In the last decade, uprisings, civil wars, the emergence of defense networks, such as Shia militias, and transnational jihadi threats have transformed the relationship between the army and society in Arab states. Military actors—both armies and militias—have regained a decisive role in daily political life. A recent example of this includes state-led responses to the Coronavirus pandemic. Armies have played an essential role in the implementation and enforcement of lockdowns, curfews, and in providing health and essential services in countries such as Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Jordan, and Oman. Also, in some cases, such as in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq, these state-led responses coexist or coordinate with militias.
In light of fluctuating social and security needs in the region, new analytical lenses are required to frame the interaction between the military and society. These new balances between armies and societies shape different patterns of security governance, affecting state institutional architectures and fostering trajectories of either decentralization or centralization paths. In most of the Arab states, defense structures experienced a recent and noticeable reordering of power relations. This is largely driven by differences in how citizens engage and are mobilized in the military (as volunteers or conscripts) and the implications on evolving national identities.
Three Typologies of Army-Society Relations
The reordering of power relations in Arab defense structures forged three typologies of army-society relations. The first typology consists of armies that are complemented by, or coexist with, militias. The second is comprised of armies complemented by militarized police or elite units, and the third consists of armies operating as the primary defense-drivers. Within fractured states undergoing deep societal divisions, armies either are complemented from below by state-sponsored or institutionalized militias (Syria, Libya, Yemen, Iraq, and Sudan), or they coexist with asymmetric military forces (Lebanon). Yemen provides an example of the first typology. In Yemen, the army battles alongside Southern Transitional Council (STC) loyalist militias against the Houthis, despite their rivalry in Aden and many southern regions. Thus, in this security hybridization pattern, armies and militias combine cooperation and competition depending on their tactical and strategical interests.
In resilient states that exhibit higher levels of institutional capacity and domestic support —such as Morocco, Jordan, and the Gulf monarchies—armies tend to be complemented by national guards or gendarmeries with military status: they fall under the second typology. These armies may also be complemented by elite units, such as the special forces, that are provided with equipment, training, and higher budgets. There are subtle financial and social competitions between armies and these complementary units. For instance, although Morocco’s gendarmerie is attached to the royal army, it reportedly absorbs 22 percent of the military budget, while the army only receives 17 percent. Also, in Jordan, a gendarmerie force was created in 2008 (darak) that was distinct from the army and allowed Jordanians of Palestinian origin to enlist. This provided further arguments to the protest of the retired officers. Comparatively, in army-driven states such as Egypt and Algeria, armies remain the main pillar of the defense structure, representing the third typology. For instance, the bourgeoning gendarmerie of Algeria is integrated into the army. Moreover, the Algerian armed forces directly control the gendarmerie’s counterterrorism force and anti-rebellion units. In this case, the army is not in overt or subtle competition with the gendarmerie.
As theoretical categorizations, these typologies are not fixed boxes. Rather, they can present exceptions resulting from changing power balances within the defense structure. For example, in Tunisia the army has experienced budgetary increases and growing political influence since the ousting of the Zine El Abidine Ben ‘Ali’s police-state. This marks a paradigm shift since the internal security forces, which include the National Guard, have had the upper hand since the Bourguiba presidency. Moreover, Iraq is a case that falls under the first and second typology, as it actually has four armies. Iraq’s checkpoints are an example of the first typology, given that some checkpoints are jointly run by local police, soldiers, and members of the Hashd al Shaabi, who fought together against the “Islamic State.” At the same time, the Iraqi army is complemented by an elite force (the Counterterrorism Service) and an institutionalized militia (the Hashd al Shaabi), both of which fall directly under the prime minister’s office. The army coexists with the Peshmerga forces, who report to the Kurdistan Regional Government; the Iraqi constitution recognizes these forces as the guards of the Kurdish federal region.
Volunteers, Conscripts, and National Identity
The way citizens engage with and mobilize within the military is distinct between these three typologies. In the first typology (armies complemented by militias or coexistent with them), volunteerism has become the predominant form of recruitment. Next, in the last few years countries presenting the second typology (armies complemented by militarized police or elite units) have adopted conscription and national military service. In some cases, this is the first time states have used these recruitment tools. Lastly, in the third typology (armies as central pillars of the defense structure), conscription has continued to be in place on a wide basis.
These different recruitment tools frame the army’s role in the evolution of national identities. In fractured states, social recruitment is a bottom-up process that relies mostly on volunteerism (first typology). Willing to fight for a mix of salary, local belonging, ideology, and personal status, militia’s volunteers shape segmented and competing military groups that are otherwise largely homogeneous in terms of geography, religion, and ethnicity. Meanwhile, the army is often comprised of uniform, not community-mixed, brigades. In this kind of army-society relationship, conscription has almost entirely lost its traditional role of national socialization, although conscription is still implemented in Sudan (in conjunction with voluntary military service) and has recently been reintroduced in Syria. Consequently, these military structures lead to different conceptions of national identity vying for prominence within state boundaries. Moreover, sometimes militias, which represent imagined and rival national fragments, exploit nationalist sentiments to promote their strategic interests and ideology. This is evident in how the Hashd al Shaabi plays the role of national defender, and how the Houthis present themselves as protectors of the Yemeni nation against perceived Saudi aggression.
In the case of resilient states, selective recruitment among citizens and the Gulf Monarchies’ use of foreign contract soldiers accompany new opportunities for civil-military relations (second typology). In Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, and Morocco, recruitment has been combined with the introduction of conscription for male citizens. In Jordan, recruitment operates in conjunction with national military service (including one month of military training with the Jordanian Armed Forces). In all of these countries, recruitment is also open to female, either as conscripts or volunteers. As such, the army plays a role in promoting a sense of nationhood and civic responsibility in times of social and economic transformations. Moreover, conscription and national military service are part of top-down national identity projects. Military-related values and symbols are vectors of national belonging, boosting discipline and community engagement among citizens.
Lastly, when the army is the central pillar of the defense structure (third typology), like in Egypt and Algeria, the recruitment process is monopolized from above. As such, conscription is implemented on a wide basis. In these army-driven states, the army overlaps with the core of the state and it embodies national identity values as a post-revolutionary force. This has minimized or impeded alternative narratives of nationhood in these countries so far.
Security Governance and State Trajectories
The reshaping of civil-military relations deeply affects security governance. The three typologies described above entail different patterns of security making, enforcement, and provision: security governance ranges from “network” (involving multiple players) to “centralized” (with or without institutional fragmentation). But these patterns also underline different institutional trajectories: at a formal or informal level, state processes of decision-making and enforcement vary from “decentralization” to “centralization.” In the first typology (fractured states with an army and state-sponsored or institutionalized militias), security governance is highly localized, or decentralized, as units or groups mostly operate in areas with the same or similar confessional or regional belonging. In Yemen, the Security Belt Forces, which mostly operates in Aden and its neighboring areas, provide an example of these dynamics. In this case, armies and militias enforcing anti-pandemic measures highlight the existing pattern of network governance. For instance, the Hashd al Shaabi is engaged in sanitization efforts and assists the army in imposing the curfew across Iraq. Similarly, Hezbollah organized and enforced its health emergency plan in the south of Lebanon, Bekaa Valley, and southern Beirut’s outskirts.
Within the second typology of army-society relations (resilient states with an army complemented by militarized police or elite units), security governance is centralized, although some caveats persist. In this case, centralization in security governance is pursued through institutional fragmentation. The defense structure supports state centralization largely due to well-designed forms of counterbalancing between overlapping defense forces. Such counterbalancing exists in Bahrain between the army and the separate branch of the National Guard. However, this security balance is not static. For instance, the planned integration path between the Saudi army and the National Guard—pursued through transformation teams, purges, appointments, and tighter spending control by Crown Prince and Defense Minister Mohammed bin Salman—reflects the variability in these dynamics. This could place the system of checks and balances, which underpins the top-down strategy of security fragmentation under pressure, and finally undermine the coup proofing function. Lastly, the third typology (army-driven states with armies as main defense pillars) promotes centralized security governance without institutional fragmentation. In this case, the army already exercises significant political control over the whole military field, a product of the perpetuation of revolutionary legacies.
Reassembling Defense Structures
The reshaping of army-society relations sheds light on the growing fragmentation among Arab defense structures. Many military players interact within the defense field. These players negotiate power, the geographical radius of action and, in some cases, political representation. In this framework, defense structures in Arab states today are primarily heterogenous; at the same time, in states where the army is the main defense pillar (third typology), the defense structure is unified. In the first typology (armies complemented by or coexistent with militias), security hybridization formalizes a multiplicity of local defense actors in fractured states. This pattern of security governance is the effect of centrifugal claims. However, it also supports some form of ground federalism which coalesces around “militiadoms,” given the absence, or the limits, of federal processes managed by central authorities who are widely considered illegitimate. The local enforcement and governance of anti-COVID-19 measures is likely to strengthen this trend. Some of these multiple defense structures, such as those in Lebanon and Iraq, have the potential to transform into dual systems, as a consequence of formal, or informal, political agreements.
In the second typology (armies complemented by militarized police and /or elite units), the defense structure is dual1 due to pervasive top-down choices aimed at ensuring regime stability in remaining resilient states.2 However, intermittent social protests requiring strengthened street control by gendarmerie-like bodies or centralizing leadership with nationalist messaging can alter this balance, as evidenced by Jordan or Morocco and Saudi Arabia, respectively. This may push duality towards gradual convergence under a unified defense structure, demonstrating the extent to which army-society relations reflect the harmony, or the clash, of players’ strategic interests within the political field.
Eleonora Ardemagni is an associate research fellow at the Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI)and a teaching assistant at the Catholic University of Milan. She co-edited with Yezid Sayigh “Hybridizing Security: Armies and Militias in Fractured Arab States,” ISPI-Carnegie Middle East Center Dossier, 2018.
1. The author is grateful to Yezid Sayigh for the reflection on military duality.
2. In the Saudi case, it must be noted that Ikhwan tribal fighters, who played a decisive military role in the stabilization of the kingdom’s state boundaries, were the foundational bulk of the Saudi Arabia National Guard (SANG).