Military Institutions and Poor Governance in the Arab World

The latest Arab Opinion Index (AOI) from the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies (ACRPS) in Doha, Qatar, reveals an interesting combination of views about the level of confidence Arab citizens have in their countries’ institutions. Eighty-eight percent of citizens in 13 Arab countries whose populations total some 340 million have either a high or moderate degree of confidence in the armed forces, 76 percent in state security organizations such as the police and general security forces, 71 percent in Sharia courts, and 69 percent in judicial authorities. Government ministries, local media outlets, and private sector companies are each trusted by 59 percent of respondents, while municipal and national representative councils garnered 54 percent and 47 percent confidence, respectively.

Strange as it is to see Arabs who yearn for democracy (77 percent believe a democratic system is appropriate for their countries) and reject military rule (only 35 percent believe it is appropriate), it is not hard to understand the reasons why these respondents still have a positive view of their countries’ armed forces. First, military institutions have been prominent in many Arab societies for decades and they appear to be well-run, professional organizations. That many of them––such as the Egyptian––are also powerful economic actors that challenge civilian authorities for projects and revenues is not a well-known fact among the populace. Such ignorance of the military’s self-interest escapes ordinary citizens, who only see military service as an honorable profession, one that is not pursued for personal benefit by dedicated public servants.

Second, in most Arab countries, armies are not used for domestic control, although they are always expected to be reserve forces for regime stability. Instead, paramilitaries, police forces, and intelligence apparatuses are the autocratic states’ first line of defense against public protest—thus the lower level of confidence in these institutions apparent in the poll. Security services oversee public life, control public opinion and spaces, and are on the lookout for dissent; their overwhelming response to opposition is usually sufficient to maintain regime control. Armies are only called upon when the challenge to security services becomes too powerful.

Third, armies in the Arab world are public sector employers of millions of young adults. Some countries institute mandatory military service for different lengths of time, increasing their social reach among many sectors of the population. By employing millions, military institutions extend deep into Arab family life and become essential for achieving a better standard of living. Additionally, by involving volunteers from all walks of life, militaries serve as socializing agents and perform a function of national unity and cohesion—although there have been instances when these very volunteers turn on their communities if they were ordered to do so by the authoritarian regimes they serve.

The fact remains, however, that military institutions in Arab societies––and especially when they are lumped in with security services––are arguably the toughest impediments to democratic development. Over the last decade, such armies as the Egyptian, Syrian, Sudanese, and Algerian, to name a few, have alone played central roles in overturning the will of the people when protests demanded radical political changes that could usher in representative government. To date, these institutions are either involved in the violent suppression of movements for change or are guarding authoritarianism. Therefore, what can explain their high approval rating among Arab respondents is probably the latter’s apparent preference for law and order during uneasy and unstable times.

On the other hand, and highlighting a dearth of faith in the capacity of state institutions to improve daily life, are low approval ratings for these institutions in Arab societies regarding economic performance and good governance. More than a quarter of respondents reported that their incomes are insufficient for their basic necessities. This translates into scores of millions of destitute Arabs living on what their dependent and poor performing economies can spare. Only the Gulf region (there, the survey gathered data from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Qatar) reported majorities that are satisfied with their economic conditions, and for obvious reasons: energy-rich Gulf states have a social contract with their citizens that assures them of their well-being. By contrast, people of the Levant/Mashreq countries (the AOI polled the eastern Mediterranean states of Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine, and Iraq) reported the worst economic conditions among all countries surveyed.

Very disheartening also are responses about bad or dire economic conditions in Tunisia (85 percent) and Sudan (76 percent). The former represents the Arab world’s only successful transition to democracy and the latter is in the throes of an existential conflict between remnants of an autocratic military regime and civilian aspirants to a democratic system. In both countries, improved economic conditions are essential ingredients to help them make the desired shift to more hopeful political development.

To be sure, Tunisians should be commended for continuing to respect the fundamentals of their transition bargain after the end of authoritarianism despite economic stresses on the current body politic. For their part, the Sudanese are in the middle of a political transition that could unravel anytime if the military institution decides that it alone should be in charge of the country, selling itself as the guarantor of stability and order. It is important to assert that neither country’s economic situation was satisfactory at the time of change from authoritarianism. Indeed, it was the rampant corruption, deteriorating standards of living, personalistic government, and violations of human rights that prompted the protests to demand change from autocratic rule.

Additionally, 57 percent of respondents in the aggregate said that the most pressing issues in their lives are unemployment, poverty, and inflation. Another 10 percent highlighted safety, security, and political stability. Disturbingly, a combined 62 percent of respondents aged 18 to 34 want to emigrate, primarily for economic reasons. More than a quarter of Arabs living outside the Gulf region want to leave their countries; the ratio for the Gulf was only 5 percent. There can be no doubt that these numbers on emigration dovetail with the data exposing poor economic conditions in all the countries, except for those in the oil-rich Arabian Peninsula.

This causality gets a helping hand from the survey’s results regarding good governance. Fifty percent of the Arab public views negatively their governments’ performance in foreign policy, economic development, and overall public policy. These findings have been practically unchanged since the launch of the Arab Opinion Index in 2011. Ninety-one percent of respondents believe there is corruption in their countries; the highest ratios are in the countries of the Levant while the lowest are in the Gulf. Importantly, 43 percent of respondents (the highest ratio) believe that politicians contribute the most to the proliferation of financial and administrative corruption. Perhaps this and the widespread lack of political liberties increase the general feeling of apathy among the Arab public, most of whom are usually busy trying to best deal with poor economic conditions and an absent representative government.

ACRPS’s survey of Arab public opinion is an eye opener on a region suffering from the scourges of economic, political, and social maladies brought about by authoritarian governments, largely failed governance, and inattentive institutions and politicians. But only by highlighting and publicizing these results can the Arab public and international actors devise actionable responses. It is hoped that these responses come sooner rather than later so that the Arab world can join the rest of the international community on the road to sustainable development. From the results of this survey, it appears that this road should begin with steps toward a transition from authoritarian rule to democratic politics, ones that can address the other developmental issues awaiting proper solutions.

Imad K. Harb is the Director of Research and Analysis at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Imad and read his previous publications click here