The ability of grassroots movements to mobilize and sustain protests created an unexpected opening for political transition in Sudan and Algeria in the course of 2019. In each case, the acquiescence, if not active collusion, of the armed forces in the ouster of the long-term president they had previously supported reinforced hopes for a new era of pluralist, democratic politics. Exploitation of the coronavirus pandemic during 2020 to entrench authoritarian rule has already tempered such expectations—as it has in many other Arab and non-Arab states—while the intensification of geopolitical rivalries from the Horn of Africa to the Western Sahara has revived the salience of North African militaries. The initial promise of meaningful political change has receded in Algeria, and may yet do the same in Sudan, potentially putting both on the trajectory of Egypt since its 2013 coup d’état and Libya since the start of its civil war in 2014.
How realistic was it in the first place to expect the Sudanese and Algerian armed forces to allow genuine political pluralism, commit irrevocably to the peaceful transfer of power following routine elections, or to obey civilian governments? The history of civil-military relations in these two countries—as in Egypt and Libya, which underwent political transitions in 2011 that were later thwarted—suggests rather that their armed forces would strive at virtually any cost to retain their powerful political position in state institutions and national life, and that they will continue to do so. The retreat of Sudanese and Algerian armed forces in 2019 may have been no more than tactical.
The only reason this question arises at all is that incumbent power elites in all four countries face major socioeconomic challenges they are patently unable to address. Rather than liberalize politics and increase power sharing, region-wide trends suggest that they will instead focus scarce resources on serving increasingly narrow ruling coalitions while compelling their massive public sectors, which for decades formed their principal sociopolitical constituency, to bear the brunt of cuts in wages, services, and welfare. Paradoxically, this makes the military, which represents a major public sector constituency in and of itself, all the more indispensable to the governing coalitions of state institutions. Grassroots protest movements of the kind that overthrew autocratic presidents in Egypt and Libya in 2011 and in Sudan and Algeria in 2019 have lacked the unity and coherence to force deeper, systemic changes on the ruling order.
Factors Shaping Military Politics
The form of authoritarian pacts diverges across these four North African countries, but there is little to suggest such pacts will disappear in the foreseeable future. In each country, military politics will be shaped by four main factors. First is the relationship between the military and the head of state, which has been the principal anchor of authoritarian power and guarantor of regime durability. It is because the military already perceived that incumbent presidents were undermining core understandings or threatening vital interests that popular protest movements were able to precipitate the ouster of former presidents Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and Muammar Qadhafi in Libya in 2011, followed by Omar al-Bashir in Sudan and Abdelaziz Bouteflika in Algeria in 2019. Since then, the military has sought to assert its autonomy from new incumbents in each of these countries, whether through constitutional amendments in Egypt and Algeria or through bargaining and contestation with emerging civilian leaders and rival armed actors in the fragmented political and military landscapes of Libya and Sudan.
Second, the trajectory of military politics is shaped by relations and dynamics within and across the coercive apparatus of the state. In 2011 and 2019, incumbent presidents in these four North African countries were compelled to rely primarily on the police, internal security agencies, and other paramilitary or regime maintenance forces to repress protests when the armed forces refused the task. The military’s stance reflected legacies of rivalry and distrust with these counterparts and in all cases enabled it to claw back political influence. This explains the determination of the Egyptian and Algerian ministries of defense to assert their suzerainty over internal security and intelligence agencies in the post-transition periods, further underpinning their increased autonomy from presidential power. Their Libyan and Sudanese counterparts are constrained by the presence of powerful rival paramilitaries, resulting in more complex three-way bargaining with them and with civilian representatives. In all four countries, contestation between the armed forces and their rivals, competition between cliques and “clans” within the military, and cross-institutional linkages between officers and civilians complicate matters. But in no case do these dynamics exceed the bounds of understandings that underpin governing coalitions, nor do they signal military readiness to dismantle authoritarian power and transition to effective government by civilians.
The distorted development and severely circumscribed autonomy of the private sector constitute the third factor shaping military politics. The legacy of successive phases of economic nationalization and erratic privatization programs—compounded by international sanctions in the cases of Libya and Sudan—has made rent seeking a primary economic mode and generated crony capitalism. This, along with extensive state interventions that continue to corral private economic activity, has incapacitated the business class as a sociopolitical force. Rather than regard it as an ally in the ruling political order, the military sees the private sector as a potential challenger to the ruling order and seeks to maintain its marginalization. This is why the military has favored new business cronies, even as it facilitated the removal of the cronies of outgoing presidents. As importantly, in each of these four North African countries the military has exploited the resulting underperformance of the private sector, its weak corporate character, and favorable government regulations to emerge as an expansionist and often predatory economic actor in its own right.
Lastly, the trajectory of military politics is affected by the ability of principal domestic actors to leverage foreign support. This primarily means the president and the military, certainly in Egypt and Algeria, with the partial exception of civilian figures such as the prime minister or parliamentary speaker in Libya and Sudan. In the latter two countries, the readiness of foreign governments to endorse and aid select partners among national armed forces and their paramilitary rivals contributes to local perceptions of these forces’ significance and legitimacy and ensures their stake in emerging governing arrangements and civil-military relationships. In
Egypt and Algeria, the ability of presidents to protect relationships with foreign providers of military assistance in the face of international demands to respect human rights or democratize is key to maintaining the loyalty of their armed forces. By securing major arms deals despite budgetary constraints, presidents both demonstrate their utility to the military and counterbalance it. The premium placed by Western governments on counterterrorism and blocking illegal migration, along with geopolitical rivalries with other global and regional powers, promotes the armed forces in domestic power balances, while surges in foreign military assistance further reinforce their autonomy and diminish their accountability to national governments.
These four factors reveal that the military in each of these four North African countries is still years away from relinquishing its preeminent position in the state and politics. Yet these militaries are caught in a prisoner’s dilemma, in which acting in their own self interest cannot produce optimal outcomes. Powerful military actors have no hope of navigating the immense economic and social challenges that generated mass protest movements in 2011 and 2019 and that loom larger than ever in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. These militaries have helped perpetuate the conditions generating these multilevel crises but continue to block meaningful dialogue and impede reforms that could ameliorate the situation, seeing reforms as a threat to their political preeminence and autonomy.
And yet, only the military can challenge the reproduction of authoritarian power. Economic and financial contraction in the post-COVID-19 era could erode the material rewards and understandings that previously underpinned its stake in the ruling order. In this case, the military may be forced to enter unfamiliar terrain, as it has to negotiate with other political and social actors even as it seeks to maintain its privileged status. But a fundamental shift in the mode of governing that involves even a partial military withdrawal is not yet in the offing. For now, the military remains a key partner of ruling elites that employ a mix of naked violence, narrow nationalism, and social exclusion to foreclose negotiation.