From the October 1973 war against Israel up until a year ago, we used to sincerely believe that the Arab states were seeking to build up their armies, although their readiness was unconvincing at the time, and that soon these armies would be ready to wage a war to liberate the occupied territories.
However, the year 2011 was a real shock, for it brought us the naked truth of a bitter reality: there is no single Arab army that can maintain control of its internal situation, let alone wage a regional war.
In Egypt we find the oldest army in the history of the Middle East, the largest Arab army in terms of size, and one that has fought fierce wars against Israel. However, following the 2011 revolution, the Egyptian army has taken on a completely different appearance, contrary to its former prestige and power, and the firm stances it always adopted in the face of hardships and challenges throughout the course of history, such as the brave decision to protect people’s lives and state institutions during the Tahrir Square demonstrations. Now the army seems too feeble to protect itself or the security of its senior officials, hence its affiliates have been subjected to physical and psychological abuse at the hands of callow youths, who are unfamiliar with the major wars conducted by the Egyptian army in the past. Such youths only know the army’s historical value through their school curriculums or the stories of their grandparents. The Egyptian army has lost control of the street, and although it succeeded in penetrating the Bar Lev Line during its war against Israel in 1973, it failed miserably to have any impact upon Tahrir Square.
Perhaps, the only person who managed to interpret Egypt’s future realistically was the late President Anwar al-Sadat. In fact, by signing the peace agreement with Israel, he saved the Egyptian people a hundred years or more in efforts to liberate the Sinai soil, which the Egyptians now rely upon as a reliable source of one-third of the country’s economy.
In Syria, the so-called “Fortress of Arabism”, the situation is even worse. The army that imposes military service upon every single Syrian youth – despite all its intelligence apparatuses, battalions and brigades – failed to confront unarmed protestors demonstrating without weapons, only using their loud voices in opposition. The Syrian regime sought the assistance of thousands of members from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and Hezbollah to quell the demonstrations, simply because it trusted them and deemed them to be more loyal to than the members of its regular army, who promptly defected from their leaders. Yet Syria never sought the assistance of Iran or Hezbollah to liberate the Golan Heights, which could have tipped the balance of power with Israel. Rather, it only appealed to them for immediate assistance to keep the Bashar al-Assad regime in power.
In Libya, the situation is almost farcical. In the year 2000, Muammar Gaddafi wanted to declare a war on Israel, yet he had no qualified army to do so. He never considered training one up properly, fearing that it could rise against him someday. During the Libyan revolution, Saif al-Islam Gaddafi blamed the Libyan army for its violent handling of the demonstrators. According to Saif al-Islam, the army was reckless because it was not properly trained to deal with riots, so how could such an army ever deal with the riots provoked by Israel?
As for Yemen, the truth is that the army there is in a better condition than many other regional countries, for one significant and sorrowful reason: the Yemeni arena continues to experience consecutive civil wars, and as a result, the army and security troops are constantly engaged in genuine field exercises that are far better than the exercise drills provide by military training colleges and institutes. This prompted Yemeni President to always boast that a Yemeni citizen is a sniper by nature since his early childhood. However, despite being dominated mainly by relatives of the President, the army recently failed to end the war with the protestors on the streets. It is true that the president was not defeated, yet he did not win either. In the end, he only succeeded in transforming elements of the Yemeni army into street fighters battling one another.
So, has the reality of the Arab armies been buried under a layer of propaganda? The answer is partially yes, because the vast majority of Arabs used to believe that the Arab military and logistical solidarity alone could destroy Israel. The Egyptian army’s size, the Syrian army’s belief in resistance, and the Gulf states’ logistical support could all contribute to Israel’s defeat.
The conclusion we can draw today is that military objectives cannot be fulfilled by the size of the army or by military spending, nor can they be attained by mere slogans. Rather, military objectives can only be fulfilled by the country’s internal stability, and an entrenched sense of patriotism that prompts citizens to obey their leaders willingly, even if they are not fully convinced of the objectives. We saw this in America with the army of George W. Bush, half of whom were not convinced by the war [against Iraq], yet they remained committed as a military force, although not in agreement with the political regime.