As an Indian, watching Pakistani media is a surreal experience. The extent to which the Pakistani media focuses on India is far in excess of the attention paid to Pakistan by the Indian media. Further, if one were to judge popular attitudes by the amount of content, Pakistanis seem to be in perpetual fear that India is constantly conspire to undermine or invade them. There is thus a constant need to stand up against Indian hegemonic designs in the region.

In fact of course, while Indians are jealously possessive about any territory they have, there is very little appetite for foreign intervention. Indians largely focus on internal issues. So what was fuelling this paranoia? It took me a while to realise that this antagonism was essential to justify the very existence of the state.

I recently came across an old lecture by Prof. Richard Bulliet of Columbia University which traced a similar phenomenon throughout the nations of the Middle East. I think it is worth discussing this in some detail.

In the 14 centuries of Islamic rule, there was a turning point around the 1200s. This was due to Saladin who had united Muslims to fight against European Crusaders and re-capture Jerusalem. Till then all power in the Muslim world had officially lain with the Imam who provided the religious legitimacy for the temporal power of the ruling Sultans.


Image of Saladin from 1100

As the power of Saladin grew, he came into conflict with the Caliph. If you are not familiar with Saladin, the most popular hero in Islamic history who led Muslims in the fight against Crusaders and has since become a poster boy for Islamic chivalry, an easy place to start is the highly fictionalized account in the Orlando Bloom film Kingdom of Heaven. Yes, many things in the movie are made up, but it is an easy watch and a good way to stoke interest if you haven’t looked into the field before.


Statue of Saladin in Damascus

After his victory, Saladin wrote a letter to the Caliph stating that his armies had won Jerusalem. The Caliph replied that the armies were the soldiers of the Caliph. Saladin replied that they were his soldiers.

Henceforth, Saladin became he leading power in the Islamic world. His title was the Guardian of the Two Holy Mosques. Thus he claimed his legitimacy not through kinship with the Prophet or by the power of the Imam, but because he was the protector of Muslims form outsiders. This same title was inherited by his successors and later by the Mamelukes in Egypt.


Mameluke warriors

Mameluke is the Arabic word for slave. There was a culture where poor young men and slaves entered the army and rose through the ranks to command even to the extent of becoming Sultan. This was a military culture. The government gained legitimacy through its ability to protect its people from outside invaders. The Mamelukes fought the Crusaders and the Mongols.

It was a military culture and it permeated all walks of life. When a man became a senior officer, his family and relatives often rose with him to occupy prominent positions. An entire officer class emerged which controlled all real power. In 18th century Cairo, every shop or business had to pay protection money to the army. A military command was seen as a source for enrichment.

A few years ago a Pakistani military scientist, Ayesha Siddiqa wrote a book titled Military Inc. Inside Pakistan’s Military Economy. She traced how the armed forces became a separate class in Pakistan as they gained control of political, economic and social resources. Pakistan’s companies and main assets are in the hands of a tiny minority of senior and retired military officers. From their cricket board, to real estate, even down to breakfast cereal, generals influence all. The only industry which Siddiqa found untouched by military presence was hair oil.


Military Inc.

Neo- Mameluke states still exist throughout the Middle East from Egypt to Syria to Tunisia. In every case, they form a kleptocracy. Even as military units, these armies have proved very risk averse. For all their saber rattling, no military led Arab country has fought another since World War 2. It may be that the officers don’t want to get killed or hurt their cash cow economies.

The neo-Mamelukes remain in power because they are able to convince their people that in exchange for their curtailed freedoms and stagnant economies, they are getting some form of protection from the military. For much of the 20th century, this involved supposed defence against western or Israeli Imperialism. This posture was maintained throughout the Cold War.

But in 1991 with the first Gulf War, many of these regimes were forced to side with the US against Saddam Hussein. Despite his penchant for wearing uniforms, Saddam was never a military officer, had never received military training and treated army officers with contempt. But this realignment meant having to agree with the American world view and publicly distancing themselves from militant Islam and Iran.


Saddam Hussein in uniform

After decades of propaganda to the contrary, this about turn was tremendously de-legitimizing. Further instability came in the wake of Al-Qaeda’s attack on the USS Cole. Al Qaeda produced a 2 hour video where they claimed that westerners, Crusaders, Jews and Christians had been brutalizing Muslims and Al Qaeda would fight them and the Arab regimes which were their puppets. Regardless of it’s truth or lack thereof, this idea became popular in the Arab world and further destabilized the existing system.


USS Cole and the damage done by the Al Qaeda attack

After 9/11, US President Bush demanded complete allegiance stating that whoever was not with the US was against it. The Arab states were forced to comply. This was a major success for American foreign policy but very difficult and delegitimizing for the Arab powers themselves. I personally remember Pakistani dictator Pervez Musharraf squirming on TV as he announced to his countrymen how he was siding with the Americans against the Taliban.


Banner of Pervez Musharraf burning with the American Flag

When the Arab Spring came in 2010, the Neo-Mameluke regimes proved fragile. Governments crumbled in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Yemen. In contrast, monarchies which were also repressive but less hypocritical survived relatively unchanged.


Arab Spring protests in Tunis

But the roots of the Mameluke system ran deep. Even if the top man was removed, the officer class remained in control. In Egypt, the military staged a coup against the democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood government and was promptly rewarded with major monetary incentives from Saudi Arabia and various Gulf countries.

So how long would it take to remove the army from the society? The precedents are not encouraging.

Consider Turkey which tried to shake off its post-World War 1 Neo-Mameluke heritage with its first free elections in 1950. Military coups have dotted Turkish history since. The last failed attempt at a coup occurred last year. The backlash against that is still in progress as President Erdogan clamps down.




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