This essay is part of the Middle East-Asia Project (MAP) series on “'Civilianizing' the State in the Middle East and Asia Pacific Regions.” The series explores the past and ongoing processes of Security Sector Reform (SSR) in Asia-Pacific countries and examines the steps already taken and still needed in the MENA region. Read More …

Given that the key function of armed forces everywhere is the protection of the state from its external enemies, generals have a primary interest in foreign affairs by definition. In an increasingly interconnected and interdependent world, foreign affairs have become one of the important policy areas for most modern states. Although the influence of military leaders on foreign policy-making tends to vary according to the state’s level of preoccupation with external issues, heading ministries of defense and foreign affairs — along with interior, intelligence, and finance — are nearly always among the most important cabinet posts. Just how deeply the military is involved in foreign policy-making is an important question to ask because it tells us a great deal both about the fundamental power-relations within a state and the major directions and goals of its foreign policy. Moreover, it reveals the extent to which the armed forces encroach (or not) on foreign policy-making, traditionally the bailiwick of civilian politicians and diplomats.

This essay looks at five North African states, arguing that the armed forces — for a variety of often case-specific reasons — are actually not as politically powerful and thus influential in foreign policy-making as one might expect. It first discusses the political strength of the military establishments of five North African states — Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt — and then investigates the difference, if any, that the recent Arab upheavals have made in their involvement in foreign policy-making.

The Military’s Political Clout in North Africa

Prior to the Arab Spring, all Arab-majority countries in North Africa and the Middle East were hard-core authoritarian states. It would be reasonable to expect, that in all of these states armies were the most important — or, at least, one of the most important — political institutions, but this assumption is incorrect. In fact, in the first decade of the twenty-first century only in Algeria was the military the dominant political institution.

Since the end of the Algerian War of Independence (1954-62) the military has been the most influential political actor in Algeria. This has not changed in recent years even though the army has shared some power with the Département du Renseignement et de la Sécurité (DRS), the State Intelligence Service. It was the army that elevated a civilian, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, to the presidency in 1999, following a decade-long and extremely bloody civil war. The presidency received wide-ranging powers from the army and the intelligence services, but Bouteflika has been doing the army’s bidding. Quite simply, the army remains Algeria’s most important political institution. Recent reform efforts and what political elites have called “the civilianization of the regime” have amounted to little more than a façade. Real power lies with what Algerians call le Pouvoir (“the power”), the military and security leadership and the political elites that enjoy the former’s approval.  

In Egypt, the army has also been the dominant political actor since 1952 — well illustrated by the point that, with the sole exception of Mohamed Morsi (2012-13), all of the country’s presidents have been former generals. In the last third of Hosni Mubarak’s long tenure (1981-2011) the army’s political clout had somewhat diminished and was supplanted by the growing influence of the secret police, the National Democratic Party, and emerging business elites, led by the president’s son, Gamal. Still, the long-serving Defense Minister Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi (1991-2012), was Mubarak’s close associate for decades and ran the military — which remained indispensable as the regime’s support base — without interference.

After Lieutenant-Colonel Muammar Qaddafi seized power in a bloodless 1969 coup, his fellow army officers attempted to remove him from power four times (most recently in October 1993). Not surprisingly, he deliberately marginalized and underfunded the military from the early 1990s, particularly after suspecting its involvement in a coup attempt and following its debacle in Chad. He prioritized, instead, the elite and paramilitary forces, most of them newly established and commanded by his relatives.  Some military officers were a part of Qaddafi’s inner sanctum; their political influence, however, derived from their membership in the ruling clique rather than from their official positions. The political power of the military as an institution was negligible. 

Political elites sidelined the armed forces in Tunisia as well. From the moment of independence from France in 1956, President Habib Bourguiba had deliberately kept soldiers out of politics, even banning them from joining the ruling party and withholding from them the right to vote.  Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, a police-state apparatchik who overthrew Bourguiba in 1987, continued the practice of the military’s political marginalization. Unlike most other North African armies, Tunisia’s had never 1) attempted a coup; 2) taken part in making political decisions; 3) been a “nation-building” instrument, and 4) joined in economic-development schemes. The officer corps concentrated more or less exclusively on professional matters and enjoyed virtually no political clout.

Under King Mohammed VI Morocco remains an absolute monarchy where political power resides with the king. The second “circle of power” is the makhzen — literally “warehouse” in Maghrebi Arabic, but in common parlance refers to the ruling elites that include the king and royal notables as well as the leading military, security, business, and government people — that is responsible for running the country. The military as an institution has a curious position in Morocco, which it attained following the coup attempts it staged against King Hassan II — Mohammed’s father — in 1971 and 1972. The armed forces were then transferred to the Ministry of Interior; since then there has been no defense ministry in Morocco. The most politically influential component of Morocco’s coercive apparatus is the Gendarmerie Royale, and the most powerful official has been its long-serving (since 1972) Commander-in-Chief, the octogenarian General Housni Benslimane. Ordinarily, being engaged in an armed conflict would increase a military’s political clout but this is not the case in Morocco. Although since 1970 Rabat’s military has been involved in the struggle for the control of Western Sahara, this campaign has failed to inflate its political influence. Similar to Libya, some top Moroccan army, navy, or air force officers may be part of the regime’s inner circle (i.e., the makhzen), but the military as an institution enjoys only modest political weight.

The Armies’ Foreign Policy Influence Prior to the 2011 Arab Spring Uprisings

Foreign affairs in Africa have tended to be the domaine privée of individual leaders and their close associates, regardless of whether those associates held positions in the foreign policy establishment.[1] Therefore, the armies would tend to have an outsized role in foreign affairs if a general or a civilian leader identifying with or beholden to the military were in power. In North Africa this was the case only in Algeria and, to a somewhat lesser extent, Egypt, prior to the Arab Spring. Gauging the foreign policy-making influence of the armed forces in the first decade of the 21st century, it is hard not to notice that their clout is generally commensurate with their overall political strength. Foreign policy decisions were made more or less solely by King Mohammed VI in Morocco; in Algeria by the military-security complex (though officially by the ailing President Bouteflika); in Tunisia by President Ben-Ali and his inner circle; in Libya by Qaddafi, the “Brotherly Leader and Guide of the Revolution;” and in Egypt by President Mubarak.

Only in the last case, it is important to note, is the military’s influence on foreign policy slightly different than one might expect observing its overall political clout. How so? I have argued elsewhere that the Egyptian army’s political standing somewhat diminished in the last decade of Mubarak’s presidency though it still remained a major player and was compensated with an expanded economic role.[2] One of the key reasons for this change — not surprising in a highly personality-driven polity — was the 2001 departure of the highly capable foreign minister, Amr Moussa, to lead the Arab League. From that point, the Foreign Ministry was marginalized at the expense of the General Intelligence Directorate (in other words, the mukhabarat) and its influential director, Omar Suleiman.  Prior to his transfer to the secret police in 1993, Suleiman served in the army for 37 years and in his position as Mubarak’s top foreign policy adviser he was a strong advocate of military interests.[3] Thus, in the foreign policy realm the armed forces leadership remained highly influential in pursuing its interests — which, as some experts have argued, occasionally contradicted national interests — and, one might argue, enjoyed even more clout than its general political strength would have indicated.[4] Although a number of institutions were established to deal with national security and foreign affairs — such as the National Defence Council which was already referred to in the 1956 Constitution as the highest state organ to address such matters — during much of Mubarak’s presidency personal relations trumped institutional channels.

North African Generals and Foreign Policy Since 2011

Has the political power of the military changed in North Africa since the uprisings? In general, considering the entire region, the answer would be “only modestly.” But, again, a case-by-case analysis reveals important nuances. Detecting any shift in the political status of the armed forces in Morocco and Algeria would be difficult. In Tunisia, on the other hand, the military’s position has changed since 2011. With the onset of the democratic transition, the armed forces have been subjected to democratic civilian control. This process might be traumatic or difficult for armies that had enjoyed political power in the ancien régime. Nevertheless, since the Tunisian army had little prior political influence, this authoritarian legacy had actually allowed it to accept the control of the new, democratically elected authorities as a matter of course. The real challenge of the security sector reform in Tunisia is to transform the internal security forces and the Ministry of Interior, that did wield a great deal of political clout under Ben Ali, into entities integrated into a democratic institutional framework. 

In the six years since the beginning of the uprising, Libya has become a failed state wrecked by civil war. Soon after the 2011 revolution the country’s security sector completely disintegrated in large part because organizations — including the police, the military, and a number of other security agencies created as coup-proofing measures – were under-institutionalized. Over time, numerous militias filled the space left by the collapsed organizations and had become organized into “shadow state security structures.” The so-called Supreme Security Committee replaced the police and “Libya Shield” assumed the functions of the army.[5] The regular military and the police still exist but play second fiddle to and maintain often extremely contentious relations with the militias. Although most militias are linked to the state one way or another, the already very limited political authority the regular army and security forces enjoyed under Qaddafi has largely eroded. The current situation of rootless organizations and the insubstantial and ephemeral relationships between them is, again, in many ways a legacy of the Qaddafi era’s lack of institutionalization and all-encompassing corruption.

The outlier among these cases is Egypt where the military’s fortunes had been similar to a roller-coaster ride in the first three years following the Arab Spring. The army essentially saved the revolution, dispatched and later prosecuted Mubarak and his sons, and thereby enhanced its appeal to millions of ordinary Egyptians. In February 2011 the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) stepped into the political vacuum left by Mubarak’s departure and ruled the country as a caretaker government until August 2012, when basically free and fair national elections resulted in the victory Mohamed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood (MB). Morsi intended to reduce the military’s political influence via numerous reforms and personnel changes in the top brass (in August 2012), that included the retirement of Sami Anan, the army’s chief-of-staff as well as Defense Minister Tantawi, who was replaced by Abdul Fattah el-Sisi, theretofore the head of military intelligence. The military did not take kindly to its reduced role and the amateurish and polarizing policies of Morsi’s regime and in early July 2013 staged a coup d’état. Following another transition period which saw the rise of the army’s stars and the repression of the MB and its supporters, in May 2014 Sisi was elected as Egypt’s president with 96 percent of the vote in a deeply flawed contest..

The armed forces’ contribution to foreign policy decision-making has increased to a certain degree in some North African states while in others it has remained more or less the same. But it has not diminished anywhere in the region. In Morocco the military’s foreign policy clout has continued to be negligible. It is difficult to say with any measure of confidence whether what remains of the Libyan army enjoys any foreign policy influence; a cautious gambler would bet against it. One might conjecture that the foreign policy clout of the Tunisian military might have increased somewhat if only owing to its positive role during the revolution and its politically marginalized status under the ancien régime.  Indeed, the Tunisian Ministry of Defense drafted a white paper on defense — a “first” in the Arab world — that devotes a section to the assessment of the external environment and discusses foreign policy issues from the military’s perspective.[6]

The army is still the dominant foreign policy actor in Algeria and, judging by the significant expansion of defense budgets since 2011, its clout might even have risen. The military regime’s foreign policy in Algiers has been oscillating between active cooperation with the U.S. on counter-terror operations and the aloofness of the Cold War era, when Algeria was a Soviet ally.[7] An important difference between the generals’ foreign policy role in the region’s two quasi-military regimes is that oil-rich Algeria is not reliant on foreign aid and can therefore pursue more independent foreign policies, although just how long this autonomy can be sustained is highly conditional on the world market price of oil. Egypt, on the other hand, is hooked on foreign financial assistance and has several major constraints (treaty with Israel, ambitions as a regional hegemon) that limit Cairo’s room for foreign policy maneuvers.

There seems to be little doubt that under Sisi’s military regime the army’s foreign policy influence had increased along with its overall political power. In fact, under Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry (appointed in mid-2014), newly hired diplomats have been sent to a six-month training program at the Military Academy in order to “ensure their political compliance with the current authorities.”[8] Sisi himself has been an active foreign policy president promoting regional cooperation, good relations with Israel, and supporting the presidency of Bashar al-Assad in Syria. His close nexus with the Gulf monarchies, especially Saudi Arabia, resulted in tens of billions of dollars in aid — much of it were squandered on wasteful mega-projects while Egypt’s external debt surpassed $60 billion[9] — though in January 2017 Egypt’s top court blocked the previously negotiated transfer of two small uninhabited Red Sea islands from Cairo to Riyadh, dealing some damage to their relationship.


Given the robust political role of armed forces in authoritarian states, one would suppose that in North Africa — a region made up of authoritarian states with the sole, recent, and partial exception of Tunisia — generals had the political standing to exert a major influence foreign policy decisions. This would not be a correct assumption because in this region that is so diverse in many other political, socioeconomic, and cultural aspects, the political influence of the armed forces is also highly variable. Only in two of the five armies discussed in this essay are generals politically influential though in these two states, Algeria and Egypt, no institution enjoys more political power — and foreign policy influence — than the armed forces. In the other three countries the military plays a marginal political role, albeit for different reasons. In Morocco the army has been sidelined after it mounted coup attempts in the early 1970s. In Tunisia, most unusually for an authoritarian state in the Arab world, the political leadership — well aware of the frequent military takeovers in modern African history — marginalized the army, in part as a coup-prevention scheme. Thus, in these two states civilians continue to dominate foreign policy-making. In Qaddafi’s Libya the army was viewed with suspicion for decades; in the current chaotic iteration of that state the regular army has also not been a political force to reckon with even if it is unclear what political actor(s) or what institution(s) is the authentic voice of Libyan foreign policy.

Note: I am grateful to Jessica Noll of the Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik (Berlin) for her valuable comments.

[1] Henry Bienen, “African Militaries as Foreign Policy Actors,” International Security, 5:2 (Fall 1980): 177.

[2] See, for instance, Zeinab Abdul-Magd, Militarizing the Nation: The Army, Business, and Revolution in Egypt (New York: Columbia University Press, 2017).

[3] See Jannis Grimm and Stephan Roll, “Egyptian Foreign Policy under Mohamed Morsi,” SWP Comments 35 (November 2012).

[4] See, for instance, Nael M. Shama, Egyptian Foreign Policy from Mubarak to Morsi: Against the National Interest (London: Routledge, 2013).

[5] See Mieczysław P. Boduszyński, “The External Dimension of Libya’s Troubled Transition,” Journal of North African Studies, 20:5 (2015): 742.

[6] Sharan Grewal, “A Quiet Revolution: The Tunisian Military after Ben Ali,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, February 24, 2016.

[7] See Vish Sakthivel, “Taking Stock of U.S. Policy Options in Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia,” Foreign Policy Research Institute E-Note, September 2, 2016, 3.

[8] See Asmahan Soliman, “Behind the Curtains of the Foreign Ministry,” Mada Masr, May 22, 2017.

[9] Maged Mandour, “The Art of War in Egypt,” Sada Middle East Analysis, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace), January 24, 2017, accessed June 2, 2017,


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