Just Whose Side Are Arab Armies On, Anyway?

Tunisia’s military saved the people’s revolution. But in other Arab countries on the brink -- such as Egypt and Yemen -- the armed forces are far less likely to do the same.

TUNIS—When security forces started firing on protestors earlier this month on the streets of cities around Tunisia, the military stepped in. President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali's orders were to make the protests end, with live rounds if needed. The armed forces didn't listen. Troops moved into the streets and reportedly even deployed helicopters to stop paramilitary snipers who were shooting demonstrators from rooftops. The de facto head of the military, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Rachid Ammar, then prodded President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali into exile, saved the people's revolution, and -- most miraculously of all -- then declined to take power himself.

Tonight in Cairo, where armed personnel carriers and tanks can be seen patrolling the streets to enforce President Hosni Mubarak's curfew, Egyptian protesters may be wishing they were so lucky. The reactions of national militaries often determine whether a popular revolution lives or dies. And the armed forces of Egypt, Tunisia, and Yemen -- three countries where stunning public uprisings are challenging the existing order this week -- couldn't be more different. Among the three, Tunisia's small, professional force stands out as the exception, not just for its quality but for its separation from an entrenched, autocratic regime.

Long before protestors took to the streets late in 2010, the Tunisian military was unusual among its regional peers. First, unlike the bloated militaries of other Middle Eastern states, Tunisia's soldiers wouldn't fill the seats of most American college football stadiums. They are an enigma both to the Tunisian people and to the country's allies; the military often resists foreign aid, scoffing at such patronizing treatment. U.S. military officials told me Tunisia's armed forces had already canceled half the training exercises they had scheduled with the United States for 2011 because, frankly, the Tunisians couldn't be bothered. For the moment, the military is slated to get all of $4.9 million in U.S. military aid this year.

Then there is Egypt's military, which takes in about 260 times as much U.S. military aid -- an incredible $1.3 billion annually. That money means that, in many ways, the armed forces rule Egypt, says analyst Daniel Brumberg at the U.S. Institute for Peace. Mubarak, himself a former Air Force commander, has deftly used American taxpayers' dollars to underpin not just the military but his entire government. Egyptian generals are a privileged elite, enjoying weekends and retirements in breezy villas by the sea. They make clear that they expect a say in who rules the Arab world's most populous country once Mubarak leaves the scene. Keeping the U.S. military aid flowing dominates Mubarak's foreign policy, defined first and foremost in the region by its cold peace with Israel. After all, the annual influx of U.S. military aid ranks up there with tourism and Suez Canal tolls as Egypt's main sources of revenue.

So what will Egypt's military do should security forces start wholesale firing on Egyptian protestors, who are now pressing the largest-ever popular demands for an end to Mubarak's three decades in power? Only Egypt's commanders can know the answer. But what's clear is that the odds of the Egyptian military joining in a popular revolt are far more unlikely in Egypt than they were, in hindsight, in Tunisia.

If it came down to chaos in Egypt, with police and the people battling in the streets, the country's military probably would step in, retired Egyptian Gen. Mohammed Kadry Said told me by phone from Cairo before Friday's dramatic events. But not to save the people -- to save the buildings. Dealing with the people "is the mission of the interior minister," Said told me. "If the situation deteriorates, I think of course like any country maybe the army will interfere, not to help the people in the streets, but to secure sensitive places" such as government offices and security installations.

In the past, many Egyptian officials, and some Egyptian commanders, have declared publicly that the military would move by force if needed to keep Egypt's outlawed opposition, the Muslim Brotherhood, from ever coming to power. Said played down the role of Islamists in the country's protests, saying that they were mostly "normal people." And under the constitution, the retired general said, "the role of the military is to secure the country, whatever the threats from inside or outside. I imagine that the Egyptian military will continue doing the same role."

The only question late Friday was just how Egypt defined a threat to national security -- and how far the army was prepared to go to thwart it.

Yemen's military is yet another case altogether. The country's commanders are known for their rapacity and their forces for their ineptness. Yemeni troops and officers tend to sell their weapons and bullets on the black-market as soon as they are delivered. Some Yemeni commanders make a thriving business charging foreign contractors for protection, allegedly sometimes arranging attacks to convince the contractors they need protecting, a longtime analyst in Yemen told me. (He spoke on background for fear of retaliation by the government.)

As adept as the Yemeni army may be at profiting from its services, however, it is not very good at guarding against actual threats. The Yemen-Saudi branch of al Qaeda, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, has killed dozens of Yemeni security forces and officials in attacks in recent months. Yemen has reported only a few AQAP casualties in return and has managed to capture none of AQAP's leaders.

Yemen's people are among the most heavily armed in the world; the majority of households stock at least one firearm. So should Yemen's protests turn violent and spread to all sectors of society, something that hasn't happened so far, it's easy to conceive of circumstances in which the public could overwhelm President Ali Abdullah Saleh's security forces, at least in the short term.

In response, there's a good chance that Yemen's counterterrorism forces, beefed up with American aid to help fight against AQAP, could use U.S.-provided arms against the public. U.S. diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks have already confirmed that the government using U.S. military aid against northern rebels. Diverting such aid to protect the regime in the capital Sanaa wouldn't be much more of a stretch. (In both Egypt and Tunisia, protesters have said that the tear-gas canisters fired at them were stamped, "Made in the USA.")

Given the state of its neighbors' armed forces, Tunisia's military looks even more like an oddity in the Middle East and North Africa: tiny, but tightly disciplined.

Perhaps one reason for the difference is simply organizational. Ben Ali, himself a former interior minister, followed a French model of keeping the ministries of interior and defense at a distance from one another -- and the military far from himself. It's the same system Napoleon used to forestall army coups d'état, a Western military official told me. Ben Ali deliberately dispatched conscript-filled military ranks to the perimeter of the country to do public-works projects, disaster relief, and other good deeds -- and stay out of trouble.

He also kept the military weak. Tunisia's army is only 27,000 strong; the navy has no deep-water ships. Some analysts say the air force has as few as 12 working helicopters. Even General Ammar was -- and remains -- a national unknown. Western officials, pressed to provide details about his character, know only that he is reputed to enjoy Scotch and joke about being a bad Muslim -- something that could be said for an indeterminate but powerful percentage of the adult male Muslim community worldwide. "No one could have put his name on a picture," Amine Ghali, program director of the Kawabiki Democracy Transition Center in Tunis, told me.

With Tunisia's military so far out of the limelight until now, "people had no ideas, no stereotypes" about the armed forces, Ghali said. "The first action they have done was very positive," he added, referring to their role in the uprising. "It has placed them in the public sympathy."

Other Arab governments will now decide how to interpret the lessons of Tunisia -- some perhaps by increasing the rights of their people, or some by increasing the power of their militaries. In Egypt, and across the Middle East and North Africa this week, leaders were promising political and economic reforms and pledging to listen harder to their people, even as they sought -- particularly in Egypt -- to deny their people even the right to protest. Egyptian Internet and cellular networks were down on Friday and a curfew was imposed, all in a futile effort to draw the protestors off the streets.

Despite the growing pressure from their people, however, the Arab world's dictators will find it difficult to break their addiction to armed rule, says Kristina Kausch, a researcher at the Spanish-based FRIDE think-tank who has worked here in Tunisia since 2004. In "the other Arab autocracies, the regime and the military live off each other," Kausch told me. "They don't need the Tunisia lesson. For the other regimes, keeping the militaries happy has been a central pillar of survival."

Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images


The Arab World's Youth Army

Meet the chronically unemployed twenty-somethings fueling social and political upheaval across the Middle East.

SIDI BOUZID, Tunisia — On the gray winter mornings at this out-of-the-way farm town on the scrubby brown steppes between the Mediterranean coast and the Sahara desert, you still see a few old farmers in hooded brown cloaks rolling to market on donkey carts. The occasional old woman, hunched against the cold, comes down the main road through town, tugging a camel.

But come about 9 a.m. in Sidi Bouzid -- where 26-year-old Mohamed Bouazizi lived, burned himself to death, and launched at least one revolution in the Arab world so far -- the blue metal courtyard gates creak open on the squat stucco houses around where he used to live. Out marches an army: broad-shouldered men in their 20s and early 30s in hooded sweatshirts with Sacramento Kings' emblems, or other allusions to Western culture. Young women, crisply dressed in fashionable calf-high boots, clinging long sweaters, and humongous bug-eyed sunglasses. The crowd, growing in number as it streams into Sidi Bouzid's main streets, strides purposefully out of narrow neighborhood gravel lanes smelling of dried sewage.

Those still in school proceed to the classroom, while those without jobs make their way to Sidi Bouzid's coffee shops. But where they -- the Arab world's youth army -- are headed right now is, effectively, nowhere. North Africa and the Middle East now have the second highest percentage of young people in the world, trailing only to sub-Saharan Africa. Sixty percent of the regions' people are under 30, twice the rate of North America, found a study from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. And with the unemployment rate at 10 percent or more, North Africa and the Middle East also have the highest regional rates of joblessness in the world. For the region's young people, it's four times that.

The unhappy youth in Tunisia are not alone in the Arab world. On Jan. 25, tens of thousands of young Egyptians took to the pavement in Cairo and other major Egyptian cities in the largest challenge to President Hosni Mubarak's regime in a generation. Other crowds have shaken the streets of Sanaa, Algiers, and Amman. And rather than the Arab world's usual suspects -- bearded Islamists or jaded leftists -- it is young people, angry at the lack of economic opportunity available to them, who are risking their lives going up against police forces.

It's no coincidence, the young people of Sidi Bouzid say, that the public uprisings surging across the Middle East and North Africa this month started here.

"Every day, my mother tells me go look for a job, why don't you get a job, get a job," Sofiene Dhouibi, 24, told me this week in Sidi Bouzid. "But I know there is no job," Dhouibi said.

"I look. Really, I look. But there is no job,'' Dhouibi continued, doing something so common among North Africa's unemployed that it has earned its own trade name -- the hittistes, meaning, in Arabic slang, those who lean up against the wall.

The oldest of three children, the son of an ambulance driver and a mother who makes spare cash selling olives from the family's groves, Dhouibi spent one-third of his family's monthly income of $210 each month for four years to earn a university degree. When the degree failed to land him a job, his parents doubled down and sent him to school for another two years, for a master's in computer technology.

Now two years on the job market with no job, Dhouibi -- polite, earnest, thoughtful, and fluent in three languages -- spends his morning with other unemployed high school and college graduates at the stand-up tables in Sidi Bouzid's Café Charlotte. He nurses a coffee, thanks to the change his mother gives him from her olive sales. He goes home for lunch, visits an Internet cafe in the afternoon, returns home for dinner, sleeps in a room with his brother, and wakes, hopeless, in the morning to do it all again.

"Imagine your life going on like this," he said at the Café Charlotte, standing over the coffee that was the treat of his day. "Every day the same."

When Bouazizi, a hard-working fruit-seller sent into a blind rage by a bribe-seeking policewoman who confiscated his wares and slapped him, immolated himself on Dec. 17, Dhouibi was there for the first of the demonstrations that followed.

His best friend, a newly graduated mechanical engineer with better family connections and better job prospects, hung back. But Dhouibi threw himself into the swelling protest movement. On the second day of the demonstrations, he pushed to the front of the crowd and helped push a police car out into the street. He helped set it ablaze.

"I felt frightened of the government," Dhouibi told me. "But I felt happy. Very happy."

"No to youth unemployment," graffiti newly painted on a statue in the town's square says. "No to poverty."

Dhouibi has gone back to protest every day since then. He turns up outside the gates of the local union hall, talking to other young men until the day's march takes shape. Even after protests built around the country, reached Tunis, and forced Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisia's president of 23 years, to flee the country, Tunisians have kept up the demonstrations to demand the resignations of the last ministers of a ruling party that brought economic wealth and political power for the elite, but few jobs or rights for the middle class and poor.

Of the 1,400 classmates who went to school with Bouazizi, perhaps 4 or 5 percent have found jobs in the years since, estimated Tarek Hajlaoui, an economics teacher who taught Bouazizi in his last year in school.

"Of course, officially, I encourage my students about the advantages of education, encourage them to go on to university for the sake of their futures," Hajlaoui said, when I spoke with him at a gas station's coffee counter. "But in reality…" Hajlaoui shrugged, trailing off.

Some political scientists warn of the dark side of the "youth bulge." A study by Population Action International asserted that 80 percent of the world's conflicts between 1970 and 1999 started in countries where 60 percent of the population was under 30. (Of course, other factors -- such as the Cold War -- also played a role.)

Political scientists and development economists like Tarik Yousef, founding dean of the Dubai School of Government, saw the Middle East and North African youth bulge coming for years. They urged Arab leaders to harness the skilled, eager, and educated labor force flooding on to the market.

The youth bulge could have been "a precondition for problems, or a precondition for prosperity," Yousef said by phone on Jan. 27, from Dubai.

Even if Middle East and North African governments tried to ready for the surge in workers, the high unemployment rates show that they failed -- in the case of Tunisia, with explosive results.

"This decade of underachievement by educated Tunisians, especially, created a humiliated" generation -- now no longer in their first youth, but in their disillusioned late 20s and early 30s, Yousef pointed out.

The grievances of the Middle East's and North Africa's young -- and now not-so-young -- have been building for years. In the Libyan capital, Tripoli, I met a 31-year-old man, Abdel Basat al-Asady, who daydreamed about marriage with the eagerness of a teenage consumer of Brides magazine. It was a pipe dream for Asady, though. With jobs and housing as short in Libya as elsewhere, he had no prospect of launching his adult life.

He took me to his parents' house, where he and his five grown brothers and sisters, all unemployed or underemployed, pulled from their closets the plastic-and-cardboard wrapped wedding clothes they had already bought in hope of the day each could begin a family. Wedding expenses in the Middle East, with their feasts, gifts, and mandated dowries, run about two and a half times a family's annual income. Absent some boon outside the family's control, no one in Asady's family would be wearing their wedding clothes for years.

In Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen -- everywhere in the Middle East and North Africa where I went the subject came up -- people complained of the corruption that crushes even their last hopes. Getting a job takes wasta -- connections -- to a country's ruling party, tribal leader, or a powerful businessman.

In all those countries, frustrated job-seekers I've talked to say, it takes money, too.

"I would bribe, but I don't know anyone high up enough to bribe," Dhouibi said.

"I don't have money, but if we just got the chance, I would get the money, to get him a job," Dhouibi's kerchiefed mother said, serving me fruit juice in her home of stucco-covered concrete blocks, with a weathered red geranium pushing out of the packed-dirt courtyard outside.

Bouazizi himself, the oldest of six children, never complained of his lot in life, Bouazizi's mother, Manoubia told me.

Bouazizi was 3 when neighbors carried into the house the body of his father, dead of heart troubles on the job as a low-paid laborer in neighboring Libya. Mohamed Bouazizi was 12 when he started working part time, studying by school at day and working for fruit vendors by night. He was 17 when he quit school to work full time so that his younger brothers and sisters could stay in school and his sister, Leila, could go to college.

But he snapped one morning when a policewoman who tormented him for bribes confiscated his fruit -- depriving him of the 5 dinar, or $3, he hoped to make for his family that day. The policewoman slapped him when he tried to take them back. Bouazizi fell to the ground then, crying, his mother recounted.

"Should I become a thief? Should I die?" Bouazizi shouted at the policewoman, according to a friend who watched it all and told Bouazizi's mother. Bouazizi pushed his empty fruit cart to the front gates of the provincial governorate and doused himself with one and a half liters of gasoline. Then he pulled out a match and struck it -- igniting not only himself, but the frustrations of Arab youth everywhere.