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Force Is Likely A Dated Formula Against Protesters


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning, I'm Steve Inskeep.

Arab rulers struggling to stay in power have all the forces of the state behind them, including military forces. Yet there's a critical reason that uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt succeeded: The army did not fire on civilians. Something proved to be more powerful than all those tanks and guns.

NPR's Deborah Amos got some insight into what that something is. She went to Abu Dhabi in the Persian Gulf, which is hosting the largest arms expo in the Middle East. It turns out those arms are less important than the people holding them.

DEBORAH AMOS: I'm at an arms bazaar. Arab officials and generals meet every year here at Abu Dhabi's convention center, to buy the latest military hardware. And sales are expected to be brisk at a time of unprecedented unrest. Arab generals, trained to counter foreign threats and organized domestic coups, face a new challenge. Arab leaders have ordered many of them to use force to confront popular uprisings of young people with political demands.

But force is an outdated formula, says Dr. Mustafa Alani, a security advisor in London and here in the Gulf.

Dr. MUSTAFA ALANI (Senior Advisor and Program Director, Security and Terrorism Studies, Gulf Research Center): I don't think any regime, so far, able to develop some sort of strategy. Basically you can see panicking - a degree of panicking among Arab leadership; they're still in the shock of what happened in Egypt and Tunisia.

AMOS: Shocked, he says, that Western allies so quickly abandoned long time friends. Last week, Britain and France halted arms sales to Bahrain after troops opened fire on demonstrations there.

Dr. ALANI: Arab leaders are still shocked, says Alani, that Egypt and Tunisia's military establishment refused orders to shoot.

Dr. ALANI: They discovered that popular uprising can not be stopped, even by force. So it is a Catch-22, what to do.

AMOS: And so the crisis deepens, says Alani.

Dr. ALANI: So now, we have a crisis of confidence between the people and leadership, and between the leadership and the military institution.

AMOS: A crisis of confidence that Riad Kahwaji, the founder of the Institute of Near East Military Analysis, also sees.

Mr. RIAD KAHWAJI (Founder and Chief Executive Officer, Institute of Near East Military Analysis): Of course. I mean Arab leaders, I'm talking here about those leaders who have some sort of autocracy, are questioning whether the army would do the same - would behave the same.

AMOS: Kahwaji has been focusing on the military role in the region for years. He says Arab armies often share the grievances of the population, especially conscripts and junior officers. He says they think twice when ordered to fire on civilians armed only with cell phones and cameras.

And there's another factor.

Mr. KAHWAJI: And also we have a generation of officers who have been educated in the West.

AMOS: That Western training, he says, stresses civilian control over a professional military - just like the American system. Arab officers all read one key book on that subject, "The Solider and the State" by Harvard academic Samuel Huntington.

Mr. KAHWAJI: And it's more or less indoctrinated.

AMOS: But in the West, governments are freely elected. Arab officers go back to countries where monarchies or corrupt leaders rule after rigged elections, says Kahwaji. So when millions of people said the civilian leadership is no longer legitimate, the military stopped taking orders.

Mr. KAHWAJI: It eventually had an impact on them and we saw that impact on the streets of Tunis and Egypt. When they saw the regime, the leadership, has lost the popular support, they stood with the masses against the leadership.

AMOS: Now many Arab governments are faced with a similar movement, says Mustafa Alani.

Dr. ALANI: Which is not organized, so you can not negotiate with anybody; unarmed people have not even a kitchen knife in their hands, and the demand is not necessarily economic demand, it's a political demand. And those people ready to sacrifice.

AMOS: And Arab leaders are struggling to find a strategy, says Riad Kahwaji.

Mr. KAHWAJI: I'm sure they're having conversations with many people - with the generals, with one another, with their allies in the West and the U.S. - to see, you know, what they can do. I don't think it's over. It just might be still in start.

AMOS: In Libya, in Yemen, in Bahrain and elsewhere, it is far from over.

Deborah Amos, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Deborah Amos covers the Middle East for NPR News. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition.