Civil-Military Purgatory in Egypt and Syria

As the last days of Wimbledon 2013 draw to an end, we are reminded that tennis is the most violent of all war-games known to man; it is played on a restricted and limited territory, there is no time limit, there must be an absolute victor, the opponents have no team support, and the rules are so defined that the winner takes all. Spectators sit in total silence during the ball play, looking alternatively left and right as the ball is hit between the players for hours until their necks hurt. Israeli residents are well attuned to this sport, for they are doing the same with the situation in Egypt and Syria, looking left and right, north and south, till their necks hurt, while sitting silently and watching. The figurative ball is the wave-like cycle of domestic strife in these states that catches alternating media attention. It is the media that determined that this week Israeli eyes are to the South on President Morsi and the Egyptian Army; it is the media that determined that last week Israeli eyes were to the North as the UN Security Council voted to extend the UNDOF mandate for another six months.

In practice Israel has looked at both countries deteriorating situation simultaneously and continuously for over two years. In doing so it is apparent that there are similarities between Egypt and Syria; this has enabled Israel to consider them as one and the same; the same figurative tennis court. In both cases civil-military relations is the crux of determining the domestic outcome; and in both cases Israel needs to pay attention to civil-military relations and the potential role that the military will play in any new regime. This is a reminder that 2013 is the 40th anniversary of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, where Israel didn’t pay particular attention to civil-military relations and the role of the military in Egypt and Syria; and consequently was surprised by an attack.

Despite these conjectural similarities there are also distinct differences in the specifics of the domestic civil-military relations in Egypt and Syria. In Syria the military has granted almost 100% loyalties to President Assad despite the alleged large number of civilian casualties; the military serves the state and Assad is head of state. On the other hand in Egypt, President Morsi is facing an ultimatum by the military to resolve his differences and serve the people; for the military claim they serve the people and not the elected state leadership. These are significant differences internally in each country for Syrians face potential protracted violence and Egyptians the potential opposite; yet this situation of civil-military relations in each state has the precise contrary consequences for Israel.

In Syria the military are portraying an abstract professionalism; they regard their role strictly in military terms and conservative in social values, beliefs and attitudes, and appear to remain a politically neutral arm of government and thus amenable to political direction and control. The Syrian Army focuses on the science of war, a pure military space, and the technical aspects of war using violence to achieve victory. Should the leadership change in Syria, then it is apt to assume that the Syrian military will tag on to the new leadership in the same professional manner. This generates a semblance of continuity and certainty for Israel to handle its northern border; Israel can work towards analyzing Syrian military leadership as an entity to work with should Assad fall from power.

Compared to this in Egypt the military institution portrays itself as deeply embedded in society and dependent on it to effectively perform its responsibilities. What this means is that the armed forces can be adaptive to external change; for better or for worse. Control of the armed forces is based on the military values being embedded in those of its society and is expected to change according to transformations occurring therein. The current struggle in Egypt is between supporters of Islamist President Morsi and secular opponents. The real danger is not knowing if the military are secular or Islamist or if they are only for themselves. The Egyptian military are thus becoming an unknown quantity that generates a semblance of uncertainty for Israel to handle its Southern border; does Israel work with political leadership or with military leadership in Egypt; who is control and for how long? The ball is in the court of the Egyptians and the Syrians, as Israel is only a spectator; yet the duration and length of the game can also exhaust spectators to a perilous level.

Dr. Glen Segell, FRGS, is Researcher at The Institute for National Security Studies Tel Aviv, Lecturer at Bar-IlanUniversity and Senior Researcher for the Ariel Research Center for Defense and Communication

About the Author
Dr Glen Segell is Fellow at the Ezri Center for Iran & Persian Gulf Studies, University of Haifa.