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Expanding Your Knowledge of Modern Arab Military Culture: Books on Arab Military Development and Experiences

February 27, 2011

Small Wars Journal, 26 Feb 2011: An understanding of the military roots of various Arab countries is vital as the United States undertakes further engagement in the region. Morocco is an old and valued partner of the United States. Morocco was the first country to recognize the United States as a sovereign nation (20 December 1777), its relationship with America include such trials as weathering the storms of World War Two and today being designated a major non-NATO Ally who has suffered from terrorism with the recent bombings in Casablanca. The Moroccan military has seen service in Bosnia, Somalia and in multiple peacekeeping missions in the Congo and Sierra Leone. Douglas Porch, who teaches at the Naval Postgraduate school, is an expert on French military affairs. He has written a book that discusses the French difficulties in subduing Morocco and brining it under colonial control in his 1986 book, The Conquest of Morocco: A Savage Colonial War(London: PaperMac Books, ISBN 0-333-44461-2). French colonial expansion in the early twentieth century was dominated by a small circle of French politicians and military senior officers who saw that French ideals could be better mastered in its colonial possessions, free from the taint of liberal political and social intrigue, these were the same ultra-conservatives who would be implicated in the infamous Dreyfus Affair, that sent an innocent artillery captain to Devil’s Island on charges of espionage because, above all, he was Jewish.

Subjugating Moroccan chieftains such as Moulai Amar and Moulai Hammassi became a fixation for conservative French officials wanting these tribesmen to stay out of Algeria, a French colony since 1830. When French forces clashed with these tribes in 1903, the structure of these Moroccan groups was the harka, a disorganized mass of horse and infantrymen that was described by those westerners who witnessed it as a large marketplace moving towards an area; they were no match for French firepower. Among those wanting to escape French radicals and liberals who were now in power was Colonel Hubert Lyautey. This career military officer was eccentric, who was not comfortable with his homosexuality or the military according to Porch. The Colonel’s Moroccan assignment would last 23 years. In Morocco, he developed and marketed ways in which a modern army could fight irregular tribal forces. Among the more innovative techniques was the use of the portable 75-mm cannon mounted on camels to provide a mass of firepower in areas not expected by tribes of the Moroccan hinterland.

In 1902, after the murder of a Christian missionary in the streets of Fez, Sultan Abdel-Aziz began exacting justice for the crime; however, when the murderer was questioned he was unrepentant and said that God had made him do it. The Sultan responded “Well, God had told me to kill you.” This would energize Islamic radicals and see the rise of a religious charlatan Djillali ben Driss in Taza. French businessmen in Oran, Algeria financed the Taza rebellion to hasten the demise of Morocco and absorb her into Algeria. This internal war would last for seven years. The book contains a synopsis of how the early Moroccan military was organized under Sultan Abdel-Aziz. The jaysh was a levy imposed upon tribes in lieu of taxes; these were organized into regular troops. It is important to realize that the Moroccan Sultans understood that their old methods of war were inadequate when they were defeated by a small French force in the Battle of Isly and utterly routed by the Spanish in 1860. The Sultan’s officials known as caids would organize these recruits into tabors which were about the size of a battalion. Each tribe also sent a sha made up of 500-men cavalry organized into al-mia or hundreds each run by a muqadam or captain. There were 21,500 regular troops under the Sultan’s service on paper, trained by a mix of foreign officials, though mainly French. So this regular force should quickly deal with the rebellions in Ta’za. But the reality was a system of buy-outs led to the recruitment of the poorest and sickest members of society: Of the 500 that showed up for battle the true number was 150 with 100 deserting. Pay in the regular Moroccan army of the early 1900s was so irregular that troops resorted to being highwaymen. In addition, Morocco had become a dumping ground for obsolete armaments and the mehalla or military expedition was incapable of maneuver.

The book also discusses the Lyautey Method of contre-djich (counter-raid) an unconventional form of warfare that suited him better than the rigidity of Clausewitzian dictum that many of his peers in France dissected. It included several phases that began with sending fifty Saharan trackers with three days rations to trail a Moroccan force, they carried intelligence and news back to the base camp in which 78 spahis (mounted cavalry) were dispatched followed by legionaries on foot whose baggage were carried by camel to extend the range of infantry in the desert. Lyautey saw small-unit operations as the best means of waging colonial war. Although the method was not entirely successful, it does show how the French forces adapted to unconventional Moroccan tactics.

By 1906, Germany saw in Moroccan claims of self-determination and sovereignty a protector against France to replace Britain. The Algerciras Conference in 1906 would be a prelude to World War I competition between Germany and France. Through diplomatic maneuvering, France was able to use Moroccan anarchy to claim responsibility for police duties in Moroccan ports, create a Moroccan State Bank controlled by the Banque’ de France. A killing of a French geologist in 1907 would lead Lyautey to take another bite out of Morocco seizing the Oudja region near its colony of Algeria. By 1912, Morocco would become a protectorate of France (never becoming a colony) and gaining independence in 1956. It is easy to view some of these tribal chieftains as ignorant of international affairs, yet Porch corrects this underestimation citing such figures as Madani el Glaoui, one of the three most powerful men in Morocco who made it his business to follow the European press and even the debates within the chamber of deputies. It was he who installed Sultan Abdel-Aziz’s uncle as the new Sultan. The modern Moroccan Armed Forces celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2006. Porch’s book is an excellent read and is expected to be re-released in 2005 with a new preface.

The American University in Cairo (AUC) produces a few high quality books in English that is specifically geared to modern Egyptian history. Of the titles worthy of a glance by U.S. military planners with an interest in the Middle East or Central Command (CENTCOM) Area of Operation is Khaled Fahmy’s All The Pasha’s Men: Mehmed Ali, His Army and the Making of Modern Egypt (Cairo:American University in Cairo Press, 2002, ISBN 977-424-696-9).” Events in Egypt have inspired freedom movements in Libya, Yemen, Iran, and Algeria. One cannot get enough books on modern Egypt, its policy and military. To understand the modern Egyptian armed forces it is vital to read about its modern founder Mehmed Ali, an Albanian warrior who came with an Ottoman expeditionary force and remained to become the undisputed ruler of Egypt with his dynasty lasting until 1952 with the coup that deposed King Farouk I.

Firstly, it is important to understand that Mehmed Ali was more than just a warrior but was an observer of tactics, strategy and wider political intrigue. He was so influenced by Napoleon’s legions, which he witnessed first hand in 1801, when he became Pasha of Egypt that he ordered a biography of Napoleon into Turkish in the Bulaq printing press in Cairo. Mehmed Ali saw the Armee d’ Orient make use of Maghribi (North African) troops and more importantly the utilization of 2,000 Egyptian Coptic Christians as deputized French soldiers. He had to have an army of such capability and discipline to counter his nemesis Husrev Pasha, who set about to train Sudanese slaves in the French style but used them as a personal bodyguard force. Mehmed Ali ascended to rule Egypt on behalf of the Ottoman Sultan. Mehmed Ali observed how the army of Sultan Selim II was resisting Ali’s reforms of the military and would draw lessons, first recruiting from Sudan, an effort not to disrupt the Egyptian agricultural society which formed the basis of Mehmed Ali’s revenue. In 1811, Mehmed Ali invited the emirs of the Mamlukes to the Cairo citadel for a banquet in honor of an expeditionary force he would send to subdue the Wahabis in Arabia. Mehmed Ali had the doors sealed and massacred the Mamlukes not only because these feudal warlords challenged his rule, but would also oppose his designs to create a modern military. In dealing with Albanian rivals, Mehmed Ali could not just slay them but sent them on expeditions against the Wahabis, a seven year conflict in which Egyptian forces subdued this overzealous Islamic sect that was attacking pilgrims and sacking holy cites in Arabia. In the 1820s, Mehmed Ali and his son Ibrahim Pasha, founds that out of 24,000 Sudanese impressed into service only 3,000 survived, he had made the decision to recruit Egyptians, creating the Bani Adi Camp in Middle Egypt that turned out 30,000 modern trained Sudanese and Egyptian troops, who would be officered by Turks loyal to Mehmed Ali, beginning with his sons. These regular troops would be divided into alays of 1,000; each alay had five ortas of 800 troops.

The first test of this European trained force came in 1823 when Wahabis were attacking Asir Province in Southern Arabia. In 1824, 2,500 nizami (new) troops defeated 25,000 Wahabis in formation tactics that would serve to virtually kill the old style of Arabian warfare. The book discusses how Mehmed Ali’s legions defeated the armies of the Ottoman Sultan for the mastery of Syria and the Levant. He also dispatched troops to Crete and the Balkans in the service of the Ottoman Sultan. A chapter discusses the military regulations, pay, medical and many more logistical problems that forced a modern bureaucracy upon Egypt. Mehmed Ali and his generals were ruthless. A religious cleric, Sheikh Radwan, challenged the Pasha, creating a religious rebellion. More troublesome was that forty-five officers had switched sides and in retaliation these officers were executed in public view by Ali and his men. In addition, Egypt began finding herself as a regional power and the spirit of nationalism first began with Egyptian officers like Colonel Urabi Pasha in the 1880s. Egypt today can do much good in projecting military power in the name of peacekeeping and of African stability. Reading such works of Egypt’s past demonstrates the potential of Egyptians to make a positive and direct contribution in Islam, Africa and the Arab world. The author is an associate professor of Middle East Studies at New York University.



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