Furry Brown Dog

Dedicated to the memory of my canine friend…

The role of the army in popular uprisings

with 3 comments

Note: An earlier version of this was posted to Temasek Review here.

Egypt’s long-serving dictator President Hosni Mubarak has finally stepped down. This would not have been possible if it were not for the intervention of Egypt’s army, which sided with the protesters, tilting the balance of power towards the dissident protesters. News reports in the earlier weeks of the protests have spoken of how Egyptian soldiers have refused to take action against the demonstrators and instead helped to facilitate the occupation of Tahrir Square and Cairo. For example, there were reports of Egyptian soldiers firing upon Mubarak’s security forces so as to allow demonstrators to advance.

Why didn’t Egypt’s army listen to their leader? What made them turn against the regime they were supposed to defend? Political analysts will spend the next few weeks and months debating this. But it has not escaped my notice that Egypt’s army is conscripted rather than being fully professional.

A quick examination of uprisings in recent times appear to show a trend; uprisings which occurred in countries which practised conscription had a higher rate of success than those where the army was fully voluntary. Let’s look at some examples in this decade.

Successful uprisings:
Serbia and Montenegro (2000) (conscript army) (Milosevic ousted)
Georgia (2003) (conscript army)
Ukraine (2005) (conscript army)
Lebanon (2005) (Cedar revolution) (practised conscription up to 2007, when it was abolished)
Kyrgyzstan (2005) (Tulip revolution) (conscript army)
Kyrgyzstan (2010)  (Kyrgyzstan had two successful uprisings)
Tunisia (2011) (conscript army)
Egypt (2011) (conscript army)

Unsuccessful uprisings:
Zimbabwe (2008) (professional army)
Burma (2007) (professional army)
Iran (2009) (conscript army)

What can we see from the above? In general, when the army turns against the regime or when conscripted citizen soldiers refuse to take action against their people, the regime is left helpless and unable to crush dissidents it usually does.

One particular exception to the above is Iran. This may be explained as follows. Iran practises conscription, but its army is broadly divided into two forces, the Revolutionary Guards and the Basij (which according to Wikipedia is a volunteer force, while the other faction is the regular conscript-manned Iranian army or the Artesh.

In the aftermath of the fraudulent 2009 elections in Iran, it was the Revolutionary Guards and the Basij, which under the control of Islamic clerics, suppressed the popular revolt and demonstrators. Why didn’t Iran’s other army, the Artesh where conscripts are enlisted into, intervene? If Wikipedia may be trusted in this, it’s because the regular Iranian army has steadily lost power and authority under the domination of the Islamic clerics. Its head, General Ataollah Salehi harshly criticised the Revolutionary Guards in 2009 for playing down the Artesh’s role in fighting the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, in an unprecedented show of internal dissent.

It doesn’t necessarily take a conscript army to succeed, though in the end the determining factor would be which side the army chooses to side with. But it does appear having a conscript army makes it more likely that an uprising would succeed. In Thailand (which practises conscription) for example, a military coup in 2006 brought an end to Thaksin’s rule but just as in Iran the people remain divided over whether the current government was better than Thaksin. Later demonstrations have not been able to topple the current Thai regime.

Now of course, the big question is, how about Singapore whose army is largely conscripted? Lee Kuan Yew famously said in 2006 that they would be prepared to call in the army if “freak election” results ever occurs. If any popular uprising occurs in Singapore, the only question is whether the SAF’s and the Police Force’s citizen-conscripts would take up arms and obey orders to crush the revolt (and their own citizens) or turn against the regime. It’s perhaps this which explains why many netizens feel that, just as it occurred in Iran, it would take a volunteer force commanded by the government such as the Gurkhas to stifle and and stamp down any mass demonstrations in Singapore.


Written by defennder

February 14, 2011 at 12:09 PM

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses

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  1. […] Egypt Revolution – Chemical Generation Singapore: Mabrook Egypt!? – Furry Brown Dog: The role of the army in popular uprisings […]

  2. Don’t worry. In case the conscript army cannot be trusted, the PAP govt can always invite foreign assistance (Thailand, Vietnam, etc) to help preserve ‘order’ like Bahrain is doing (see http://www.cnn.com/2011/WORLD/meast/03/14/bahrain.protests/index.html?hpt=T2) or do a Gadhafi and hire mercenaries. I wouldn’t be surprised if Blackwater Worldwide has been given a contract by the PAP govt to carry out some missions in the event the unthinkable happens.


    March 15, 2011 at 8:40 AM

  3. Fox

    That’s terrible. It’s sad to see despots resorting to foreign hires to suppress domestic dissent. I wonder if anyone has done any study in estimating the troop strength and military effectiveness of foreign militas in service to the Singapore government such as the Gurkhas. Are they able to suppress a popular uprising or take out the conscript army faction if need be?

    I haven’t done any research on this, so I can’t say I know anything about this.

    It sickens me to see that although Libya practises conscription, media reports have been saying that the conscripts in the army are poorly armed and trained compared to Gaddhafi’s private army comprising of foreign mercenaries. If Singapore is going to have a conscript force, it must be one where the concripts in the army form the main military strength in the country, rather than as a sideshow slave labour camp designed emasculate the male population into subservience towards the state and its ideology under the guise of “national duty, honour and love for their country”.


    March 17, 2011 at 1:09 PM

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