The Sudan case gives evidence that military and paramilitary regimes cannot be the answer to political and democratic transition in developing countries.
In 2002, Mustafa Osman Ismail, then foreign minister of Sudan (1998–2005), held a formal meeting with the head of the Arab diplomatic corps accredited in Washington, DC, at the end of his work visit to the United States of America.
Sudan and the United States had just resumed their diplomatic relations after a decade of turmoil. Sudan had been accused of giving shelter to Osama Bin Laden and having strong links with Islamic movements as well as Iran, labeled part of the “Axis of Evil.” Bin Laden was a shareholder of Bank As-Shamal (1991–1996).
Mustafa Osman Ismail emphasized one main subject. He admitted that an eventual secession of the south of the country was unavoidable. This would happen as a result of the struggle of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) movement led by John Garang for full independence.
The Sudanese diplomat made it clear that Khartoum would accept whatever decision was made in this respect. When he was asked whether such an independence was going to start some sort of snowball jeopardizing Sudan’s territorial integrity, he presented no convincing answer. Diplomats present at the meeting understood that Washington had summoned the Sudanese government to accept the fait accompli and facilitate the independence of South Sudan, which happened in 2011 through an arranged referendum.
In 2003, in Kansas City, MO, on the sidelines of the Friends of Morocco meeting, the Nelson-Atkins Art Museum hosted a screening of Bab Al-Sama Maftuh, directed by Farida Ben Lyazid. Among the audience was John Garang’s daughter. She was studying at university in Kansas City. Obviously, the Sudan issue was raised. She smartly explained that she was not interested in politics but insisted that South Sudan would gain independence no matter what. Both above-mentioned events sounded like a premonition and perfect evidence of realpolitik that would considerably impact Sudan’s political and identity future.
This was the beginning of a cascade of secessionist attempts in Darfur (2003), South Kordofan (2011), and Blue Nile (2011). Sudanese political actors thought that a locked-down South Sudan state would not be viable and would always depend on the north. While this analysis proved to be accurate, it did not benefit Khartoum. The sequence left the door wide open to two failed states weakened by the neighboring states’ interference and international firms interested in their wealthy underground.
Failed States: Praised States in Foreign Powers’ Perception
Failed states, collapse states, phantom states—all these paradigms have been used to describe the state of total disorder and anarchy a country is experiencing. Typically, these are states shere political institutions are almost nonexistent, and the leaders have no interest in establishing coherent and viable governments. The economy is left at the mercy of organized crime networks and warlords. The neighboring countries are either involved in the internal political chaos or are victims of it.
The political actors in the conflict enjoy transnational support that is detrimental to the stability of their own country. And above all, there is no potential solution on the horizon. It is not that all parties to the conflict are corrupt or unwilling to resolve it; they are not allowed to. They cannot because foreign behind-the-scenes hands summon them to abide by the script they have so perfectly written.
There are many case studies in this respect. The last one, of course, is staged by Sudan. A civil war is raging again in the country, and the national army and militia groups are involved. International observers have given interesting explanations to sort out the dilemma Sudan cannot by any means resolve.
But at heart in the Sudanese saga is the tragic story of a huge and rich country that has been permanently subject to endemic troubles because of its elites’ ill-behavior. The country’s history is very complex, and its findings are challenged by historians and political actors. However, there is a rule in fate of states of nations, which is that a wealthy country, thanks to its raw materials, with poor leadership or no leadership at all, could be the perfect prey for foreign interference, either military or through proxy groups or secessionist movements.
In Africa and the Middle East, military regimes have proven to be a total failure in addressing state building issues. They are authoritarian regimes that have an interest in rising to power and sticking to it. Mostly left-wing-oriented, they have sought to make change in their political systems by resorting to violence as a means of legitimacy.
There are many forms of military regimes. The first category involves establishments fully controlled by military oligarchies that leave no room for contestation, either military or civilian. The second category involves military-controlled behind-the-scenes systems. This is a very interesting blurring system whereby powerful military actors perform a charade for civilian governments that have no effective hold on power. The third category involves paramilitary regimes where civilians and professional military actors are used as proxies or even as puppets.
In all cases, civilians are kept out of the decision-making system. Independent observers are misled when they think that regime change through military establishments in the Middle East and North Africa could lead to democracy and the rule of law. The argument that bold changes have been introduced in Spain, Portugal, and Greece in the 1970s, thanks to
powerful authoritarian juntas during a transitional period, cannot be invoked everywhere. Regime change in the Middle East and North Africa has been cosmetic, and the same elite, through smart arrangements, continues to rule.
The struggle for power and interpersonal rivalries are rooted in regional and international military and political allegiances. Choices are driven by material gains, which include corruption, bribery, and compromising at different levels of military hierarchy. Internal fights for influence within the military establishment are the result of foreign influence, mainly in the process of purchasing sophisticated weapons for the sake of an arms race.
It is commonly admitted that military personnel remain faithful to the countries that offered them education in their military academies. Over the last forty years, declassified archives have revealed that almost all military coups have been staged by foreign powers. This applies to Libya, Egypt, Sudan, Tunisia, Yemen, Iraq, and Mauritania.
The military establishments in most of the Middle East and North Africa are involved in politics and the economy. They cannot live without bringing about chaos and holding political actors as their perfect hostages. They are keen to monitor political rivalries, oligarchic fights, and internal disputes to stay in power. They are permanently in search of scapegoats at the internal, regional, and international levels. They would not rule out the scenario of seeing their own countries shrunk, divided, and imputed as long as such an eventuality would help them stay in power.
The idea of dividing countries in the Middle East and Africa into several weak states is surfacing from time to time. All wars that had been waged against post-independent Arab and African countries since the 1950s were perceived as subjugating those of them whose leaders had tried to distance themselves from their mentors, former colonial powers.
When Gulf War I and Gulf War II in the 1980s and 1990s reached their peak, a viral interpretation spread that what was happening was rooted in the Sykes-Picot agreements dividing the Middle East that date back to 1916. Using the same argument some thought that what happened in Africa was the result of political arrangements between former colonial powers and their native heirs in many African countries.
The same explanation was rehearsed in the aftermath of the 2011 Arab Spring. The counter-revolution that took place in 2013 in Egypt and Tunisia was understood as a result of the new political actors’ efforts to make a difference between the process of implementing democracy and the spirit of revenge that was the driver of their first actions as new rulers.
In Tunisia, the military establishment is very transparent. It does not take sides in political disputes. One of the reasons behind this behavior is that the country experienced a long period of civilian power from 1956 to 1986 and a mixed period of civilian power with an authoritarian behind-the-scenes rule from 1986 to 2011. The transitional period since then has witnessed ups and downs, and the country is surfing with the wind right now: the future of its political institutions is in serious jeopardy.
In Algeria, the military establishment has been ruling under cover since 1965. Nurtured by the perception of regional leadership as a means of legitimacy both internally and internationally, Algerian decision-makers could not breathe without raging enmity in the neighborhood. If, during the first years post-independence, the Algerian military establishment was organically merged with a one-party system and, as a result, it was faced with the urgency of building a state, the 1970s and 1980s could have been an opportunity to build a regional political structure hatred-free.
This could not happen because of border disputes and a myopic perception of geopolitical changes on the international geostrategic chessboard. Faced with the failure of an ideology based on mythical, undocumented truths, the Algerian military doctrine has not changed, and the same actors who were involved in the bloody civil war in the 1990s are still in charge.
In Yemen, militias have shaped the political landscape since the 1950s. Being totally influenced by ideologically despicable fights, the county witnessed a long period of instability. This instability has evolved according to leaders’ political moods and regional and international allegiances. Being the perfect strategy-dependent actors, Yemen’s decision-makers surfed against the wind every time a tentative solution was put on the table to narrow the gap of dichotomies between them.
Today, totally at the mercy of regionally dichotomous rivals, Yemen is not able to solve its own internal contradictions. The militia spirit is monitoring the political chessboard at the behest of Iran, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and other interested external parties. This would not change even in the aftermath of the diplomatic reconciliation between Iran and Saudi Arabia thanks to China’s mediation.
Libya, Iraq, and Syria present a different case. Officially, these countries are not ruled by military establishments. But, in reality, the format and the political structures are totally subservient to the military. The one-party system they have always advocated as a solemn means to rule and stay in power has given them room to resist changes and fight back against new political actors who aim to change the course and build genuine civilian regimes.
The Failure of Co-opted Political Opposition to Neutralize Military Juntas
The three countries have used almost perfectly the ethnic and tribal assabiyat (segmentarity) to oppress their opponents internally and reject foreign pressure to open up their political systems. When one digs deeper into the political structures these countries have been known for, they find out that since 1990, in the case of Iraq, and 2011, in the case of Libya and Syria, there has been no hope on the horizon for a smooth regime change or, at least, a progressive, inclusive political transition. The three countries have no hold on their destiny. Obviously, foreign hands are manipulating political and military actors in a way that is detrimental to the interests of their own people.
In Mauritania, the civil regime experience has lasted for a decade and a half since the country’s independence in 1960. Trapped in regional geopolitical disputes between Algeria and Morocco, this country has proven to be as fragile as a perfect minor actor. So far, it has managed to keep the military establishment alert and the political actors keen to keep a low profile with respect to the country’s national interest.
Nevertheless, independent observers share the view that the Algerian military establishment would not leave Mauritania alone and would press its government to take a stand in different regional geopolitical disputes. Lately, another foreign actor has been actively intervening in Mauritania: Iran. Either through the potential business community or the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution, who basically control the economy and the political structures, Iran is permanently seeking geostrategic corridors in North and West Africa.
In Iran, indeed, the two-faced political system makes it hard for independent observers to predict the country’s political, diplomatic, and military behavior. For a long period of time, Iranian decision-makers under the Supreme Leader’s control have perfectly serenaded the conservative and reformist narrative within the system, built up in the aftermath of the Islamic revolution in 1978, to fool foreign political watchdogs.
If the political transition is still legitimate and the political opposition abroad keeps winding, the status quo gives more leverage to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) to effectively rule the country. The true military establishment has no say in strategic matters. Pending the transitional period, as a result of the Supreme Guide’s illness, it is unlikely to see notable changes in the country’s foreign and military doctrine.
On the contrary, after the normalization of diplomatic ties with Saudi Arabia, the Iranians’ decision-makers will not give up their main goal, which is to spread the Islamic revolution” at any cost. They have changed the method, but the aim remains the same. They have reached a new stage of using their own operatives and proxy actors.
In this respect, it is unlikely to see Iran withdraw its proxy elements in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Lebanon. News is even shared that such proxy actors are very active in Tunisia, Mauritania, Algeria, and the Sahel-Saharan region.
Why have military regimes in the Middle East and North Africa not weakened so far? Would it be because of their unquestionable legitimacy? Would it be because of their unavoidable role in maintaining stability and order in their own countries? Would it be because of their lasting and unbroken chains of foreign allegiances? Whatever the answer, it could not rule out another bare truth, which is that the political elite and civil society are either part of the game or unable to enlist people’s adherence to build up political systems ruled by civilians.
Are military regimes a curse or the last hope in the process of building viable state institutions? Scholars are divided on assessing this problem. Some argue that in the aftermath of colonial regimes, strong leadership was co-opted into military institutions to get the job done. Exactions and even human rights abuses were tolerated for the sake of getting people out of their laziness.
The distinction between military and paramilitary regimes would not matter. Hence, over the years, it has become clear that such regimes would never accept political transition of any kind to civilian regimes. Others argue that the combination of a semi-military regime and shared power with co-opted civilian actors would make it work.
Both approaches would give no credit to civilian regimes based on authoritarian rules and corrupt political elites that reject genuine political reforms. They question their resistance to implementing sound democracy and respect for human rights according to western standards.
For almost two decades post-independence, military regimes had been associated with left-wing credo, literature, and narrative. In many countries, military leadership had strong ties with former colonial powers. Some well-known leaders had even worked under the flag of the latter. Many are still ruling behind the scenes. This has not prevented them from intervening in their neighbors’ internal affairs.
Libya and Algeria took part in two attempted military coups in Morocco in 1971 and 1972. Some political actors involved back then assumed later that individuals from the opposition in Morocco would have been in cahoots with
the military plotters. Algeria and Libya helped a group of left-wing opposition leaders try to bring about chaos in Morocco in 1973. They also intervened through a proxy dissident movement in Tunisia in 1980. They tried hard to control the political and military chess boards in Chad, Mali, Niger, and Mauritania.
Those among military, paramilitary, or fake civilian leaders who sought some sort of political freedom were ousted from power or killed. Saddam Hussein, Mouammar Kadhafi, Alpha Condé, Thomas Sankara, and Ali Abdullah Saleh, to name but a few, paid a high price for daring to change course. Furthermore, former colonial powers do not trust civilian political actors who really understand that times have changed and that there are always needs for change to meet their people’s expectations.
As a matter of fact, western democratic countries have shown a mitigated willingness to help developing countries switch from full military regimes to regimes abiding by the rule of law and genuine democracy. At the same time, they have co-opted political opposition figures in exile to press their governments or blackmail them. The scheme was based on upgrading the political opposition’s claims while downgrading their impetus to implement reforms as soon as they were installed in power.
In the past, military regimes were on their own and used to rule as it pleased them. Even though they were criticized abroad, they would not care because they knew that such criticism was cosmetic and hypocritical. Their partners, state actors or intelligence organizations, were aware of their corrupt nature, laundering practices, and bribery styles; however, they let them do it.
They used them as prey or blackmailed them to keep them as the first destination market for arms sales. This has not changed. In the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, money transfers from unknown accounts, even for charity purposes, were put under scrutiny, but some dignitaries belonging to military regimes were exempted from control—at least not bothered in the long run. The rules applied were and still are to keep the beneficiaries as potential cards to play in the future for internal and international balance-of-power purposes.
Put in the limelight, the Sudan case gives evidence that military and paramilitary regimes cannot be the answer to political and democratic transition in developing countries. Military generals ought to leave politics to politicians and policymakers. Sudan will continue to experience instability and export it to the Middle East and Africa. Sudan is unable to control its destiny. Proxy actors that its unwise leaders count on are no longer controlled by their external mentors.
The association between separatism inside sovereign states and transnational terrorism is clear evidence. The ascension of non-state groups in many issue areas presents an existential threat to many fragile state actors whose main mistake was to trust foreign, allegedly Samaritan, western state actors. Today, not only are non-state military groups fingerprinted as sources of chaos and disorder in developing countries, but also foreign private paramilitary firms. The American Backwater Company, the Russian Wagner Group, and other behind-the-scenes French and British groups are very active in jeopardizing internal stability in the Middle East and Africa, to name but two regions.
It is unlikely that the Sudanese crisis will be resolved soon. Geopolitical interests are at stake, let alone the struggle between major and middle-power-actors to win the battle in strategic harbors in East Africa, the Red Sea, the Indian Ocean, the Atlantic Ocean, and the Mediterranean Sea. The same states and proxy actors involved in Libya, Syria, Yemen, and the Sahelo-Saharan region play a double-faced role as war igniters and supposed peacemakers.
Source: Hassan Hami for Morocco World News