The baltaga state

Andrea Teti, writing for the indispensable MERIP, gets it – this is precisely how I see the Egyptian state and its actions:

The arrest, trial and often torture of journalists, activists and students from across the political spectrum has nothing to do with the pursuit of justice or security. Even comedians are harassed. These actions are best understood as a mafia-style warning, the content of which is fairly obvious: For anyone opposing the regime installed since the 2013 army coup, there is no safety in the law, nor in Western governments, nor in the international media. The use of violence to repress or stir up conflict useful to the regime is nothing new. The regime wants it to be clear that it can imprison anyone, any time, no matter how absurd the charges, how surreal the evidence or how great a travesty of justice the trial. In fact, the absurdity of the evidence and the Kafkaesque legal process are not an aberration. On the contrary, the greater their absurdity, the more effectively the new regime makes its point: Cross us at your peril; there is nowhere to hide.

. . .

Every criminal gang worth its salt knows it needs to keep the local population dependent and scared enough to believe there is no alternative, and duped enough into thinking that there is at least a veneer of morality covering what the racketeers do.

Egyptian nationalists don’t like to hear it, but the leadership of their beloved military – whatever the merits it once had – has devolved into a mafia, no more, no less. Understanding that is the beginning of understanding what is happening in Egypt, and the risks it entails considering the region’s other mafia states were the Assads’ Syria and the Husseins’ Iraq. And look where they are now.

Historical perspective on Egypt’s army

From Bernard Lewis’ autobiography, Notes on a century , a vignette about Nasser requesting Pakistan’s help to restructure the Egyptian military in 1960: 

The government of Pakistan was willing, but on condition that it be permitted to send a small feasibility mission to examine the situation and then advise on what, if anything, Pakistan could do. It told Nasser that the mission must be allowed to go wherever it wanted, and its questions must be answered truthfully and honestly. Nasser agreed, saying that there would be no point otherwise.

A small group of Pakistan officers was then sent to Egypt. they toured the country, spoke to many people and reported that they were not told the truth. The reason that they were not told the truth is that nobody knew the truth. In the Egyptian armed forces, they said, “The corporal lies to the sergeant, the sergeant lies to the lieutenant, the lieutenant lies to the captain, the captain lies to the major and so on all the way up the chain of command. By the time it reaches the high command or the Ministry of Defense, they haven’t a clue what is going on.” The Pakistan general heading the mission concluded that the high command in Cairo was sitting on top of a pyramid of lies. The Pakistan government therefore declined and said it was sorry but could not help.  


Is becoming Pakistan the best Egypt can hope for?

Eurasia’s Ian Bremmer thinks so, saying SCAF’s challenge is to rig the appearance of a civilian government just right :

Today, the main difference with Pakistan’s military is that Egypt’s is now seen as responsible for the day-to-day functioning of governance. The generals will once again go for the Goldilocks approach to forming a civilian government, one that is not too strong but not too weak. It has to be resolute enough to earn a reputation for competence (this is where Mursi and the Muslim Brotherhood fell short), but docile enough to not sideline the military or curb its privileges. Most importantly, the new government needs to seem sufficiently independent to take flak and “own” the blame for any economic woes. The last thing the military wants is for the next wave of protestors to aim their anger at the army.

Can the military pull this off? Can it empower a government that earns enough public confidence to restore stability to the country and allows the military to distance itself from economic management and domestic politics?

A definition of excessive force

AP, reporting on yesterday’s killing of at least 50 Muslim Brotherhood supporters: 

The shootings Monday of Morsi supporters prompted questions about whether troops used excessive deadly force, an accusation the military dismissed as unfair.

“What excessive force? We were dealing with people shooting at us with live ammunition,” chief military spokesman Co. Ahmed Mohammed Ali told The Associated Press. “It would have been excessive if we killed 300.”

Confident in the army’s position, Ali asked those at a televised news conference to stand in silence to mourn the dead. Later he expressed regret for the loss of life, but did not accept blame for the killings.

Reuters confirms Sudan air strike

Reuters is now independently confirming the Sudan air strike story:

Aircraft destroyed suspected Sudan arms convoy – officials | Reuters:

“KHARTOUM, March 26 (Reuters) – Unidentified aircraft attacked a convoy of suspected arms smugglers as it drove through Sudan toward Egypt in January, killing almost everyone in the convoy, two senior Sudanese politicians said on Thursday.

The politicians, speaking on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue, told Reuters the strike took place in a remote area in east Sudan but did not say who carried it out.

Media reports in Egypt and the United States have suggested U.S. or Israeli aircraft may have carried out the strike. Sudan’s foreign minister Deng Alor told reporters in Cairo on Wednesday he had no information on any attack.

Any public confirmation of a foreign attack would have a major impact in Sudan, where relations with the West are already tense following the International Criminal Court’s decision this month to issue an arrest warrant for President Omar Hassan al-Bashir on charges of Darfur war crimes.

Egyptian independent newspaper Al-Shorouk quoted ‘knowledgeable Sudanese sources’ this week as saying aircraft from the United States were involved in the strike, which it said killed 39 people.

The U.S. Embassy in Khartoum on Thursday declined to comment. Sudan remains on a U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism, but the State Department has said that Sudan is cooperating with efforts against militant groups.

U.S.-based CBS News, however, reported on its website on Wednesday that its security correspondent had been briefed that Israeli aircraft had carried out an attack in eastern Sudan, targeting an arms delivery to the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas in Gaza.

A senior Israeli defence official on Thursday described the report as nonsense.

Previously discussed here and here.

Update: Haaretz provides analysis, taking as assumption that it was an Israeli strike. Watch out for this issue being raised in a few hours at the State Dept. Daily Press Briefing – although I suspect we’ll hear more about this from off-the-record sources in the next few days.

CBS says Israel, not US, behind Sudan strike

More on that alleged air strike in Sudan targeting weapons shipments to Gaza:

– The Sudan Tribune said yesterday it was the US, but today that it’s Israel based on a report by the American TV network CBS.

– Haaretz carries the CBS story and says it’s part of the MOU on arms smuggling inked between the US and Israel at the end of Operation Cast Lead. The Haaretz article adds:

Meanwhile, in May, an international conference is scheduled to take place in Ottawa, the third of its kind since the end of Operation Cast Lead, which will discuss how to prevent arms smuggling from Iran to the Gaza Strip.

In addition to host Canada, Britain, Spain, France, Germany, Italy, Norway, Denmark, the U.S. and Israel will also take part.

Immediately after the conference a “war game” is scheduled to take place in Washington, with the participation of security officials and diplomats from the countries involved. The “war game” will practice a scenario of foiling arms smuggling from Iran to the Gaza Strip.

The most recent conference took place in London a week ago and the countries cooperating in blocking the arms smuggling from Iran formulated a joint plan of operations. The plan includes the signing of a series of bilateral agreements with countries situated along the path of the smugglers, as well as countries whose commercial fleets carry cargo from Iran elsewhere.

One interesting thing in the Sudan Tribune article is that it said something about the planes coming from Djibouti. That would put the French on the suspect list too!

At least it now appears that an air strike did happen (although casualty reports are around 40, not 300) – and confirms the reports from intelligence circles that the smuggling route for Hamas’ weapons is indeed from or through Sudan, through Egypt (a whole other story: how do they keep under the radar, especially in Sinai?), possibly originating from the horn of Africa.

al-Shorouk’s story on secret Sudan raids

The relatively new Egyptian newspaper al-Shorouk has been making some news yesterday, reporting that the US air force had been engaged in a series of attacks against convoys of trucks carrying arms in Eastern Sudan. The destination of the trucks, apparently, was Gaza via Sinai. Needless to say this is a huge story, not only because it would appear to confirm allegations that Hamas is obtaining Iranian-purchased arms via Sudan (and probably originally Djibouti) and that they are being smuggled through Sinai and the Rafah tunnels. It followed up on the story today alleging that US Air Force raids had claimed 300 lives.

The reason we’ve never heard about any of this, apparently, is that the US is not advertising the operations, the al-Bashir regime in Khartoum has declared a media blackout, and Egypt is respecting the blackout but keeping a close eye since this involves major arms traffic (it’s an old route, once used by the French poet Rimbaud) going through its territory. Today al-Shorouk said that an Egyptian intelligence agent visited the area to verify the issue.

I’ve been talking about this with a few people who closely follow the news yesterday and we’re all rather skeptical at this point. Some of the Egyptian press (not necessarily al-Shorouk though, as far as I know) has a bad reputation for pulling things out of thin air or basing them on unreliable disinformation websites like Debka. This would be a huge, world scoop if it turns out to be true, involving so many of the region’s hottest issues: arms trade, illegal US operations, Hamas’ supply line, Iran, Sudan and its recently indicted president. The story also assumes that a convoy of trucks carrying weapons (presumably the Grad rockets Hamas is launching against Israel) are able to make their way through Egypt, which seems impossible without the cooperation of the government or serious wasta up high. (That being said, drugs use the same route, and small arms did come from Sudan during the Islamist insurrection of the 1980s and 1990s.)

So basically, either al-Shorouk got it wrong, or it has revealed the first secret military actions of the Obama administration to control the arms smuggling to Gaza issue – as the Bush administration had promised Israel in the MOU it signed in mid-January. I’m a skeptic, but I’ll be watching how this develops.