The role of the army in popular uprisings
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.
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)
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.