Final Report

Security Institutions and the Arab Spring: Assessing the Impact

On 21 and 22 March 2012, the Centre for National Security Studies (CNSS) and the NATO Defence College (NDC) hosted a symposium at the Canadian Forces College (CFC) entitled, Security Institutions and the Arab Spring: Assessing the Impact. The bilingual symposium was designed to examine the macro and micro impacts that the revolutions known as the ‘Arab Spring’ have had on the broader Middle East region. The Arab Spring shattered many security and policy assumptions about the region and the symposium focused on challenging and exploring new paradigms relating to the role of security forces and institutions in these countries, both nationally and regionally. The symposium consisted of six panels as well as a final session dealing with implications for current Canadian operations.

By focusing on the evolution of security institutions, this symposium differs from most conferences held lately on the general theme of the Arab spring. Indeed, many events organised during the past year have focused on various aspects of the geopolitical remodeling facing the Middle East. But, as recently noted a Canadian Security Intelligence Service report, the research community still knows very little about the impact of these changes on the armies and security forces of the regional and extra-regional countries. This symposium aimed to fill this gap by exploring a crucial aspect of the Arab Spring and its application for the region but also for NATO member countries.

Panel 1: Egypt the Catalyst

The first panel of the conference consisted of two presentations on the role of Egypt as the “catalyst” in the Arab Spring. Both presentations highlighted the complex nature of civil-military relations within the country. During the protests against the regime, the Egyptian military emerged as a ‘protector of the people’ and did not crack down on protests by civilians. This was attributed to the fact that there have historically been strong linkages between the military and the people, as most middle and lower class families have at least one family member in the military. In this sense, the military has pursued an active role of engagement with the middle and lower classes in the country, where the military has been seen as a service provider in Egypt.

The first presentation dealt with the role of the Egyptian military both before and after the January 2011 uprisings against the regime and the eventual resignation of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Asking the question “whose army is it anyway?” the speaker outlined the historical precedents of the military as a tool used for political legitimation and policy shaping, as well as the role of the military as a ‘national protector’. During the revolution, the idea of the military as a ‘protector’ was further entrenched by the perception that the military had disobeyed orders from Mubarak to crack down on the protestors. The speaker argued that the Egyptian military reluctantly capitalized on this idea and assumed power to resume stability. Post-Mubarak it has drawn a roadmap to transfer to democracy and remove itself from power.

The speaker addressed fears that the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) is attempting to entrench its power rather than arranging a true transition to democracy. There have been fears that the military might attempt to remain a political actor rather than transition power to an Islamist government. He argued that the military has been trying to strike a delicate balance in the transition from autocracy to democracy. Conceding that a military organization does not make for “the most natural of democrats”, the speaker argued that the military is on track to hand over power by June 2012. Though there have been roadblocks, such as the SCAF’s constitutional proposals that many labelled anti-democratic, he presented a picture of a country in flux and a military trying its best to administer a difficult transition to democracy.

Post June 2012, the speaker stated that it is likely that the military will retain its role as a ‘guarantor of stability’ in the country. He argued that this is in line with the historical place of the military in the country and that Egypt’s future cannot be separated from its historical realities. What form the military’s role will be remains undecided, though the speaker mentioned the Turkish model of democracy as a possible future.

The second presentation discussed the emerging power dynamics within Egypt and the greater Middle East vis-à-vis the United States government. The speaker argued that a complex mixture of domestic and regional developments have eroded the traditionally strong relationship between Egypt and the United States. Characterizing the US-Egypt relationship as an “investment in regional stability”, she briefly detailed the historical relationship between the two countries and then discussed the current challenges. Historically, the military has been the conduit for close ties between Egypt and the US due to the long-standing military aid agreement between the two. Post-revolution, the increased role of the SCAF in the country has caused concern on the part of the US. The speaker argued that from the US perspective, its historical relationship with the military was borne out of necessity (as the military was seen as less corrupt in relation to other institutions in the country). In face of the slow and non-transparent transition to democracy by the SCAF, the US is beginning to question the role and intentions of the military in the process.

The speaker outlined two possible roles for the military in Egypt’s future: an increased role for the military based on the Turkish model of governance whereby the military would manipulate constitutional principles to retain control and act as a guarantor of stability or the second, where the military would withdraw from the political arena after elections in order to avoid the responsibility for the instability that comes with dealing with Egypt’s economic and debt problems. Overall, she depicted the role of the SCAF as an organization that is trying to balance political tensions with the existence of several power centres. This has caused difficulty for the US when attempting to leverage power in the country. However, this is due to the fact that Egypt is in the process of redefining its role both domestically and on the world stage. Ultimately, the speaker paints a picture of a country in flux, with new alliances forming and in the future Western countries will find that there is more competition for leverage in the country. In the future, the role of the military rests on many factors, including the influence of the Moslem Brotherhood, the Salafists, Iran and Syria. In terms of the Egypt-US relationship, the speaker stated that the US has become wearier toward Egypt but harbours no illusions about Egypt’s reliance on US military aid. The current US position is that future aid is contingent on the fact that Egypt must honour its peace accord with Israel and have a democratic transition from the SCAF to a civilian government.

Panel 2: Iran & Lebanon — The Shia Actors

The second panel focused on the roles of Iran and Lebanon in the region and the reactions of the two countries’ armed forces to the emerging dynamics in the region.

The first speaker discussed the peculiar position that Lebanon plays within the Arab geostrategic environment. Located at the intersection of many of the Middle East’s conflicts, Lebanon was founded as a power-sharing agreement between Sunni Muslims and Christians. Under this arrangement, the Shi’ites were left without a political voice. The civil war that lasted from 1975-1990 cast a shadow over the country. During this period the Lebanese military was sidelined due to its multiethnic character. The military’s decision to remain uninvolved in the conflict created the idea that the Lebanese military should not interfere with inter-sectarian differences.

In terms of the Arab Spring’s impact on the Lebanon, the speaker argued that the Arab Spring touched Lebanon ‘later in the game’ than many other Arab countries due to the fact that Lebanon has a democratic system. She also argued that the movement took on a different form in the country, as popular anger relating to poverty and underdevelopment in the country is instead directed toward conflicts in the region (rather than targeting authoritarian rule). One major issue that the speaker highlighted as important for Lebanon is the issue of Syria, as Lebanese society has been strongly divided on the issue. Hezbollah’s support of the Assad regime has caused a rift in the country and could threaten to pull the country into conflict. In terms of the role the military could take in this scenario, the speaker argued that the military’s inability to agree on issues of pan-Arabism, Syria and other fundamental questions continues to affect the ability of the military to act in any sort of cohesive manner. In this sense, the military has a difficult time navigating the complex demographic and political divisions within Lebanese society. Politicians in the country fear to use the military for this reason. Ultimately, the speaker argued that any sort of prediction relating to the future role of the armed forces in Lebanon is purely speculative as the military is in a position where it will only act with directions from government. However, government fears to use the military for contentious domestic issues, therefore the military is unlikely to come into play.

The second presentation dealt with the impact of the Arab Spring on the political-military system of Iran and more specifically the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC or Pasdaran). The group has traditionally played an ideological role in the country, acting as “guardians of the revolution” and the Islamic republic. Tracing the historical role of the IRGC to present day, the speaker explained that the group had undergone a period of “professionalization” during the 1980s and 1990s. Having gained power throughout this period, the 2005 election of Ahmadinejad represented the power of the conservative movement and the IRGC within the country. Throughout 2004-2005, the Guards campaigned to marginalise other groups within the system and acquired even greater strength and influence within the Iranian regime.

Placing the IRGC in context of the Arab Spring, the speaker pointed to the 2009 Iranian elections and the repression of the Green Movement as the first real test of the IRGC’s political influence within the Islamic republic. During this period, the IRGC proved its capacity to conduct domestic operations and adapt to the challenges of the environment. The speaker also argued that the issue was a political victory for the Pasdaran, as it demonstrated their capacity to “save the regime” and reinforced their power in Iran’s military-industrial complex. In 2011, the IRGC was able to further cement its power by further curbing the in Iran. Whereby
The Pasdaran were able to profit from the crisis by gaining further influence and control of the executive, judicial and legislative branches of the country.

Looking forward, the speaker argues that the IRGC has been encouraged by its internal victories and will likely move to further influence Iran’s foreign policy and the development of a pro-Iranian network in the region, especially in neighbouring Iraq and Syria. He stated that the IRGC has never been more robust or influential, however, paradoxically the heightened power of the IRGC could become a detriment to the organization in the long term as the regime becomes more rigid and isolated resulting in a decrease of its regional influence. The speaker argued that Iran is becoming a military regime behind a theocratic façade and the ascent of the Pasdaran has accelerated this process. In this context, it can be expected that Iran will become increasingly isolated and could possibly lose its regional power status.

Panel 3: Israel — The Silent Observer

The third panel of the symposium discussed the Israeli strategy in face of changing regional dynamics. The first presentation discussed the Israeli Defence Force’s (IDF) reaction to the Arab Spring, characterizing the response as a “wait and see” strategy. The upheaval caused by the Arab Spring has caused many power shifts in the region and internally, the IDF has become excited at the prospect of being involved in a traditional, or “real” war. As a response to the Arab Spring and this prospect, the IDF has begun to turn back to more conventional military tactics (rather than the irregular warfare tactics they had previously developed). The speaker argued that this shift has not necessarily been beneficial for the IDF as the irregular warfare tactics had been to their benefit. He argued that this strategic shift is closely related to the Tsahal’s difficult relationship with irregular warfare and the fact that the IDF continues to think of warfare in conventional terms. In this sense, he argued that the IDF and Israel do not fully appreciate the idea that ‘war is politics’.
Using a neo-institutional framework to outline the IDF’s strategy, the speaker explained that when the IDF changed its tactics to conform to the needs of irregular warfare, the values that the IDF and the public associated with war did not. This resulted in a weakening of the IDF’s position in Israeli society. As well, Israeli warfare tactics tend to rely heavily on techno-centric solutions that achieve military objectives in a conventional manner and diminish fatalities. This is due to a low tolerance for causalities within Israel. Adding these factors to the close civil-military relations in the country, the speaker argued that Israel has pursued a myopic military strategy.

The result of the Arab Spring has been that the IDF welcomes the “return” of classic enemies and “real” warfare associated with a less sympathetic Egypt and a militant Syria. At the same time, the IDF must continue its practices of irregular warfare against Iran. The speaker argued that this dichotomy could mean a lack of incentive for the IDF to develop a true strategic approach and will likely a result in the entrenchment of “real” (conventional) warfare in the IDF psyche. He argued that this could ultimately mean that Israel will seek strengthened bilateral and multilateral ties with NATO members and attempt to strengthen its ties with the United States in order to further develop its technological capabilities. One solution the speaker proposed for NATO members would be to provide the IDF with a statute comparable to Australia’s relationship with NATO, leveraging pre-existing bilateral ties.

The second speaker discussed Israel’s high-level strategy considerations in face of the Arab Spring revolutions. Arguing that 2011 changed many of the assumptions relating to power dynamics in the region, he highlighted that the loss of Egypt as a reliable ally has forced Israel to reconsider its defence strategy and budget. He argued that Israel might have to forgo its plans to shorten the length of conscription and develop a strategy relating to an emergent and possibly unfriendly Egypt. The speaker also discussed the role of Jordan in the region. He disagreed with the view that Jordan could possibly fill the former role of Egypt as the mediator for the US in the Middle East region, stating that Jordan’s relationships are with the military and intelligence communities and it does not possess the political ties needed to advocate for peace in the region.

The speaker also discussed the Israeli attitude toward the Assad family, stating that from the Israeli view the Assad family represents a relatively stable regime that “didn’t seem to want the Golan Heights that badly” despite its long history with Hezbollah. Ultimately, the speaker argued that the Arab Spring has brought a great deal of uncertainty to Israel and that it is likely that Israel would rather have the pre-revolution rulers in power as they represented a at least a modicum of certainty and stability.

Panel 4: Turkey — The Wild Card

The fourth panel of the conference discussed the role of Turkey in the Arab Spring, describing the country as a ‘wild card.’ Throughout some of the other panels, Turkey was referred to as a model for other Middle Eastern countries as its Prime Minister, Erdoğan is very popular, the economy is relatively developed, the country has been able to find a good balance between secularism and Islamism, and it has a strong, independent foreign policy.

The first speaker discussed the idea of Turkey as a model for governance and argued that it does not represent the type of role model that many believe it to be. He discussed the role of religion in democracy, arguing that one cannot have a true democracy unless religion can be excluded from the political sphere. Using quantitative indicators for the health of a democracy, including participation, pluralism and accountability, he argued that Turkey’s democracy has regressed in certain areas. He highlighted the fact that many of Turkey’s generals are currently imprisoned for attempting to overthrow the Islamic government. He argued that the reasons why Turkey is viewed as a ‘model’ are unclear and in his opinion, it is solely based on the fact that they are an Islamic democracy.
The second speaker discussed the unique role that the Turkish military has played in modernizing Turkey. The military in Turkey represents a unique role in the constitution: to protect the country both externally and internally. He also discussed the rise of the AKP party, discussing its role in the liberalization of the economy, freeing the media and pro-European Union Stance. The speaker argued that with the rise of the AKP, the traditional role of the military as the modernizing force in the country has changed. Particularly if Turkey were to join the EU, it would have to be the military that would change, something the military has not been willing to accept.

Moving his attention toward Turkey’s foreign policy in the Middle East, the second speaker argued that Turkey has become an increasingly important actor in the region where it has traditionally been quite aloof. Traditionally, Turkey has been seen as a bulwark against the Soviets to the Middle East and the JCSP 38 DL2 Shipping Info. However, the end of the Cold War brought change to Turkish foreign policy, diminishing the importance of a Turkey-US partnership as Turkey’s security concerns migrated to its southern borders. With the fragmentation of Iraq, fears of Kurdish nationalism, and nuclear Iran, Turkey is increasingly focused on the Middle East. The speaker argued that despite critiques, Turkey is not turning its back on the west rather Turkey’s shift represents a changing security environment and a need to diversify Turkey’s foreign policy.

The speaker argued that this is mirrored in Turkey’s renewed relations with Iran, Iraq and Syria. He argued that this is rooted in Turkey’s energy needs for Iranian gas and oil and in the Kurdish issue, as Turkey attempts to engage with other countries that have large Kurdish minorities. In the context of the Arab Spring this has created new challenges as democratic impulses have undermined Turkey’s foreign policy toward the Middle East. Turkey’s “Zero Problems” approach has been challenged by regime change and the country has had to recognize the aspirations of the region’s populations for regime change. This has placed Turkey in a dilemma, being placed between supporting autocratic leaders and the aspirations of the people.

Panel 5: The Maghreb — The Fertile Ground

The fifth panel of the conference focused on the Arab Spring revolutions in the Maghreb, focusing more specifically on Tunisia and Algeria.

The first speaker started the panel by discussing civil-military relations in Tunisia and the role that the Tunisian military played in the Tunisian revolutions. He referenced the failed 1962 coup d’état by the Tunisian military and the difficult position that the military was placed in. He stated that it was a precedent that the military did not want to repeat and after the incident the military took a more developmental than political role in Tunisian society. During Ben Ali’s regime, the President tended to privilege his security institutions over the military and as a result the military did not have the same sense of loyalty to Ben Ali.  Once the uprisings began in 2011, the Tunisian army did not move to defend Ben Ali and the army became heroes in the eyes of the Tunisian people by not exercising force against them.

Turning his attention to post-revolution Tunisia, the speaker outlined the major security concerns that face the country. Tunisia’s large, open borders with both Algeria and Libya have made a prime area for arms trafficking. The southern part of the country is engulfed by the Sahara desert, making it difficult to limit the passage of arms from Algeria to Libya. There are also concerns that terrorist groups could infiltrate the area, such as Al-Qaeda cells from Sudan, Niger and Chad. Combined with a lack of civil society and legitimacy in the smaller southern towns, the military faces struggles to clamp down on lawlessness coming not only from within the country, but also Algeria and Libya.

The second speaker outlined the current state of Algeria and civil-military relations within the country. He argued that Algeria is more stable than in the past but the country continues to be dominated by the military. However, there are many demographic factors that will soon come into play in the country. Algeria currently has a young population and is a major producer of petrol and exporter of gas. At the same time, there are problems of high unemployment, corruption, inequality and an absence of governance. The old guard dominates the political system and there is a growing ideological rift between the younger populations and the aging military leaders. The result is that questions of succession are looming.

The speaker discussed the roles of the conventional army, the gendarmerie and the security services in the country, outlining the political role of both the army and security services. While the country remains a formal democracy, he argued that informal sources of power from these two organizations represent the real decision making power. However, there is a growing rift between officers as the younger generation, trained in Algeria, have developed a less political tone than the older generation and have a tendency to be more professionally minded. The speaker argued that this tendency could have important implications as the younger generation begins to take the lead and the older soldiers retire.

Using a model developed by Narcis Serra in The Military Transition: Democratic Reform of the Armed Forces, the second speaker argued that Algeria is currently in the third stage of political development, “controlling but not governing.” He argued that Algeria currently possesses a system of controlled pluralism where there can be debate on government policies but not on the regime itself and the system is currently dominated by the security services within the country. Looking forward to prospects for change and the possibility of an Arab Spring-like revolution, the speaker outlines the opportunities and challenges faced by the country. He argued that if the reform effort is serious, pressures from the revolutions of the Arab Spring, the political class, the officers of the new generation and the public could push for institutional change within the country. However, he also highlighted the challenges, including Algeria’s oil wealth, its weak democratic culture, and political immaturity on the part of the opposition could hobble any efforts. He argued that the efforts could easily fail and the worst-case scenarios could mirror events in Libya, Syria and Yemen. The best-case scenarios would be transitions that mirror Egypt or Tunisia, however the speaker highlighted that such a transition was highly unlikely as Algeria does not have the same institutional capacities as these countries. Overall, he highlighted that change in the country is slow and that Algerian leaders have not invested the time needed to train new statesman able to speak, understand and explain policy. However, there continue to be opportunities for change and development.

Panel 6: Impact for NATO Partnerships

The sixth panel of the conference focused on the challenges faced by NATO and its partners in a changing geostrategic environment. In this context NATO has been trying to redefine its approach to the Middle East region.

The first presentation focused on the impact of the Arab Spring on NATO partnerships. More specifically the first speaker discussed opportunities and challenges faced by the NATO’s JCSP 38 DL2 Shipping Info Dialogue (MD) and the Istanbul Cooperative Initiative (ICI). As developing new partnerships is currently a core priority of the alliance, NATO has been reaching out to prospective partners since the 1990s. The two main instruments that NATO has used have been the MD and ICI.  The goal of the MD has been to achieve better understanding between NATO and its Mediterranean partners, dispel misconceptions about NATO and only to a certain extent contribute to regional stability. In 2004 at the Istanbul Summit, the ICI was created in partnership with four Gulf countries  - Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates. The goal of the program is to enhance regional stability by focusing on practical activities. The ICI is different from the MD in the sense that it is less multilateral, however the speaker noted that the ICI is moving toward more dialogue between its members. He stated that this project has a potential to grow and is still a work in progress.

Though the MD and ICI have developed some understanding and good trust between NATO and its partner countries, such as getting troop contributions for the Libya mission, the first speaker questioned why the MD and ICI have not moved at a faster pace. He argued that one factor is the quickly changing strategic environment due to the upheavals caused by the Arab Spring. Some observers have questioned the MD and ICI’s relevance considering the new environment created by the revolutions and the increasing differentiation between partner countries. He stated that this is a question that is raised within the alliance; however it is important for NATO to continue to strengthen these countries institutions.

One option for NATO to engage the Middle Eastern and North African region would be to focus on practical co-operation with those countries that want it through defence reform and promoting inter-operability. However, the first speaker argued that NATO’s support should be limited to those with the ability to contribute to NATO operations. Another possibility for NATO involvement in the region would be to offer support through a ‘planning and review’ process. He argued that this might be an opportunity for NATO to explore but the relationships are not yet well developed enough to pursue this option. Overall, he highlighted that Middle Eastern and North African region as an area of potential development for NATO partnerships.

The second speaker spoke to the symposium about the recent NATO operations in Libya under the banner of Operation Unified Protector. As a head planner at the operations level, he was about to outline the key lessons learned by NATO throughout the process. The operation in Libya involved a dynamic planning process, as the timeline that NATO acted one was greatly reduced and the tolerance for civilian casualties was zero.

In terms of planning, Operation Unified Protector had approximately three weeks to write four operations plans, as compared to two years for Bosnia. NATO was forced to react as quickly as it possibly could in an anarchic and volatile environment, using a concurrent planning process with little understanding of the environment and forces that it would be facing. In this instance, Unified Protector was forced to use intelligence gathered from social media and news as planning information. As well, the “no boots on the ground” mandate made the mission more difficult at the operational planning level.

In terms of challenges faced in the operation, the first speaker described NATO’s Crisis Exercise Programme as being riddled with shortfalls at the targeting and decision-making levels. As well, he noted that the operation involved some baggage from Afghanistan as many soldiers assumed there would be people on the ground to direct the force to the target area. In this instance, NATO was forced to rely on anti-Qaddafi forces to locate targets. He argued that the aid they received from Libyans on the ground was the decisive element of the mission that allowed it to succeed.

Overall, the operation faced high levels of uncertainty and ambiguity and revealed a lack of expertise and equipment within NATO, without the US as lead. However, despite the condensed planning process and strict mandate of the operation, the mission went well. The operation was also successful in the field of intelligence collection and sharing – the command was able to restrict the audience of intelligence briefings so the information would not be leaked to countries around the world. At the same time, NATO partners were successful in sharing their information in order to have better intelligence fusion.

In terms of lessons learned from NATO’s procurement of troops, the first speaker highlighted that in terms of equipment, NATO really needed American resources. As an organization, the militaries of member countries do not have enough ISR, tankers or UAV’s. He stated that if NATO were to run the mission again without the support of the Americans. However, he did note that members did possess enough precision-guided instruments.

Current Canadian Operations

The final session of the symposium outlined the Canadian Forces involvement in Libya through Operation Mobile and Operation Sirius, now Metric, featuring presentations by Navy and Air Component Commanders. Their presentations built on the previous presentation highlighting the challenges of coordinating the armed forces of multiple countries in a given mission.


This joint CFC-CNSS-NDC research symposium aimed at regrouping academics and senior military officers to discuss the impact of the “Arab Spring” on the organisation of armed forces in several key countries of the broader Middle East and the implications for the two NATO partnerships in this vast region. The change of political regimes in a number of Middle Eastern Arab countries is calling upon armed forces in those countries to redefine their role and their relationships with the civilian authorities, especially in view of maintaining their institutional legitimacy. Militaries in other non-Arab countries of the region, like Turkey, Iran or Israel, will also be called upon to assess the long-term implications, for them, of the Arab Spring.

A better understanding of these long-term implications is critical for NATO countries to assess how their relationships with Middle East militaries might evolve in the future. To allow NATO and MD-ICI countries to rethink or, if needed, reshape their partnership, it is necessary to understand what is going on in the region’s political and military organisations. This was the purpose of this international research symposium with a view to helping policymakers to define a common NATO approach to the region.

This symposium was a resounding success. As noted by one participant in his official letter of thanks: “the choice of the topic was timely and innovative, the organisation outstanding, and the spirit of cooperation, service and traditional Canadian hospitality prevailing”. Above all, the event helped to reinforces the institutional linkages between the two defense colleges. According to Brigadier-General Craig Hilton: “This union of our Colleges is the first of its kind, and springs from a shared awareness of the defense and security challenges brought on by what has come to be known as the Arab Spring“. According to Dr. Karl-Heinz Kamp, NDC Director of the Research Division, this event was organized professionally and bodes well for increased cooperation between the NDC and the CFC.

LCol Angelo Caravaggio
Director, CNSS

Dr. Pierre Pahlavi
Deputy Director, CNSS

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