Arab Armed Forces: State Makers or State Breakers?
Jordanian military police, 2013.

Proliferation and intensification of coercive force in the Arab world since 2011, combined with apparent decay of Arab states, seems at first glance to run counter to the implicit predictions of two relevant bodies of literature. The modernization school, which emerged as Arab states were becoming independent in the 1950s, held that Arab militaries were state builders—mobilizing, integrating, and organizing their societies to face development challenges, including that of inter-state war.[1] More or less simultaneously, European-focused historical sociology, led by Charles Tilly, made the case that war making, requiring as it does increased domestic extraction coupled with subordination to central authority of internal rivals, was the engine of state making.[2] And indeed, the historical trajectory of the Arab world for some half a century up until 2011 seemed to substantiate both views, as militaries and states grew in tandem under the ever present threat of war.

The near collapse over the past four years of both militaries and states in Syria, Libya, Iraq, and Yemen, however, calls into question the interpretation of the military as socioeconomic modernizer and state maker. Egypt, although not facing imminent state collapse, seems also to be a case where military-led state building has failed, as suggested by the army’s direct seizure of power in 2013, thereby implicitly admitting the shortcomings of the army’s state building project that commenced with the 1952 coup. The monarchies have behaved ostensibly as the European historical model would predict, redoubling their efforts to further expand military capacities in the face of various threats. However, those efforts have not been coupled with intensified domestic extraction nor with effective state building, suggesting that these patrimonial political systems are becoming militarily top heavy and hence politically unbalanced. Arab militaries, in sum, whether in direct control or as agents of ruling monarchs, appear not to have fulfilled their promise as state builders, and four formerly military-dominated Arab states have already lost their monopoly over the legitimate use of coercion within their borders, the essential defining component of statehood. Why then has the hypothesized link between war, armed forces, and state building broken down in the Arab world and what, if any, alternative routes remain open to reinforcing or reconstructing effective Arab nation states?

A closer look at the state building literature reveals disagreement over the interpretation of Arab militaries as potential state builders. Curiously, the literature explicitly focused on Arab militaries was more optimistic about their state building capacities than were the assessments by historical sociologists.[3] Tilly, for example, cautioned that “the extension of the Europe-based state-making process to the rest of the world…did not result in the creation of states in the strict European image.”[4] The reason for this, he explained, lies in the nature of the respective militaries. In Europe, building strong militaries required “forging of mutual constraints between rulers and ruled,” whereas postcolonial states “acquired their military organization from outside,” with those external providers continuing to “supply military goods and expertise in return for commodities, military alliance or both.” As a result these militaries “overshadow all other organizations within their territories,” thereby creating enormous “incentives to seize power over the state as a whole.” He concludes that “the old national states of Europe almost never experienced the great disproportion between military organization and all other forms of organization that seems the fate of client states throughout the contemporary world.” In sum, militarization produces effective, participatory states only if it needs them to extract societal resources. If those resources are provided otherwise, say by internally or externally generated rents, such as foreign assistance or oil exports, militarization will produce states more analogous to “organized criminals,” to use Tilly’s term, than to the European state prototype.[5]

Alas, Arab nation states fit into Tilly’s paradigm of dependent, postcolonial states with overgrown militaries subsisting off of “tribute” rather than generating and extracting economic surplus. These are militaries at war with their own societies, not developers of them or of states that would serve societal interests. So when the balance of power between military and society was dramatically tipped in favor of the latter throughout much of the Arab world in 2011, the malformed states caught in the middle weakened yet further, as in the case of Egypt, or essentially disappeared, as in Libya, Syria, Yemen, and even Iraq. As extensions of patrimonial monarchial rule, the states of the Gulf Cooperation Council, Jordan, and Morocco were pulled yet tighter into the royal embrace and further militarized to counter perceived domestic and regional threats.

As states weakened, vanished, or became more militarized, societal longing for “protection” increased, as Tilly also predicted.[6] Such longing has manifested itself in at least two, contradictory ways. One has been that of desertion, metaphorically but also literally, from the state and its coercive forces, into the arms of opposing coercive forces typically based on organic social solidarities such as sect, tribe, or locale. The other is the ultimately self-defeating strategy of seeking protection from the very institution responsible for state decay—the military. Public opinion polling worldwide consistently reveals higher levels of support for, and confidence in, militaries than in civilian institutions of government, including parliaments, executives, and frequently, legal-judicial systems. In the Arab world this disjunction has traditionally been even more pronounced, as suggested by a 2011 poll in 12 Arab countries in which 71 percent of respondents professed trust in their national armed forces, compared to 47 percent in the government and 36 percent in their legislatures.[7] In Egypt, polls typically reveal that strongly positive images of the military are held by around 90 percent of respondents, a proportion only exceeded in the Arab world in Jordan. Although this figure dropped somewhat in Egypt as the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) was mishandling the transition in 2011-2012, it rebounded thereafter.[8] The lowest levels of trust in militaries in Arab countries are not surprisingly found where the “desertion” rates are highest, including Iraq and Yemen (there is no similar polling data for Libya and Syria).

Left unprotected by malformed states long subordinate to militaries, Arab publics cower under either anti-state militias or their states’ militaries, hoping for the best and having little if any confidence in civilian institutions of governance. These are not propitious circumstances in which to commence a renewed effort at state building, but it is possible that the widespread longing for protection combined with other factors, ranging from societal exhaustion to triumph by state challengers, could provide impetus for such an effort. The trick, however, is to reconcile the provision of protection by a coercive force, on the one hand, with state building that subordinates that force to civilian control, on the other. The failure thus far to resolve this dilemma in the different types of Arab states is the subject of the remainder of this paper.

Bunker Praetorian Republics: Libya, Yemen, Syria, and Iraq

Clement Henry and I labelled as bunker praetorian republics those Arab states ruled metaphorically and even physically by bunkered political elites drawn from minority social forces. Such forces were found presiding over historically anomalous states and fragmented societies that rendered the problem of institution building even more challenging than their checkered histories would suggest.[9] The militaries built by these bunkered elites reflected these conditions. Large but poorly institutionalized, they cloaked the kita‘ib, or battalions made up of regime loyalists officered by those with close, personal, and typically blood ties to the ruler. One or more sons of Hafez al-Assad, Saddam Hussein, Muammar al-Qaddafi, and Ali Abdullah Saleh all served in this capacity. When the Libyan, Yemeni, Syrian, and Iraqi militaries melted away, it was these kita‘ib that remained, typically bolstered by militias hastily mobilized and with foreign support. In Libya, kita‘ib residues live on in tactical alliances with militias originally organized for or even against Qaddafi, as they do in Iraq where they have made common cause with the Islamic State (ISIS) and other anti-regime forces. In Yemen, Saleh’s son and nephew command kita‘ib presently, fighting alongside Ansar Allah, the Houthi militia. In Syria, the kita‘ib led by the Assad family and clan members are, as in the other three countries, increasingly in support roles to the ever more powerful militias, which in this case are Hezbollah and other Iranian-supported forces. These then are Hobbesian worlds into which these quasi-professionalized, semi-institutionalized militaries have now dissolved, leaving militias, remnants of the once powerful kita‘ib, and gangs for hire, much in the pandilla tradition of Latin America, struggling for territorial control.[10]

These are hardly firm foundations upon which to rebuild even what states were once there, to say nothing of more effective, institutionalized, inclusive ones. But hope springs eternal and in direct relation to the distance from the conflict. Washington and Brussels initially sought in Libya, Yemen, and Iraq to rebuild at least components of national militaries, but in the first two cases have given up, and in the third nearly so. In Syria the joint effort to stitch together an effective, broad-based, moderate opposition coalition has thus far failed. As the difficulty of building militaries in the absence of something resembling national or even opposition political consensus has slowly dawned on decision makers in these faraway capitals, they have turned to two hybrid strategies. One is to attempt to induce those currently in power to form “national guards” based on the American model of locally recruited reserve forces, implicitly thought to be analogous to General David Petraeus’s successful “surge” in Iraq in 2007, in which tribal levies were mobilized into the fight against anti-government insurgents.[11] The other strategy has been to accept the inevitable conclusion that weak, non-inclusive political authorities cannot build strong militaries, leaving the only alternative as support for militias organized by the incumbent government or its challengers and foreign backers, as is the case in Iraq, Syria, and possibly also Yemen and Libya. The issue of how these sub-state coercive forces might subsequently be integrated at the national level has been subordinated to the need to field any forces that might combat those deemed in Washington and Brussels to be enemies, which comprise a steadily growing list.

The desperate straits into which these praetorian republics have sunk is indicated by the emergence of oppositions that have their own, countervailing state building strategies, to say nothing of the proliferation of run-of-the-mill jihadi terrorists. But just as Baghdad and Tobruk, even with Western backing, are unable to impose themselves on their opponents, so too is ISIS unlikely to be able to implement its caliphate on broad swathes of conquered territory, if only because too many forces are arrayed against it. As the struggle between these contenders intensifies, so does ungoverned space expand. Villages and towns, quarters of cities, and even whole regions are now going it alone, as it were, seeking to build their own protective forces.

In these highly contested settings total victory by any force is illusory, at least until absolute societal and economic exhaustion is reached. But an attempt to build a state on the premise either of no victor, no vanquished, as in Lebanon after 1990, or on the ashes of a failed insurgency or state, is fraught with peril, as the Lebanese case itself attests. Truth and reconciliation are not possible in these circumstances, so the best that can be achieved is a subdued, sullen population, awaiting the opportunity to assert itself against the victors who now have the state in their grasp. Alternatively, reconciliation achieved through the historic “democratic compromise,” whereby all warring sides agree that protection through accommodation is better than the hope of ultimate victory, offset as it is by the chance of annihilation, is obviously preferable. In the meantime, hope of ultimate victory continues to propel the contesting forces—a hope sustained by external supporters out of their own motives. But that support is counterproductive if indeed the goal is ultimately to erect a state on the ashes of preceding failures, recognized as such by the contesting parties. So for the praetorian republics, unified coercive forces built upon the foundations of a state representative of its peoples remain a distant dream.

Bully Praetorian Republics: Egypt and Tunisia

Historically, socially, and institutionally, these countries are more “state-like” than the bunker republics, as attested to by the fact that their militaries weathered the storms of the Arab Spring intact. This has led to a dramatic increase in military power in Egypt and even substantially in Tunisia, where the army waits in the wings to see if President Beji Caid Essebsi’s efforts to reconsolidate a bully praetorian regime set off another political reaction.

But it is the Egyptian case that is the more interesting, if only because it is déjà vu all over again. The military under Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s leadership is seeking to rebuild the Nasserist bully state, which was itself in many ways a reconstruction of Muhammad Ali’s version of the same. Maybe it will be a case of third time lucky, but that is unlikely, and not only because military state building has twice failed. The constraints on military state building in 2015 are much greater and the opportunities much fewer than in 1952, to say nothing of 1805. Projection of Egyptian power into the region is not only far more difficult, but as polls show, now opposed by the majority of Egyptians, at least as regards sending expeditionary forces into either Libya or Yemen. Assertion of a breast-beating independence à la Nasser is similarly difficult for Sisi when the national economy is kept afloat by the Saudis, Emiratis, and Kuwaitis. Flirting with Moscow now seems weak rather than bold. Rumors of discontent with Sisi’s leadership within the military grow as the economy flounders and the political system remains in deep freeze. There is and can be no equivalent to the Nasserist ideological agenda. The officer republic has so hollowed out civilian state institutions that they barely function.

In way over its head, the military is simultaneously trying to manage the economy, reconstruct the political system, conduct a counterinsurgency campaign, modernize its own forces, and devise a consistent foreign policy, all without substantial civilian input. That it has farmed out some security duties to private contractors is a manifestation of the military’s overextension, as well as its distrust of and contempt for the Ministry of Interior’s security forces, which now provide only a very thin blue line between protesters and the army. Visibly in charge of the state, the economy, public security, and indeed, everything, the military will be held to account for the ever more evident shortcomings. As state decay under military tutelage progresses, onetime terrorists are morphing into insurgents, claiming to be inspired by the Islamic State’s dream of establishing an alternative to the Egyptian state, an unthinkable proposition even for the radical jihadis of the 1990s, to say nothing of the Muslim Brothers.

More than two centuries of Egyptian state building is now under threat. External support for the Egyptian military only perpetuates the inappropriate model it has perpetrated, further encouraging it to dismiss civilians and to pursue rents rather than to attempt to build a state based on a ruler-ruled relationship that both generates economic surplus and legitimates its extraction. The relationship between the Egyptian military and state is turned on its head, with the latter reporting to the former rather than vice versa. The task facing Egypt is thus to reverse this relationship and so terminate once and for all the national myth of military as state builder.

Monarchies: GCC States, Morocco, and Jordan

Monarchial militaries have undergone four interrelated developments as a result of their rulers’ reactions to the Arab Spring. First, they have been beefed up in men and materiel. Three of the GCC states have introduced conscription, and all have dramatically expanded procurement. Morocco’s military has swelled to over 200,000, and Jordan, with a population of less than eight million, now has some 110,000 regular duty and 65,000 active reserve personnel. Saudi Arabia has become the world’s largest weapons importer, with its $9.8 billion in weapons purchases in 2015 representing a 50 percent increase over the previous year. Its military budget is the world’s fourth largest. The UAE has become the world’s fourth largest arms importer, importing more weaponry than all of Western Europe. Kuwait has built its forces back to 17,000, their size when they dissolved in the face of the Iraqi invasion in 1990. Qatar announced in November 2014 the intent to purchase $23 billion in arms from the UK on top of the $11 billion on order from the United States. Parade ground forces not that long ago, monarchial militaries are in the process of equaling and even surpassing European armed forces in materiel, if not in size.

Three other developments are associated with this monarchial arms race. One is a dramatic increase in attention to interoperability of monarchial forces, as indicated by the intensification of joint military exercises involving virtually all of them at one time or another in the last three years. Ongoing discussions about a Joint Arab Force, agreed to in principle at the 2015 Arab Summit, are also reflective of this trend. A second noticeable change is the deployment of these expanding and increasingly interoperable monarchial armed forces. Saudi, Kuwaiti, and Emirati forces were all involved in the invasion of Bahrain in 2011. The Emirati Air Force has seen action in Libya, while Saudi aircraft continue to pummel Yemen. Special forces from several of the monarchies have conducted support operations in Syria. At no previous time in the history of these countries have so many been more or less simultaneously engaged in expeditionary military activities.

Finally, as monarchial militaries have expanded and cooperated more in regional interventions, so have ruling families become yet more directly involved in them. The highest profile case of a prince being parachuted into military command is that of Mohammed bin Salman, appointed by his father King Salman as Saudi defense minister in January 2015 despite his lack of military training. His cousin, Prince Mutaib bin Abdullah, remains head of the Saudi National Guard. Rumors of his impending dismissal are reflective of intensifying royal competition over military commands, not only in Saudi Arabia but in the monarchies more generally. Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, crown prince of Abu Dhabi and deputy supreme commander of the UAE Armed Forces, also exemplifies growing interconnections between ruling families and their militaries, as well as one of the consequences of those interconnections—the increasing militarization of their country’s foreign policies. Sheikh Mohammed, promoted to general the same month he was made commander of the UAE Armed Forces, has been the architect of the UAE’s increasingly aggressive policies not only in the Gulf, but as far afield as Libya and Syria.

A key question in the monarchies is what impact this militarization might have on the exercise of power within them and on their state building trajectories. One possible outcome is to intensify and render more violent intra-ruling family power struggles, especially those over succession. With more princes having their fingers on triggers, the possibility that they will pull them during domestic struggles grows. A less likely possibility is that Samuel P. Huntington’s 1968 prophesy will belatedly be realized, that is, that coups will dump Arab monarchies into the dustbins of history.[12] Having learned from the experiences that converted other Arab monarchies into republics years ago, surviving monarchs have assiduously coup-proofed their militaries. While recent militarization may test the many layers and methods of control, the increasing engagement of royal families in command positions also militates against commoner officers seizing power and declaring republics. And even if officers managed to do so, could they pull their societies behind them in the wake of regicides? After all, these Arab monarchies have essentially built states around their patrimonial rule, so orchestrating the transition to modern republics would be quite a challenge for a group of military officers.

Thus while militarization of monarchies is unlikely to lead to their transition to republics any time soon, it may well place increasing strain on intra-ruling family relations. Those strains may in turn propel yet more militarization out of both princely competition and family desires to legitimate their dynasties. Already many are interpreting the Saudi intervention in Yemen in these terms, ordered as it apparently was by the young minister of defense against the backdrop of his father’s new reign. And as is the case with the republics, external actors are contributing to state building challenges in the monarchies rather than helping to address them. Delivering arms and other military support propels the lopsided growth identified by Tilly as the chief cause of state malformation in postcolonial settings.

Democracy: Lebanon

As is the case in the non-democratic republics, Lebanon’s military is basically the only state institution left standing, as measured by public support and the comparative capacities of civilian institutions. The presidency has been vacant for more than a year and the parliament logjammed for yet longer. The civil service and court system have never functioned well, if at all. Into this institutional vacuum the military has been drawn, becoming among other things the primary recruitment channel for the presidency. Two of the three presidents since the end of the civil war previously served as commander in chief of the army. Unlike the other republican militaries, however, the Lebanese army remains a parade ground force not only because it is relatively small and underequipped, but because internal confessional divisions coupled with the countervailing Hezbollah militia renders force deployment problematical. The presidential ambitions of General Jean Kahwaji, the current commander in chief, also militate against the military being used for any purpose that would alienate an important constituency. So the military is a remnant of Lebanese statehood, and a shaky one at that. How the provision from France of $3 billion worth of arms, paid for by the Saudis, will impact these delicate relations within the military and between it and society remain to be seen. But what is already certain from historical experience in Lebanon and the other republics is that building the military rather than the state leads to a developmental dead end.


The mobilization of Arab societies that commenced in Tunisia in December 2010 has pushed the Humpty Dumpty states of Libya, Yemen, and Syria off the wall, with Iraq and maybe even Lebanon perilously close to falling. Meanwhile Egypt is in the clutches of an inept military steadily undermining the already weakened state it seized, and all the monarchies are muscling up their militaries as their civil societies and civilian institutions wither. The challenges then are huge, involving as they do putting Humpty Dumpty failed states back together again, preventing others teetering on the edge from falling, and still others from inadvertently moving perilously close to that edge. In all cases, state weakness results from what Tilly aptly identified as the failure to forge “mutual constraints between rulers and ruled”—the result of overly developed, foreign-supported militaries.

While the cause of the malady of state weakness is easily identified, the cure is hard to find. Building competent, inclusive states requires subordination of coercive forces to civilian institutions. In every Arab country the balance of power is presently shifting in the opposite direction as militaries, militias, kita‘ib, private security firms, and baltagiya (thugs)—the Arab equivalents of Latin American pandillas—join the spreading fray. Absent effective states, populations are forced to seek their protection from the very coercive forces that threaten them in true mafia-like style, a model that ISIS has imitated most thoroughly and effectively. The tide, in sum, is running against the type of inclusive, extractive states that warfare in Europe helped to create.

This tide cannot be reversed soon or easily. But since it depends heavily upon external interventions in the form of support for coercive forces, at least its momentum can be slowed by adjustments to those interventions. At a minimum, some semblance of balance needs to be restored to Western assistance. Bolstering civilian organizations and institutions and facilitating political compromises need far more attention and resources, while militaries, militias, national guards, and other coercive forces need less. Western-inspired and supported counterinsurgency and counterterrorism strategies have been stripped of their humanitarian support and state building components, leaving only coercion as the means by which order is to be restored. The sad history of postcolonial Arab states should be sufficient demonstration that imbalance between coercive and non-coercive forces undermines states and the political order and development only they can deliver. Arab militaries have broken states, not successfully built them. Before they break any more it is time to seek other, or at least additional, means of building Arab states.

[1] For reviews of this literature, see Florence Gaub, “Arab Armies—Agents of Change?: Before and After 2011,” Chaillot Papers, Institute for Security Studies of the European Union, March 2014, 16-17; and Robert Springborg, “Arab Militaries,” in Marc Lynch, ed., The Arab Uprisings Explained: New Contentious Politics in the Middle East (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014), 142-159.

[2] Charles Tilly, ed., The Formation of National States in Western Europe (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1975); and Charles Tilly, Coercion, Capital, and European States: AD 990-1992 (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1990).

[3] See in particular Manfred Halpern, The Politics of Social Change in the Middle East and North Africa (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1963). 

[4] Charles Tilly, “War Making and State Making as Organized Crime,” in Peter Evans, Dietrich Rueschemeyer, and Theda Skocpol, Bringing the State Back In (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 169-187.

[5] Tilly, “War Making and State Making as Organized Crime,” 186.

[6] Tilly, “War Making and State Making as Organized Crime,” 170-172.

[7] Cited in Gaub, “Arab Armies--Agents of Change?,” 16-17.

[8] For a review of the relevant polling data, see Robert Springborg “The Man on Horseback,” Foreign Policy, July 2, 2013,

[9] Clement M. Henry and Robert Springborg, Globalization and the Politics of Development in the Middle East (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010).

[10] For pandillas and their roles in Latin American politics, see Thomas C. Bruneau, “Pandillas and Security in Central America,” Latin American Research Review 49, 2 (2014): 152-172,

[11] For a review of these efforts in Iraq and Libya, see Frederic Wehery and Ariel I. Ahram, “Taming the Militias: Building National Guards in Fractured Arab States,” Carnegie Paper, May 7, 2015,   

[12] Samuel P. Huntington, Political Order in Changing Societies (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1968).