The civil-military relationship has proven central to the politics of many Arab countries, both those that underwent transition in 2011 and those that did not. The attempt to renegotiate constitutional frameworks and set up new political arrangements under conditions of profound uncertainty notably intensified existing patterns in their civil-military relations, to the point of transforming them. Those transformations also come in response to the longer-building crisis of the state, structural trends of social transformation and changes in global military affairs and security agendas pre-dating the Arab Spring.

The breakdown of authoritarian control and transition in systems of governance weakened political and legal constraints on the military in the Arab Spring countries. In Egypt and Tunisia, characterized by relatively strong state institutions and highly formal militaries, this enabled the latter to play a major political role. In Libya and Yemen, with their weak states and mutual penetration by strong societal forces, in contrast, the uprisings deepened tribal and regional cleavages within the military, accentuating its paralysis and disintegration. The outcome, in every case, has gone beyond changes in degree, to usher in a qualitatively new phase in civil-military relations.

The civil-military relationship is concerned centrally with questions about how to organize and use the means of violence controlled by the state, and against whom violence may be legitimately employed. For this reason, the nature and form of military organizations are intricately tied to the composition, internal balances and distribution of capital within their states and societies. The Arab Spring represented a moment of decisive rupture in systems of political and administrative control that triggered or enabled significant shifts in civil-military relations.

That rupture took place in the context of much longer-developing trends, however. Neo-liberal economic policies converged with two other long-term trends affecting civil-military relations in all Arab states. First, major demographic changes in Arab societies over the past four decades have generated massive urbanization, changing the nature and scale of security challenges and imposing new requirements on state agencies of coercion. This has converged, second, with the global “revolution in military affairs” and the rise of the counter-terrorism and security sector reform agendas since the 1990s. Together, the two trends have had transformative effects on Arab militaries, and altered the context within which their relations with civilian authorities and societies are conducted.

Starting in the early 1990s, emerging challenges prompted significant budget and manpower increases for the internal security sector in most Arab states, reflecting its growing political importance. In parallel, the relative decline of inter-state wars since the 1991 Gulf war and the re-launch of the Arab-Israeli peace process brought into question the purpose and utility of Arab armed forces. Although overall levels of defense spending did not drop among Arab states as a group, armies were increasingly refocused on regime maintenance and domestic law and order tasks. But as the Arab Spring later made graphically evident, their organization, training, armament and doctrine were highly inappropriate for intervening in large, densely populated metropolitan areas and diverse social constituencies.

Consequently, national armed forces in several Arab countries have been undergoing structural changes, as select units have been re-equipped and retrained for their new role. The growth of special forces, increasingly separate from conventional army branches, has accelerated since 9/11 as counter-terrorism has emerged as a central defining element in relations with Western security partners and providers of military technology and assistance. This coincides with the marked expansion of militarized police and constabulary units in virtually all Arab countries, reflecting a shift within the internal security sector too, from old-style, under-funded and generally poorly-trained police forces toward specialized SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactics) and counter-terrorism units.

The trend is transforming some Arab armies – and most internal security sectors – into two-tier structures. On one hand, elite units comprising a small portion of total military manpower are privileged with better weapons, and training, pay and professional status. This moreover ties in with the impact of the global revolution in military affairs seen to be underway since the 1990s, in which new technologies are both enabling and necessitating the adoption of novel combat doctrines and tactics and their associated organizational forms. On the other hand lie the bulk of army personnel and conventional armor, artillery and infantry units, in many cases fielding aging equipment, mothballed heavy weapons and shrinking procurement budgets.

The cumulative effect is to alter how the military relates to those in power and to society. Top tier units are by definition closest to the regimes they help maintain, and therefore often share the same sectarian, regional, or tribal outlook and threat perception of other communities within their own societies. For the much larger, lower tier, military employment offers a residual welfare system amidst the sharp reductions in social services and publicly funded job creation and widening income disparities that have accompanied the “retreat” of the state since the 1990s.

Paradoxically, the security sector reform agenda promoted by Western partners complicates matters: The impetus to disband or restructure regime maintenance units that are authoritarian holdouts or guilty of sectarian and other abuses deprives armies facing complex new security threats of their more effective assets, while neo-liberal policies and shrinking public revenue make it increasingly difficult to maintain existing military welfare systems for the majority at a time of deepening social strain and polarization.

As trends of demographic change converge further with evolving security agendas in coming years, in a political economy setting characterized by distorted neo-liberal policies that further concentrate wealth and widen the gap between rich and poor, the organizational and doctrinal shifts discussed above will strain the political alignments and social alliances that underpinned past civil-military relations, opening the way for new kinds of relationships.

Among the 22 members of the League of Arab States, Algeria, Lebanon, Iraq, the Palestinian Authority, Somalia and Sudan remain in one phase or another of post-conflict transition, and Mauritania still lives out the consequences of its 2008 military coup d’etat. In these countries, the relationship between military and civilian actors has shifted amidst the erosion of constitutional frameworks and agreed “rules of the game” for the conduct of politics, the hollowing out of the state in varying degrees and a drastic retreat of social pacts.

The resulting security dilemma has prompted the emergence of communal militias – based on sect, ethnicity, tribe or region. Some armed non-state actors have pursued alternative forms of state-building, the Lebanese Hezbollah and the Islamic State being two, diametrically opposed examples. In Iraq too, as in Syria, Libya, Sudan and Yemen, hybrid forms of “localized security” have emerged as governments have “deputized” national defense and regime protection to a variety of communal militias, further undermining the central state and its armed forces.

The consequences are graphically illustrated in Iraq and Syria, where rebuilding broken armies and renegotiating the civil-military relationship has been an integral part of reconstructing the state and renegotiating its relationship with society as a whole in the former since 2003, or inevitably will be in the latter. In both countries, as indeed in others such as Libya and Yemen since 2011, this makes the reconstitution of a unitary, national military hostage to foundational struggles between diverse political and social forces. Attempts by new state leaders to use the armed forces as a power base in Iraq and Yemen, for example, have been met with counter-moves by political rivals to mobilize the means of violence within their own social bases, further fragmenting national politics and deepening insecurity.

In Libya, the army was shaped by two main trends in the 20 years preceding the 2011 uprising: heavy recruitment from tribes and regions loyal to the country’s leader, Col. Moammar Gaddafi, and marginalization after its failures in the 1980s border wars with Chad and the appearance of Islamists in its ranks in the early 1990s. The army divided along these fissures and effectively ceased to exist as a single operational force in 2011, with the brunt of the fighting being borne by revolutionary volunteer militias and regime maintenance forces, especially Gaddafi’s “security battalions.”

Since Gaddafi’s overthrow, the same tribal, regional and institutional dynamics have completely stymied efforts by the transitional government to reestablish a national army. Instead, coercive power is divided once again between parallel military and security structures based on various revolutionary militia coalitions on the one side, and rump units of the regular army that are widely regarded as a refuge for ancien regime loyalists. The frailty of the Libyan state continues to be reflected in its official military, and vice versa, pointing to an outcome in which a new form of hybrid armed forces exists within an equally hybrid state, with the locus of power within the civil-military relationship devolved from the national to the communal or regional level.

The Yemeni army revealed a broadly similar pattern of determining recruitment and command appointments on the basis of regional and tribal affiliations. But it also differed in a significant respect. Until his departure from office in 2012, former president Ali Abdullah Saleh allowed his partners within the elite triumvirate that formed Yemen’s ruling bargain to maintain separate fiefdoms within the army. Its paralysis during the 2011 uprising reflected the breakdown of this partnership, as its members aligned on opposite sides.

The same dysfunctional dynamic was reproduced as the same key elite players – with the addition of Saleh’s successor, and now rival, interim President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi – competed to retain their influence in the context of the military restructuring process launched in 2013. The outcome was the collapse of the army as a command structure in the face of a totally new player, the Houthi rebels, who seized the capital and much of the country in summer 2014. In upending Yemen’s power structure, and devising a modus vivendi with autonomous army commanders in some regions of the country, they have set its civil-military relationship on a new course.

Because of the centrality of violence in all these cases, military organizations of one kind or another will become increasingly prominent, if not primary, as institutional actors – whether this is in relation to national states or to increasingly autonomous and militarized sub-state communities. This promises to reverse the pattern established under authoritarian leaders such as Saddam Hussein, Hosni Mubarak, Hafez and Bashar al-Assad, and others, who asserted their suzerainty as civilian or civilianized presidents over the armed forces, marginalizing the latter politically. In turn, as military institutions once again become a central political actor – again, whether on the level of unitary states or of self-governing sub-state communities – factional struggles within their ranks may revive, possibly leading to a rerun of the fratricidal politics of many Arab armies from the 1950s to the late 1970s.

In Arab states with less visibly divided societies, other social trends and dynamics are shifting the pattern of civil-military relations. In Egypt and Algeria – and arguably also in Morocco – national armies that moved decades ago from “permanent coups d’etat to influence and self-enrichment,” as stated by Jean-François Daguzan, have seen their officer corps join their countries’ “new” middle class. This presents a complete contrast to the era of the 1950s-60s in which lower-ranking officers from upwardly mobile classes used their control of the state apparatus to bring about radical changes in the distribution of economic wealth and social power. Most Arab militaries are instead wedded today to the status quo underpinning neo-liberal economic and social welfare policies – that may co-exist comfortably with Islamism as a conservative social ideology – and willing to defend it to serve their own self-interest.

Long regarded as effectively ruling Egypt, the Egyptian Armed Forces has asserted its formal suzerainty over the Egyptian state since February 2011, when outgoing president Hosni Mubarak transferred his powers to it. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces was reluctant to govern but equally unwilling to empower the transitional civilian cabinet it appointed, and proved grossly incompetent in its handling of the political process, economic recovery and reform of the state apparatus. Having been forced from its sheltered and largely apolitical position under Mubarak, it sought to reproduce its legal and institutional autonomy from civilian oversight by formalizing this in a series of constitutional amendments and provisions in 2011-14.

The overthrow on July 3, 2013, of then-President Mohammad Morsi, the first civilian to hold the post since the establishment of the republic in 1952, has led to complete military dominance of the Egyptian state. Since then, the “officers’ republic” that had evolved in the Mubarak era – colonizing huge swathes of the state’s civilian bureaucracy, local government, general intelligence and central security forces, and state-owned commercial companies – has moved to the foreground and expanded further. President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has appointed senior officers to additional positions – such as speaker of parliament – and assigned sweeping new powers to the EAF in the realm of domestic security and law enforcement. In the absence of an elected parliament and senate, and following the loss of the relative constraints and balances of the Mubarak system and the dissolution of the country’s two largest political parties ­– the Muslim Brotherhood and National Democratic Party – Egypt is heading into an unambiguous military dictatorship.

Tunisia has been an outlier among the Arab Spring countries in the relative stability and progress of its democratic transition, but it too has undergone a subtle shift in its civil-military relations since the army helped oust former president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. The military eschewed a political role after Ben Ali’s ouster, instead transferring power to interim civilian bodies that assumed full responsibility for managing the transitional process. Senior officers attributed army neutrality to a strong republican ethos of obedience to legally constituted civilian authorities. But they also anticipated having a bigger, albeit advisory say in government policy in spheres that could arguably affect national security such as trade and education. And with an Islamist current within its own officer corps, the army will not remain immune to the political and ideological struggles underway in society. Its decades-long marginalization and insulation have come to an end.

The Tunisian army has already gained in importance as new threats loom. Countering illicit flows of refugees and arms from Libya and jihadist insurgency on the border with Algeria has brought an unfamiliar convergence with the Ministry of Interior, which had played the key role in monitoring the military prior to 2011. This coincides with a significant shift in Tunisia’s political landscape: The Islamist Ennahda party was overtaken in the general elections of October 2014 by the Nidaa Tunis party, a loose coalition comprising disparate secular and leftist political forces and figures associated with the Ben Ali era, and its preferred candidate for the presidency came second in the first round of elections in November to Nidaa Tunis head and former Ben Ali loyalist Beji Caid Essebsi. The army remains unlikely to play an overt political role, but may well become the balance holder between the rival secular-republican and Islamist camps – much as its counterpart in Lebanon does.

In Jordan, conversely, an officer corps squeezed relentlessly by deepening neo-liberal policies played a key role in shaping the socio-economic and political demands of the grassroots protest movement that pressed the monarchy for genuine reforms in 2010-13. The challenge was ultimately contained, in part because the officers sought an adjustment of privileges more than a fundamental change in the social pact or political economy, but it demonstrated the potential for military activism and for a critical rupture within a well-established and highly stable ruling order. Conversely, the failure of democratic transition in Egypt, or in Algeria two decades earlier, revealed that the social conditions needed to underpin a transformation of civil-military relations – such as happened in Turkey by 2002 following the rise of a powerful “new” bourgeoisie autonomous from the state within a neo-liberal context – are not yet present in most Arab states.

The challenge to the Arab state is large and growing, even where the state is not in immediate or obvious crisis: Arab populations today are roughly three times their size in 1950-70. They are more than double what they were in 1973-74, at the start of the massive oil-funded expansion of the state sector, including the armed forces, and every aspect of society, bureaucracy and economy has become more diverse and complex. Civil-military relationships that were viable previously are becoming less sustainable, while the trend toward building “new” armies specializing in the technologies of population control signals a bifurcation within the military that corresponds to multiple bifurcations within societies.

Crucially, these trends tend to work against, rather than for, peaceful or democratic transition, making progress toward democratic civilian control over armed forces even more difficult and painfully slow. Whether the military’s political role in association with autocratic regimes and powerful socio-economic elites is overt or not, its legitimacy or lack of it among the general public will derive not from abstract notions of the rule of law, subordination to civilian authority, and support for democratization, but from the tangible perception among important societal sectors that the military protect them from challengers who promote an alternative social order they regard as fundamentally threatening.

This is the tragic lesson of Egypt, Bahrain and Syria since 2011, and yet the gradual move toward a more balanced civil-military relationship in Tunisia, and even the turbulent hybrid reformulations of the civil-military relationship in Yemen and Libya, also point to other possible trajectories.

Yezid Sayigh is a senior associate at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut. This essay is part of a Project on Middle East Studies and London School of Economics and Political Science collection on “The Arab Thermidor: The Resurgence of the Security State.”