Asia Pacific

From Southeast Asia to Egypt, Tunisia and Syria


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June 30, 2015 15:55 EDT

In comparison to Asia’s history, the Middle East and North Africa is a messy and bloody work in progress.

The Economist recently highlighted the contrast between post-revolt societies in Asia, the Middle East and North Africa. Here, many countries have struggled through prolonged, messy and bloody transitions that are pockmarked by revolt and counter-revolt, sectarianism, the redrawing of post-colonial borders and the rise of retrograde groups as revolutionary forces.

Almost 30 years after they brutally crushed pro-democracy student protests, Korean police are projecting themselves as K-cops—the counterpart of K-pop, South Korea’s most popular cultural export and successful soft power tool. Today, Korean police are largely everything that Middle Eastern and North African security forces are not.

Restructuring Korean police and ensuring that its legitimacy and credibility was publicly accepted was no mean task. Much like Middle Eastern and North African security forces, South Korean police emerged from regime change as the distrusted and despised enforcer of repression that had brutally suppressed dissent, killed hundreds if not thousands and tortured regime critics.

It took almost a decade for Korean police to launch deep-seated structural reform that gave substance to a public relations campaign designed to recast the force’s image and engender public trust. By contrast, transition in the Middle East and North Africa is in its infancy, and given state and institutional resistance, change will likely take far longer than it did in South Korea and Southeast Asia.

Learning Lessons

Even so, there are lessons to be learned from the Asian experience in political transition, which has progressed to the point where South Korea is projecting its K-cops internationally as models of professionalism in crowd control and the management of protest. The Korean police force has ditched the use of tear gas in favor of the lipstick line: unarmed female officers deployed as a front line defense to defuse tensions with protesters. Big-eared cartoon mascots are ubiquitous on all the police’s insignia, including traffic signs.

The message underlying the approach to policing, as well as the marketing campaign, is as much driven by a desire to capitalize commercially on South Korea’s success as it is by a desire to enhance the country’s prestige—the notion that policing in line with standards of freedom of expression, protest and dissent and adherence to human rights is more likely to ensure public order than brute force. Despite the fact that regimes in the Middle East and North Africa largely see heavy-handed repression of dissent as key to their survival, some countries like the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Oman have engaged the Koreans’ advisory services in a bid to put a better face on what remain autocratic regimes.

The appeal to autocracies is that smarter policing reduces the risk of repression boomeranging with resentment of security forces becoming a driver of protest as it did for youth groups in Tunisia, Egypt and Syria. By the same token, the risk for activists is that failure to reform security forces in the immediate aftermath of the toppling of an autocrat by a popular revolt could create the circumstances conducive to a reversal of hard-won political change. Early stage security sector reform would also help enhance the credibility of a post-revolt government and confidence in its sincerity and willingness to initiate structural changes aimed at breaking with the autocratic past.

The failure to reform security forces in Egypt was at the heart of the reversal of the gains of anti-government protests in 2011, which toppled President Hosni Mubarak. Two years later, the police and security forces played a major role in persuading the military to overthrow Mohammed Morsi, Egypt’s first and only democratically elected president, and introduce a dictatorship even more repressive than that of Mubarak.

Political scientist Terence Lee, in his recently published study of military responses to popular protests in authoritarian Asia, used the examples of the brutal repression of protest in Korea in 1987, Burma in 1998 and a year later on Beijing’s Tiananmen Square to argue that the military is the ultimate arbiter of whether a popular revolt succeeds. In doing so, Lee appears to assume that the role of the military and security forces is interchangeable. That may be true for Asian countries like China and Myanmar where police, security and armed forces are effectively branches of the military.

In the Middle East and North Africa, where the military and law enforcement are separate entities with different vested interests, protesters need to play one against the other and adopt different post-revolt strategies toward each of them. The need for differentiation is reinforced by the fact that Middle Eastern and North African leaders, irrespective of whether they hail from a dynasty or the military, distrust their armed forces.

Maintaining Control

To maintain control, Middle Eastern and North African rulers have adopted strategies toward their militaries that include emasculation; provision of economic perks; reliance on elite units populated by members of the ruler’s tribe, clan or family; hiring of mercenary forces; and the creation of parallel armed forces that keep each other in check. Ironically, if Myanmar were in the Middle East or North Africa, it would have been in a category of its own as the only autocracy ruled directly by the military in uniform.

© Shutterstock

© Shutterstock

The flip side of the rulers’ different strategies is that not all Middle Eastern militaries are likely to act as monolithic units in case of a popular challenge to the regime—as was the case in Tunisia and Egypt, and Myanmar in the case of Southeast Asia—or contain a reformist faction strong enough to swing the balance against an autocrat in places such as the Philippines and Indonesia or Syria, Yemen and Libya. In Arab countries where the military was built around tribe, sect and clan, mass protests have descended into civil war or anarchy.

For protesters, forging an alliance with the military is a double-edged sword, particularly in the aftermath of the toppling of an autocrat, when the interests of demonstrators and soldiers diverge. Protesters run the risk of being marginalized, because they are ill-equipped and do not have the time and ability to make the transition from contentious street politics to power and backroom electoral politics.

In a perverse way, Tunisians owe the fact that their country emerged from the Arab Spring relatively successfully to their ousted ruler, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. Under Ben Ali, who rose from the ranks of the security forces, the military saw its budget significantly reduced, its manpower downsized and its top leadership sidelined, if not physically eliminated.

As a result, the interests of the militaries in Tunisia and Myanmar were not dissimilar. In Tunisia, marginalization meant the military had a vested interest in a change of regime that would dismantle the security force state. In Myanmar, liberalization—albeit with retention of some degree of behind-the-scenes control—was needed to eliminate the cost of international isolation for the nation and the ruling generals themselves.

In Egypt, Mubarak’s effort to create a dynasty of his own by grooming his eldest son, Gamal Mubarak, as his successor posed a threat to the military. Not only was Gamal a man who had not risen in the ranks of the military, but he was a neoliberal that threatened the statist interests of the military, the largest force in the Egyptian economy.

Alliances in political transition between militaries and activists tend to be short-term and short-lived. That is evident from the transitions in both Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa. The interests of the two diverge as soon as an autocrat has been toppled.

For the militaries in, for example, Myanmar and Egypt, change was not about the ideals of the revolt, but about restructuring an autocratic system in ways that ensured their vested interests were protected. Myanmar appears to be a process of two steps forward, one step back. Egypt has been one of regression that led it from military rule to the election of the country’s first democratically elected president to a military coup against him and the rise of a repressive regime that makes the Mubarak era look benign.


There are no easy solutions to the management of post-revolt diverging interests. Popular forces do not have the time or the experience to make a quick and effective transition from contentious street politics to the backroom dealings of power or electoral politics. That is true even if layers of civil society that had developed over time in countries like Myanmar played a key role in forming an opportunistic alliance with the military. It is certainly true in the Middle East and North Africa, where the main drivers of the revolt were not the usual suspects—workers and trade unions or political groupings and parties—but what sociologist Asef Bayat called social non-movements such as soccer fans.

Acknowledging the post-revolt divergence of interests, however, does not answer the question of why countries like the Philippines and Indonesia were relatively successful in making a political transition toward democracy, irrespective of how imperfect those democracies may be. Lee boils the answer down to what he calls increased personalism of the autocrat, as well as within the Filipino and Indonesian militaries.

In Lee’s view, the popular revolts provided an opportunity for some senior officers who were unhappy with the emergence of military personalities and the personalization of their country’s autocracy to hitch their political ambitions to those of the protesters. That may be true for the individual motivations of dissenting officers. It explains dissatisfaction within the military with Marcos’ interference in appointments and promotions. Lee is also right in his observation that in Asia, the militaries remained loyal to the autocratic regime like in Burma in 2007 and on Tiananmen Square because there was an absence of personalism.

Yet the aspirations and gripes of individual officers can only be part of the picture, and not all autocrats interfered with military appointments; in fact, a majority of autocrats in Asia, the Middle East and North Africa did or do not.

Similarly, the fact that Marcos failed to build institutions that would have fortified autocracy fails to provide a satisfactory answer. Neither does the fact that senior military officers close to General Suharto enjoyed political and economic perks that others in the command did not. Libya’s Colonel Muammar Qaddafi and former Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh also avoided embedding their authority in institutionalized power-sharing.

By the same token, Suharto’s tactic of divide and rule resembles those Arab militaries that were organized around a core of elite units bound by tribe, clan or family—as was the case in Syria, Libya and Yemen. The difference was that the disenfranchised in those militaries were not members of the tribal, clan or family elite that uniformly benefitted from the autocrat’s perks, but rather the military’s rank and file. As a result, the interests of the military’s command and key units and those of the regime remained in-sync in times of domestic political crisis. The defection of senior officers or even key units in Syria and Yemen during the recent uprisings and subsequent violence do not fundamentally question that notion.

The cases of the Philippines and Egypt demonstrate, moreover, that the military’s relationship with its US counterpart plays an important role. In both the Philippines and Egypt, a US decision to drop Washington’s support of the autocrat influenced military thinking. The relationship with the United States was important to the Egyptian military, given that it was independent of and not supervised by the Mubarak government. The military relied on annual US aid to the tune of $1.3 billion, as well as arms deals that satisfied its appetite for weapons and equipment and underwrote the armed forces’ military industry.

As a result, the notion of personalism as an impetus for militaries to embrace political change leaves unanswered the question of why personalism that characterizes Middle Eastern and North African autocracies has not played a role in attitudes of the military or key segments of militaries in the region.

Key Difference

One difference between Asia and the Middle East and North Africa is the concept of neo-patriarchy developed by the late Palestinian-American scholar Hisham Sharabi, which serves to popularize autocratic personality cults. In Sharabi’s analysis, Middle Eastern and North African autocrats, unlike their Asian counterparts—with North Korea as an exception—positioned themselves as authoritarian father figures who franchise their authoritarianism throughout the society. The autocrat is the father of the nation who sits on top of a pyramid of authoritarian fathers such as the head of government, the provincial governor, the village head and the paternalistic head of the nuclear family.

© Shutterstock

© Shutterstock

In characterizing Asian autocracies, Lee draws a distinction between two kinds of autocracies: ones that are built around the person of the autocrat; and ones that are built around a sharing of power by underlying institutions. In Lee’s view, autocrats who build their power around themselves like in the case of Marcos and Suharto are more prone to the risk of the military siding with protesters.

That theory seems to be invalid in the Middle East and North Africa, where except for perhaps in the case of Iran, power-sharing is not the norm. More frequently, there is deliberate competition between institutions—as in the case of Syria’s multiple security services—that is designed to keep various forces in check.

Attempting to develop a conceptual model that enhances frameworks developed in recent decades and explains why, when and how militaries turn against the autocratic status quo and opt for political change is important not only as a key to understanding developments in the Middle East and North Africa and predicting of the role of militaries in popular revolts, but also to deepening knowledge about civil-military relations.

The contrast in the analysis of Asia as opposed to the Middle East and North Africa is stark.

Intellectuals and scholars accepted until the eruption of popular revolts in 2011 the notion that the Middle East and North Africa were exceptional in their autocratic resilience and stability. F. Gregory Gause III, a political scientist and Gulf scholar, wrote:

“Academics directed their attention toward explaining the mechanisms that Arab states had developed to weather popular dissent … We in the academic community made assumptions that, as valid as they might have been in the past, turned out to be wrong in 2011 … Academic specialists on Arab politics, such as myself, have quite a bit of rethinking to do … Explaining the stability of Arab authoritarians was an important analytic task, but it led some of us to underestimate the forces for change that were bubbling below, and at times above, the surface of Arab politics.”

By contrast, Asia became the hand maiden of contemporary concepts of protest, with the Philippines in 1968 coining the phrase: people power.

Other factors that influence the attitudes of militaries toward popular revolts and highlight differences between Asia and the Middle East and North Africa are national identity, the role of regional powers and donor support of civil society in autocratic societies.

As a summary outline, national identity in the Middle East and North Africa has proved to be far more fragile and contentious than in Southeast Asia. That has raised the specter of a redrawing of borders in the Middle East and North Africa and the emergence of new states based on ethnicity or sect.

That is not to say national identity is not a factor in Asia. Yet Singapore, traumatized by its departure from Malaysia, has successfully managed communal relations, while identity politics remain prominent in Malaysia itself as well as in Myanmar and southern Thailand. Nonetheless, unlike the Middle East and North Africa, Southeast Asian nations are not looking any time soon at re-drawing their borders.

Similarly, transition in Southeast Asia benefited from the absence of regional powers like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, all of which sought and seek to impose their will on other countries in the region.

Finally, Arab autocrats—with Egypt in the lead—successfully restricted donor aid to civil society organizations in ways their Southeast Asian counterparts appear not to have.

All of this amounts to a first tentative stab at developing an agenda for research that would enhance scholarly and policy understanding of the why, when and how of the role of militaries in processes of political change. Southeast Asia and Korea have the benefit of hindsight. The Middle East and North Africa is a messy and bloody work in progress.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Photo Credit: Jbor / James A. Dawson / Valentina Petrov /

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1 comment

  1. @Ritthyou (Twitter)

    June 30, 2015

    Nice article ! Yet when talking about Southeast Asia's political transition or civil upraising, Cambodia is generally seen as the sample. I don't the story of Cambodia is in the article.

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