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The Muslim world’s meddlesome militaries

Zafar Bangash

Far from fulfilling their responsibility to defend the state’s borders against external enemies, Muslim militaries have perfected the art of conquering their own people. This is what has just happened in Egypt, as in numerous other countries before.

The July 3 military coup in Egypt has once again brought to the fore the meddlesome nature of militaries in the Muslim world. What transpired in Egypt is well known. The military chief and Defence Minister General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi gave the elected President Mohamed Mursi an ultimatum to sort his problems out with the noisy opposition within 48 hours or the military will impose its own roadmap on the country. Legally, al-Sisi must take orders from the president, not the other way round but those with guns and muscles are not constrained by legal niceties. Al-Sisi’s demand was illegal and if the rule of law were to apply, he would be put on trial for treason. Nobody, however, should expect this to happen in Egypt, or any other Muslim country.

To understand why Muslim countries and indeed countries in the “Third World” are so susceptible to military coups while those in Europe and North America are not, we need to understand the nature of the political systems in these societies. Most “Third World” countries have suffered prolonged periods of colonialism; others — Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Lebanon, Kuwait, UAE, etc. — were created by the colonialists. The political systems in these societies are unstable because they do not represent the interests of the people. The elites, however, have not developed enough sophistication, as those in the West, to allow competing groups to take turns in office. Once in power, each group wants to maximize its control and grab as many resources as possible aware that such an opportunity may not present itself again. In the West, competing elites have developed mechanisms whereby they are willing to share power. Western militaries are part of the elite group, hence the epithet, the “military-industrial complex,” coined by General Dwight D. Eisenhower who served as President of the United States from 1952–1960.

In Muslim and other “Third World” countries, the only organized group is the military. There is another factor also working in their favor: they have deep links with their counterparts as well as ruling elites in the West, especially the US. Since external support is crucial in determining who comes out on top in any society, the military enjoys enormous advantage over its civilian counterparts. The West knows that only a military regime can enforce its writ by force; thus Western elites prefer to deal through militaries rather than civilians regardless of how subservient the latter may be to the West.

It would help to look at the performance of some militaries in the Muslim world to understand their true nature starting with that in Egypt. In 1948, when the illegitimate Zionist entity was forced onto the holy land of Palestine, it aroused concern among Muslims worldwide. The Arabian regimes were also forced to act. The Egyptian army with the help of Ikhwan volunteers tried to prevent the Zionist marauders from occupying Palestine but was defeated. Soon thereafter, the army staged a coup overthrowing King Farouk that ushered in the longest military rule in contemporary Muslim history. General Naguib’s short rule was supplanted by Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser’s, the brain behind the coup that has continued to this day with the brief interregnum of Mohamed Mursi’s presidency (June 30, 2012 –July 3, 2013).

Despite being the sole decision-makers, the Egyptian military suffered repeated defeats in wars against the Zionists in 1956, 1967 and 1973. Thereafter, it decided to abandon fighting the Zionists. In the June 1967 war that lasted a mere six days, the Egyptian army lost the entire Sinai Peninsula and tens of thousands of its soldiers were mercilessly slaughtered by the Zionists. In October 1973, when some Egyptian officers, especially General Mohamed Shadhli, tried to retrieve Egyptian honor, they were betrayed by Colonel Anwar Sadat who was then president of Egypt. The near-victory was turned into a rout from which the Egyptian army was rescued by the Americans but under very humiliating conditions: Egypt must abandon the struggle against the Zionist entity. America brokered the deal and promised $1.3 billion in annual aid, most of it to the military. Lindsay Graham, a staunchly pro-Zionist, anti-Muslim senator openly proclaimed in February 2011 that the $1.3 billion in aid to the Egyptian military was to keep it a staunch US ally and protect the Zionist State of Israel (Associated Press, February 1, 2011).

Not surprisingly, the Zionist regime recoiled in horror at the prospect that the US might terminate its aid to the Egyptian military following the coup that the US refuses to designate as such. It is revealing to note that other militaries in the Muslim world are also deeply attached to US apron strings.

Pakistan’s armed forces are often projected as one of the most professional in the Muslim world. There is little doubt that they are well organized and disciplined. The chain of command within the military is strictly followed. But what about its performance in battle; has the Pakistani military lived up to its reputation as a professional body?

In his book, Friends, not Masters, the first Pakistani military dictator and self-appointed Field Marshal Ayub Khan (1958–1969) proudly claimed that during the grim days of the subcontinent’s partition when millions of people were uprooted and an estimated one million Muslims were slaughtered, Muslim soldiers and officers in the British-dominated Indian Army remained completely neutral. “Discipline” and “neutrality” trumped the lives of a million innocent people! The Pakistani military’s performance on the battlefield must also be evaluated without the tinted glasses of the military. Whether in 1965 or 1971, the Pakistani military’s performance was not up to par, notwithstanding the individual heroism of many young officers and soldiers. The top echelon of the armed forces performed poorly and often displayed cowardice.

In December 1971, some 90,000 Pakistani troops surrendered to the invading Indian army in what was then East Pakistan. This was perhaps the largest surrender of Muslim soldiers in any war in history. Not one commanding officer — General Abdullah Khan Niazi, Commander of troops in the East, who carried the pompous title of “Tiger Niazi,” or General Yahya Khan who was Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces — was court martialled. Why were these generals not held accountable for losing half the country and surrendering en masse to the enemy? A Commission of Inquiry headed by Justice Hamoodur Rahman was set up in 1972 to look into the East Pakistan debacle but its findings never saw the light of day until 2000. Why was such a colossal failure swept under the rug?

Pakistan and Egypt are not unique in this respect. In Indonesia, General Suharto carried out a coup in 1966 against then elected President Ahmed Sukarno. An estimated one million people were slaughtered by the military, a genocide that had the full backing of the American CIA. It was alleged that the people killed were “communists.” Does that justify their killing en masse? Was any trial held to determine whether these million souls were guilty of any crime? Suharto went on to rule until 1998 when he was finally pushed out of power but not without distorting the Indonesian society and entrenching the military in every facet of life from business to real estate. This is not very different from what has happened in Egypt and Pakistan, an aspect that we will consider shortly.

Turkey offers another example of the military’s meddlesome behavior. It was Mustafa Kemal who gave himself the undeserved title of “Ataturk” — father of the Turks — who overthrew Sultan Abdul Hamid and then abolished the khilafah, the last organic link the Ummah had with the institution that had been established after the noble Messenger (pbuh) left this earthly domain. The khilafah was abolished in March 1924 and Turkey went under the control of the military backed by the US. Even when civilian governments came to power, they were frequently overthrown by the military. In 1960, the military overthrew and then hanged Prime Minister Adnan Menderes. Following that, they carried out several other coups against civilian governments until the rise to power of Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Freedom Party (AKP) in 2003. He has moved to curtail the powers of the military as well as the deep state and put almost a “brigade” of top generals and other officers in jail on treason and other charges. The deep state, however, is a lot more difficult to curtail since its roots are in the judiciary, the universities and businesses. Despite his petulance, Erdogan may be the only Muslim leader who has somewhat curtailed the influence of the military but one should not repose too much hope in his ability to ride the tiger.

There is another phenomenon that deserves attention. It has been observed that whenever a civilian head of government has favored any general by appointing him to lead the army, the general has promptly betrayed his benefactor. In 1975, Pakistani Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto bypassed a number of senior generals to appoint Zia ul-Haq as Chief of Army Staff. Bhutto, no angel, was a Machiavellian politician and his choice of Zia was based on keen observation. In 1969–1970, then Brigadier Zia was sent to train the Jordanian army. There he planned and supervised the Jordanian army’s slaughter of Palestinians in September 1970. Once back in Pakistan, Zia was appointed by Bhutto to preside over the court martial of young officers that had planned to carry out a coup in 1973. Their plan was to assassinate Bhutto at a military parade. The young officers held Bhutto responsible for engineering the East Pakistan crisis that led to the December 1971 debacle. They were betrayed and the plot was exposed.

According to several officers who briefed this writer about the coup plan, Major General Zia spoke to the young officers before their court martial. He assured them that if they confessed, he would be lenient with them. The young officers trusted a fellow senior officer hoping he would honor his word. At the court martial, Zia gave them the maximum possible sentences; the young officers suffered horrible torture in Attock Fort, a notorious prison dating back to the days of British colonialism. Bhutto was so impressed by Zia’s loyalty that he elevated him to the top post bypassing several generals hoping he would remain loyal. Two years later, Zia not only overthrew Bhutto in a military coup but also had him hanged on a murder charge. Twenty years later, another general, Pervez Musharraf, betrayed his benefactor, Nawaz Sharif by overthrowing him in a military coup in October 1999. Sharif had bypassed several senior generals to appoint Musharraf to the top spot. While Musharraf is currently facing treason charges, the chances of his conviction appear slim.

A not too dissimilar scenario has played out in Egypt. General al-Sisi was the youngest member of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) headed by Field Martial Mohamed Hussein Tantawi when the uprising against Hosni Mubarak started in January 2011. Tantawi had served Mubarak for decades. Within months of Mursi’s election as president, he asked Tantawi as well as General Sami Enan, head of the army, to resign. Al-Sisi who until then was serving as chief of intelligence, was elevated to the top post and given the defence portfolio. It has been speculated that al-Sisi was chosen over other generals because his uncle was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. Perhaps Mursi thought al-Sisi would be more loyal to the Brotherhood and not undertake any action that would undermine his government. Besides, Mursi went out of his way to give vast powers to the military — no civilian oversight over their budget, no interference in the appointment of senior commanders, etc. — but none of this helped. Al-Sisi betrayed the very man who had elevated him to the top spot.

Mursi ignored some basic points. First, while he was trying to ingratiate himself to the Americans, they found al-Sisi a more reliable partner. After all, al-Sisi had attended courses at American military colleges where lasting friendships are struck. True, Mursi was also educated in the US where he taught but these do not command as much importance as cultivating links with military officers. Second, as the saying goes, kingship knows no kinship. History is full of examples where the son has overthrown his father to grab the throne. One does not have to go back to Mughal history in India to find examples. Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa of Qatar overthrew his father in 1995 to become ruler. Third and most important, the military in every Muslim country has institutional interests that trump all other considerations. Al-Sisi acted in order to safeguard the military’s privileged position in Egypt that the top brass could see would be threatened by continued Mursi/Brotherhood rule.

The Egyptian military, like militaries in all Muslim countries, is more a business empire with its own hotels, apartment buildings and other enterprises, than a fighting force. Over the last two years, the Egyptian economy has suffered severe dislocation. Tourism is down and with frequent protests industrial production has also declined. All this affected the business interests of the military but Mubarak’s cronies engineered the crisis to ensure Mursi’s failure. The military brass acted to preserve their privileges. Not surprisingly, the day after Mursi was overthrown, the Egyptian pound jumped in value and share prices rose dramatically. Whether this trend would continue is contingent on how events unfold in Egypt.

The armed forces of not a single Muslim country with the sole exception of Islamic Iran (because of the Revolutionary Guards) have defeated the enemy in battle. This is true of Egypt as it is of Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Indonesia, etc. Senior officers award themselves medals for participating in military exercises. This explains their chests full of medals when they have never fought an actual war or defeated the enemy. Instead, they feel a periodic itch to conquer their own people. This is what has just happened in Egypt and will no doubt be repeated elsewhere.

Conquering their own people is far easier and carries fewer risks. There is no fear of being wounded, much less getting killed in battle. It must be nice.

Article from

Crescent International Vol. 42, No. 6

Ramadan 23, 14342013-08-01

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