Fifty academics from across the Arab region and beyond congregated in Doha to explore the scope for the involvement of Arab militaries in political democratization, and the wider modernization of the Arab nation-state. Held on October 1-3, 2016 at the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies, “The Army in Politics During the Transition to Democracy in the Arab World” afforded scholars a chance to elaborate on these themes in a series of specialist sessions which took in Arab countries as well as Turkey. Two keynote lectures by Azmi Bishara and Zoltan Barany broadly defined the terms of the three-day conference. Bishara’s opening lecture provided the audience with a broad historical overview on how professional Arab armies took shape and how they were primed to take charge of political affairs.

“There is no such thing as an army without politics” said Bishara, who noted the futility of attempting to draw a boundary between the military and the political realm. “If the aim of the army is to preserve national security, then that too must be a political role, then that itself is inseparable from politics”, he stressed in his keynote address.

Professionalized armies were pioneered in the Middle East—in the shape of the Janissaries within the Ottoman Empire—and later became the avenue for modernity and technology, with military colleges in Istanbul being the earliest institutions to offer education in engineering. With the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the peoples of the region looked to professionally trained soldiers to protect their countries from colonialism. Even in cases such as Syria, where the armies were largely shaped by colonial powers, officers were often cast in the role of national savior to help drive out foreigners. This was a theme picked up on the first day of the conference by Khalid Ziade, the Head of the ACRPS Beirut Office, whose paper concentrated on the biographies of three major figures of the Arab nationalist movement: Fauzi Kaoukji; Yousef Azema; and Aziz Al Masri.

As a result of the social structures formalized and later exploited by colonial powers, the societal composition of Arab armies often failed to reflect the broader societies of their countries. The clearest example of this is found in Jordan, said ACRPS Executive Director Mohammad Almasri. Almasri explained how it was a British officer, John Glubb, better known as “Glubb Pasha”, who was tasked with forming the Arab Legion which would form the nucleus of the Jordanian army. Glubb Pasha’s force was drawn from a select group of exclusively nomadic, pastoralist Bedouin clans—even members of clans which had only become sedentary farmers in the preceding generation were prohibited from serving in Glubb’s forces. As a result, explained Almasri, Jordanians whose roots were tied to long established farming communities in Jordan or across the Jordan River in Palestine, were left out of one of the nation’s most important institutions. The Palestinian Nakba was short to change this, however, and to overturn the notion widely accepted by Western scholars, that Jordan’s military was unique in the Arab region for being politically isolated from wider Jordanian society.

According to Almasri, the commissioning of large numbers of Palestinians who had fought in the earliest battles against the then-nascent Zionist state into the Jordanian forces created a more politically activist officer class. Following their early contacts with Abdelkarim Kassem, an Iraqi officer who removed the Hashemites from power in Iraq in 1958, a coterie of Jordanian officers created the Free Officers Movement in their own country, borrowing the name of the group of officers instigating the overthrow of the Egyptian monarchy in 1952, and which movement had been mimicked across the region. Although the Free Officers and a number of other similar groupings in later years failed to alter Jordan’s system of government, they represented a model of a military free of foreign involvement—following the dismissal of British supervising officers including Glubb himself in 1952.

 Across the Arab region, public opinion has been generally receptive to and supportive of increasingly wider political roles for the militaries. As Algerian researcher Yasser Djazaerly explained on the final day of the conference, experiences from across the globe have shown that confidence in the military is often key to the emergence of democracy. Citing the findings of the ACRPS Arab Opinion Index, Djazaerly also pointed out that such confidence was particularly high across the Arab world. In fact, the military is often the most highly trusted state institution across many Arab countries, in some cases the only well trusted state institution. Panelists on the special discussion devoted to the Algerian case emphasized the centrality of the country’s military in maintaining continuity for the Algerian state as well as its (eventual) transition to democracy. This leaves open the question of why Arab militaries, which have so far gained massive public support, failed to help their countries transition to democracy. It could be that the “ecstasy” of political power, as described by Azmi Bishara during his keynote address, was simply too much for them to give up. Or, perhaps, it’s the corollary of this which was the exception to the rule. In the words of Zoltan Barany, “It’s easy to be democratic and loveable when you’re very rich and you don’t have a strong army and nobody expects [your army] to get involved in much”—underscoring for the audience that the presence or absence of democracy was due to a combination of economic development and good fortune as with the intentions of military generals.