Blurred lines: When the military becomes intertwined with civil society
When general al-Sisi appeared wearing a suit for the first time, it caused public outrage among the middle class in Egypt. It also sparked immediate speculations of a presidential run. The suit became another symbol of the blurred lines between military and civilian relations.
Soldiers handing out bread to the poor. Officers making money as prominent businessmen alongside their military career. Former generals turned presidents. From Brazil to Egypt, the divide between the military and civil society is at times blurred. Have military personnel acting in civilian roles pushed the limits too far? The blurred lines are starting to provoke not only parts of the public, but large groups within the ranks of the military.
At the heart of social and political struggle
The interactions between the armed forces and the civil society are at the very core of CMI’s Everyday maneuvers: Military-civilian relations in Latin America and the Middle East. The bulk of research on the military have focused on structural matters. In the Everyday Maneuvers project, researchers delve into the culture of the army and its personnel. To fully understand and explain the influence armies in Latin America and the Middle East have had on social and political processes, you need to look at it from a humanistic perspective argues Nefissa Naguib, project leader and senior researcher at the Chr. Michelsen Institute (CMI).
-In many Latin American and Middle Eastern countries, military power, actions and influence have been at the heart of social and political struggle. Even though military dictatorships are now past history in Latin America, the armies are still major players outside the military arena. In the turmoil that currently defines the Middle East, the outcome of what was termed the “Arab spring” has been closely linked to how the military has defied, embraced or co-opted uprisings and popular protests, says Naguib.
Winning the hearts and minds of the people
At the south end of the Copacabana beach in Rio de Janeiro is the Forte Copacabana. The Forte Copacabana is a military base that has become very popular with international as well as local tourists. An important part of the soldiers’ job is to meet and greet members of the public. In their attempt to put behind them decades of brutality, the Latin American armed forces are incessantly trying to win the hearts and minds of civilians. By opening Forte Copacabana to the public, the upper echelons of the Brazilian military want to bring the boys in uniform closer to the ordinary citizens and obliterate the sharp divides between the military and the civilians. However this strategy is contested by the younger generation inside the base.
-The young soldiers serving in Forte Copacabana are not happy about it. They do not see why making friends with random tourists and visitors should be part of serving in the armed forces, says Naguib.
She has interviewed many of the young men enrolled in Brazil’s armed forces, and she can sense a generational shift; a shift that involves increasing unease with the merging of the military and civilian sphere. A similar unease has become apparent in Egypt where the army has traditionally been seen as protectors safeguarding the people from dictators and handing out food to the poor in times of crisis. In Egypt, every family has at least one of its young men enrolled in the army. Despite tradition and affection, the close relationship between the army and civilians is starting to crack. The outrage when former general al-Sisi, now president of Egypt, showed up in a suit was not a single incident. The event can serve as symbol of a growing concern that the army is trespassing into the civil sphere. Although their motives may be different, opposition groups in civil society and a new generation of military personnel share their worries that the boundaries between the army and their functions in civil society are getting too blurred.
Close connections, little transparency
-The dividing lines between which actors perform purely military tasks and who performs civilian tasks are not very transparent. Neither are the roles officers and generals play in the army as opposed to in civil society. The public does not know who performs what tasks and who is in charge. Ultimately it is a question of knowing who is in power. There are public voices arguing that military personnel ought to be back in the barracks, says Naguib.
This sentiment is shared by a new and younger generation of soldiers and officers.
-The new generation claim that they feel very uncomfortable performing activities that civilian or other state actors traditionally have been responsible for. They are in the army because they want to be professional soldiers, says Naguib.
The Everyday maneuvers project organises a two day closing conference on 30 September and 1 October. Key note speakers Hazem Kandil, University Lecturer at the University of Cambridge, and Catherine Lutz, Professor at Brown University, will shed light on different aspects of the relations between military and civilian relations in Latin America and the Middle East. The Everyday maneuvers project has disclosed new knowledge about the inner life and manners of armies, but Naguib argues that there are many potential strands for future research.
-The emergence of militias is making it even more difficult to discern who is actually in power in many Middle Eastern countries. The lack of transparency is verging on the extreme. The Middle Eastern militias differ in many respects from the Latin American guerillas. Apart from the Kurds, Middle Eastern militias do not include women as fighters, while in Latin America women were frequently combatants. Here is a topic that needs further study. And even though many consider the military dictatorships to be part of the past in Latin America, there is still much to learn. The closure is not as complete as we would like to believe, says Naguib.