[The following interview was conducted by Otmane Amagour with Hicham Alaoui, Research Associate at Harvard University’s Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, on his recently released volume Security Assistance in the Middle East: Challenges ... and the Need for Change (Lynne Reinner, 2023), which he coedited with Robert Springborg. To read the introduction and table of contents, click here.]
Otmane Amagour (OA): The book explores the relationship between security assistance and the security challenges confronting the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. What is your evaluation of the argument that these challenges would have been much worse had it not been for the security assistance provided by Western governments to the countries of the region?
Hicham Alaoui (HA): First, we reminded ourselves that the societies and states of the MENA exist within a geopolitical reality that is becoming even more competitive, and outside interests will always play a role in the region. We cannot escape this. Our responsibility is to remain realistic but also honor the aspirations of regional peoples, who desire more accountability and responsiveness from their governments.
Second, we reviewed all the possible negative impacts of security assistance, then raised the question of whether or not they could be reduced and positive consequences enhanced. We believe it is possible for security assistance to provide substantial benefits to both providers and recipients, but changes need to be made for that to occur. Among those changes are improving civilian control over the military, supporting political reforms, enhancing financial transparency, and creating economic development. Otherwise, we cannot condone Western-led policies of supporting the military institutions of the MENA without any care for the future, because such a pattern often creates the very instability that Western powers claim they are trying to avoid. The biggest piece of evidence for this was the Arab Spring.
As for the hypothetical of the MENA being worse in the absence of security assistance, the answer depends on our key assumptions. If one assumes that Western security assistance will stop, then certainly we would see many political states be exposed to more popular demands for democracy and dignity. Their militaries would be less financially and technically capable, and perhaps this will create more opportunities for political change. On the other hand, if this vacuum means other actors will have greater influence, which includes both regional actors like Iran and global ones like Russia and China, then we can imagine some MENA states simply relying upon these new forces to balance themselves against their people, or to commit even worse actions, as in Syria. We must be mindful, as well, about the stubborn presence of terrorism and violent extremism.
OA: What is the impact of security assistance on civil-military relations in MENA countries and how has it shaped the process of democratization and the involvement of military institutions in economic and political life?
HA: The impact of security assistance on civil-military relations depends on the political economy of the recipient. This is a critical conclusion that all of our scholars have reached. There is no single model that fits all countries. In Lebanon and Tunisia, for example, security assistance has not empowered militaries politically or economically at the expense of civilian institutions and organizations. It is conceivable that in Lebanon strengthening the Lebanese Armed Forces might in fact be consistent with and indeed supportive of democracy. Nor in the Gulf states has the West empowered militaries at the expense of ruling families, because the latter still serves as the institutional locus of these regimes and states. In authoritarian Arab republics, by contrast, it has served to reinforce the political and in varying degrees the economic power of militaries, to the detriment of civilian leaders. But even absent that security assistance, those militaries would have been the predominant actor in their respective political systems, because this is how such autocratic systems emerged from the colonial period.
OA: How do you situate the role of security assistance in recent and ongoing civil and proxy wars in MENA?
HA: In some countries, competitive security assistance has exacerbated chaos, whereas in others it has reinforced the centralized power of the state. As we see in Sudan now, with the Egyptians providing assistance to the Sudanese military and the Russians supporting the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), the conflict between them has taken much more violent forms. The same has been true, albeit with different providers and recipients of security assistance, in Yemen and Syria, both of which have been touched more deeply by Iranian interventions. Both of their civil conflicts were escalated and amplified by security assistance flows from various sources. By contrast, authoritarian regimes in Algeria and Egypt have been directly reinforced by security assistance, which of course has serious consequences in terms of also supporting their authoritarian political systems. But it also helped ensure the cohesion of their states in the face of social conflict.
So, in light of these varied outcomes, it would be wrong to characterize all security assistance as uniformly devastating. They have many negative consequences to be sure, but we must treat each country as a unique context. What matters is not just who gives the arms or funding to a partner military or militia force, but the existing conflict parameters on the ground and how the political institutions of these regimes and states function.
OA: As the largest provider of security assistance in MENA, the United States has been propping up the capacity and resources of autocratic governments in the region. Is this an intentional effort on the part of Washington to maintain the political status quo in these countries, despite its professed support for democratization in the region?
HA: The US has multiple objectives with its assistance to the MENA, some of which are in competition with one another. It seeks to project both its hard and soft power into the region. The former means “building partner capacities,” which is the technical term we use when describing the institutional and technological resources of the military institutions of these countries. Projecting soft power, by contrast, induces the US to support democratization as an antidote to terrorism as well as a buffer against anti-democratic external actors like Russia and Iran. The relative weight of those objectives favors the former, which is further reinforced by the bureaucratic power of the Department of Defense as opposed to that of the State Department or the United States Agency for International Development, the primary US provider of democratization assistance.
There is also a conundrum involving human rights. Rhetorically, the US and indeed the broader West promote the ideal of human rights. However, democratization often brings periods of unpredictability, or even instability. That kind of uncertainty scares Western governments, and they are all too willing to sacrifice any human rights idealism they have within their repertoire of soft power. This breeds a politics of cynicism, particularly among the peoples of the region.
So, the balance of the game is the following. The US and its allies more generally would ideally prefer a region filled with democratic governments that align themselves with the West. Yet, they are all too willing to sacrifice this fantasy when strategic issues such as political stability, counterterrorism, and containing Iran are at stake. Dealing with such problems requires assisting and supporting partner militaries in allies like Egypt, Tunisia, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia. Again, this is the geopolitical reality.
OA: How did the security assistance help shape civil-military relations in Tunisia? And how did this affect Tunisia’s democratization trajectory after 2011?
HA: Tunisia’s military has never taken a significant role in the country’s politics, unlike the militaries of many other Arab countries. Historically, President Habib Bourguiba was distrustful of the military and avoided investing substantial resources in building a military. As a result of this strategy, the Tunisian military never came to dominate political and economic life. Thus, France and the United States provided economic, political, and security assistance to Tunisia’s military over many decades, which contributed to its professionalization and indeed helped keep Tunisian soldiers out of domestic politics. The key point to emphasize is that these external actors operated within the parameters of the domestic game, which was created by the post-colonial process of state formation.
Tunisia’s lack of a strong, interventionist military was an important factor in its transition to democracy after the Arab Spring. There have been many protests in Tunisia since 2011, but the military has not intervened in support of one party over another. This helped sustain the democratic transition in its early years. Tunisia’s reversal to authoritarianism since 2021 resulted when the civilian leadership dissolved Tunisia’s parliament and began curbing opposition. Again, the military has not taken a strong stance on this, which reflects its generally apolitical role. The democratic backsliding has more to do with the corruption and political paralysis that characterized the government in the preceding years.
OA: The book contains a chapter on the complex Lebanese situation. Would you say that civil-military relations in Lebanon transcend the question of security assistance and is defined by the sectarian structure of the state and its securitization? Is it possible to see a democratic opening emerging in such a situation?
HA: The Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) are a counterbalance to Hizbullah, which acts as a strategic proxy to Iran. No further democratization of Lebanon can occur without a substantial reduction in Hizbullah’s powers. The LAF is the only body that might be able to provide a counterbalance, and support civilian political actors. The problem, of course, is that sectarian dynamics, a failing bureaucracy, and the dysfunctional economy have all hollowed out the Lebanese state. For all intents and purposes, the LAF is one of the few institutions that still works in Lebanon. Of course, it should not be seen as a model for democratizers elsewhere, for in this context it merely is a positive actor by default. It is for that reason that the West continues to supply significant security assistance to the LAF, although this is likely not enough for Lebanon to remain fully sovereign and prosperous.
OA: One of the book’s chapters suggests that the nature of US security assistance to Egypt impedes any democratization project in the country and proposes recommendations for reform. What will compel the Egyptian army to relinquish power and advance democratic change?
HA: The book suggests that by developing civilian knowledge of and engagement with militaries, including and especially that of Egypt, security assistance providers can begin to develop a basis for civilian control over the armed forces, which is the backbone of democracy. We, therefore, recommend that building the institutional capacity of the Egyptian military, in part by including civilians, is a way to render the military more accountable and professional. Democratization is another and more distant matter, but one should not let the perfect be the enemy of the good. In other words, some reform is better than doing nothing, and even a little reform today can be the fulcrum that opens the door to long-term change.
One important caveat is that Western security assistance to the Egyptian military should be seen as distinctive from the Egyptian military’s enormous role within the country’s economy and public life. The latter stems from historical developments and the nature of the Egyptian state, and so predates the entry of the US and its allies into this context in the late 1970s with the signing of the peace treaty with Israel. The two factors are related, but not the same.
In addition, there is consensus among our scholarly community that we cannot reproduce past policies without any critique. The US will always support the Egyptian military for various strategic reasons it has in the MENA, such as counterterrorism and Israel. This reality must be accepted. Our task is to imagine ways to improve and reform this situation, and one is by repeatedly emphasizing to the Egyptian military that it must not see itself as towering over all civilian actors, whether they are political parties or ordinary Egyptians who hunger for dignity and participation.
OA: What are the features that make European security assistance to MENA different from that of the United States? And why did they both fail to achieve their desired goals?
HA: European security assistance both mimics and differs from that provided by the US. As for the former, European countries train and equip militaries, albeit in smaller amounts, as does the US, But the EU and NATO also engage in security sector reform, which seeks to render more accountable to civilian institutions all coercive organizations in any given country, whether the military, the police, the security services or the courts. The US does not take such a holistic perspective. That neither has achieved its goals in sufficient amount is due to the difficulty of the task and to the deficiency of the ways and means of providing security assistance. In the case of European countries, it is too specialized and limited in relative quantity to have a profound impact, a problem accentuated by the relative power balance between them, on the one hand, and the US and Russia, on the other. MENA states seek security assistance from powerful actors as insurance policies, insurance with European countries cannot provide.
OA: How did US security assistance shape the political field in Jordan?
HA: Jordan is a unique case of how dependence upon Western support reinforces a domestic process of deepening authoritarianism. Since the late 1950s, the US has provided so much economic and military assistance that the Jordanian state now cannot function without it. Washington encouraged a political system in which the Jordanian Armed Forces not only served the Hashemite monarchy but also monitored society and suppressed opposition. Because Jordan is a peace partner of Israel and was treated as a faithful Western ally for all the grand strategic moves of this century, such as the US-led invasion of Iraq and the so-called “War on Terror,” this political and military duopoly continues to attract Western support. The Jordanian military still receives much of its equipment and arms from the US and its allies, and the Jordanian state remains dependent upon Western assistance to function at even a very basic level. The goal of Western stakeholders is very simple—it is stability, not democracy.
OA: Is it fruitful to continue trying to reform the existing “security assistance paradigm”?
HA: All of our contributors to this project believe this should continue, but with reforms as suggested in the book. Again, we must carefully operate within the confines of our existing geopolitical reality. For better or for worse, our region will always attract the ambitions and interests of global powers. For now, it is the US and its European allies. Tomorrow, it may be the Russians and Chinese. Given this, we must think about more productive pathways where the familiar pattern of these external actors providing arms, intelligence, financing, and knowledge to partner military institutions in the MENA can be harnessed to positive ends. We cannot forget that what every public audience craves is fundamental, namely democracy, dignity, and voice. These demands from below will never go away. Our challenge is how to link these two very different dynamics.