Just Whose Side Are Arab Armies On, Anyway?

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-Abadine 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 counterterror 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."