Militaries’ Post-Revolutionary Experiences in Libya and Egypt

There’s been a lot of discussion this week about the fate of the post-revolution Libyan army, especially in the context of the Libyan government potentially giving the go-ahead to Ansar al-Sharia (the same group, you’ll remember, widely held to be behind the US embassy attack in Benghazi last year) and other paramilitaries to maintain law and order around the country while it waits for more legitimate policing and security institutions to be rebuilt.

But the complete rejection of the Libyan army as it was under Muammar Qaddafi’s rule is an interesting phenomenon when compared to Libya’s North African neighbor, Egypt, which is undergoing a similar post-revolutionary transition.

Egypt did experience purges of military leaders left from the Mubarak regime after Morsi’s ascension to power, but the army is still predominantly respected across the population in a way almost entirely opposite to the corresponding popular views in Libya. In fact, it is nothing new that there is a large contingent in the Egyptian populace that sees a significant role for the army in post-Arab Spring Egypt; they go as far as to prefer another military coup (despite the one in 1952 that brought the dictatorships into power) to Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood rule. In a quintessential example of the respect and almost-adoration of the Egyptian army, an Al-Ahram Online article quotes a Coptic couple who claim the army is governed by positive motives even when discussing the October 2011 attack against a number of Coptic protestors in Maspero.

The comparison between Libya and Egypt is an apt one, seeing as they share some notable similarities in this sphere. The revolution Qaddafi led to overthrow the Libyan government in 1969 was inspired by the 1952 revolution led by Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar al-Sadat in Egypt; Qaddafi even went so far as to name his revolutionary group after the Egyptian counterpart (Sadat, Those I Have Known, p. 42). Although later the relationship between the Egyptian Presidents and Qaddafi darkened, you could say that the genesis of both of these dictatorial regimes had similar Arab nationalistic bases (i.e., both were influenced by the effects of imperialism on their countries) and goals (i.e., overthrow a faux-monarchical system and install essentially single-man rule).

In addition, the two dictators who were toppled in the Arab Spring had strong ties to the military establishments of their day. Mubarak was the last remaining original member of the 1952 revolution that was led by respected and capable Egyptian military leaders (Jason Thompson. A History of Egypt: From Earliest Times to the Present, p. 341). He continued to become head of the air force under Sadat and be credited for the successful performance of the Egyptian Air Force in the 1973 October War (Kenneth M. Pollack, Arabs At War: Military Effectiveness, 1948-1991, p. 99). Likewise, Qaddafi was a well-educated officer in the Libyan Army under the regime he helped topple. With villanized dictators so closely associated with the military establishments in both of these countries, why such different popular reactions to the militaries in this post-Arab Spring context?

In response to this question, commentators on Egypt often cite the good behavior of the Egyptian military after Mubarak’s fall in handing over the country to democracy. Commentators on Libya, on the other hand, highlight the violent nature of the Libyan revolution relative to Egypt’s and the clear choice of the army to side with and fight on behalf of the Libyan strongman—although the extent of this choice is still under investigation.

But these responses leave out the important and much more lasting role that the different dictators played in preventing or fostering a military culture in their nations. Nasser, Sadat, and Mubarak limited the military’s involvement in politics and kept a tight rein on the leadership’s actions (Sadat, In Search of Identity, p. 233), displacing and isolating public blame of autocracy to the autocrats as opposed to the military (although it may very well have been privately supporting the strongman). On the other hand, Qaddafi took a very public approach to militarizing, fostering tribal loyalties and creating his own brigades whenever possible, which contributed to the Libyan population’s distrust of state-sanctioned security forces seen as incurable Qaddafi loyalists.

It will be fascinating to see how these cultural and social histories play out in the rebuilding of the Libyan security apparatus and the perception of a much more public-facing Egyptian army moving forward.

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