Why does the military become political opposition in the Middle East?
Appeared in Bulgarian at A-specto, translated by Valentina Tzoneva exclusively for SouthFront
The unsuccessful mutiny in Turkey is the first failure of the military in most modern history of the country. Now, when the experts are arguing for the reasons and consequences of the unsuccessful coup, is the time to remember how the tradition of military coups started in the Middle East and see what the nature of the opposition between the army circles and civil authorities in Turkey is, as well as in other countries in the region. Traditionally in the Middle East, the military is a respected class and often they come out to the avant-scene of the political history. We are not talking about the military commanders turned into political leaders but more of military institutions as a whole. Let’s take for example the Egyptian Mameluks who are from the beginning, a military caste, which took power in the country and ruled it until Egypt was conquered by the Turks. They have been totally annihilated by Mohammed Ali in 1811. In the Ottoman Empire, the Janissaries officially have been considered “slaves of the Sultan”, but with time, they turn into an influential political institute and they have been annihilated by Mohammed II in 1826. The state cannot exist without armed forces, but the army became a danger for the political elite when it acquired social and political independence. The Janissaries became a danger for the Sultans at the time of private farms and families. From military professionals, the Mameluks became massive landlords. The army provides victory on the battlefield but in times of peace, it can create problems. One of the major tasks of the rulers is to prevent the army as an institution to go beyond their primary duty to maintain the security in the country. On their side, the military often witnesses how the civil power loses legitimacy due to failures in economy and external politics, and can decide that the time has come for saving the state from incapable leaders.
The mutiny became almost the only way for the military to come to power and to become the ruling class. Most mutinies in the Middle East took place in the 50s and 60s of the past century, when the countries of the region were liberated from colonial dependency. The first and most popular mutiny is the “Revolution of the Free Officers” in Egypt under the leadership of Gamal Nassar in 1952. Nasser and his friends do not have high military titles. The leader of the mutiny is a colonel and most of the participating officers are majors. By analysing other mutinies, we can say that the group of the middle officers is the most revolutionary group – it is most populous, highly ambitious and lacks the privileges that make the generals fall asleep. The revolutionary passiveness of the generals can be explained with the fact that the higher commanding staff is usually included in the political establishment, and thus, it does not have any will to change the political system. By the way, even the revolutionary mayors need generals – the Egyptian officers made General Nagib the formal leader of the revolt, who is very popular in the society and gives legitimacy to the revolt. But nevertheless, he is still a classic wedding general. The background of the mutiny is also important – Egypt is torn apart by political instability, which is going deeper due to the loss in the first Jewish-Arab War. The monarch is not particularly respected. And it is not surprising that no one goes to his defense. The time of the mutiny is of extreme importance – the night is the best possible time because it does not require the participation of the broad masses of people. That’s why it is best for the people’s revolutions to take place in the day time or in the evening and for the mutinies to take place at night time when everyone is sleeping.
The mutiny in Iraq in 1958 is also interesting. The background resembles the one in Egypt – national dissatisfaction with the rule of the monarch, membership of Iraq in the Baghdad Pact created by the USA and Great Britain, which earlier, attacked Egypt during the time of the Suez Crisis. Colonel Kassem and General Arev are leading the mutiny and they act as per the Egyptian model, taking over the Presidential Palace, the telegraph and the radio centre. However, the mutiny in Iraq is much bloodier – the Egyptians liberate the king and Iraqis shut down the whole royal family and the prime minister. Without blood, is the mutiny of another rioter, Muammar Gadhafi. He is the youngest of all the leaders in the Middle East mutinies. He is only 27 years old and a captain. There is a version according to which the mutiny was planned by Libyan colonels and Gadhafi decided to overtake his senior colleagues. All these mutinies to which we can add the one of Syria in 1963, and Algiers of 1965, lead to the conclusion that the military turned to the ruling class and sustain this position throughout the 20th Century.
The military regimes play an important role in the modernization of the countries in the Middle East, but in time, they degrade and turn into oligarchic structures. Following their resignations, the generals take important administrative positions and the army becomes a large owner. Fascinated by the politics, the army elite began to lose wars. Although it retains the elite status, in the beginning of our century, the military is not the only educated and organized community in the state. The development of the civil institution, the appearance of the new information technologies, the growth of the number of ambitious youth, leads to the disappearance of the concept of the army as the most advanced part of the population. However, the Arab Spring, which was related to hopes for social changes, did not manage to secure the transition from military to civil rule. On the contrary, the chaos and the lack of will for rule in the politicians gave a chance to the military. In Egypt, they returned to power after the failure of the Muslim Brotherhood and in Libya, everything is moving in a direction, which proves that the only cure for the tribal cows will be the new military dictator, General Haftar.
Turkey has also remained a political hostage of its armed forces, but compared to the Arab states, the situation here is different. The military element is the main part of the Turkish republic from the moment of its creation. In fact, the Turkish army has been given the role of the protector of the ideas of Attaturk. When in mutiny, the military actually separates the political system and removes those elements which are not responding to their image of a secular national state and after a certain period of time, they return the power to the citizens. A similar model has its advantages. The military being in the shadows, does not bear responsibility for the actions of the politicians and they do not damage the image of the army. The disadvantage of this system is in the politicians who sooner or later can go beyond the limits, become powerful and limit the powers of the military, as it happened in Turkey. However, regardless of the fact that the military was weakened and divided, their importance in the recent years started to grow for two important threats for the state. One is related to Syria and Iraq and the other one is the Kurdish problem in south-east Turkey. It seemed that the time for a new military intervention is coming. Since 2013, Turkey has been in a turbulent state – the riots in the Ghezi Park; the corruption scandal; the deterioration in the situation in Turkish Kurdistan; the parliamentarian crisis of 2015; the problems in the relations with Russia, USA and the EU; the sequence of horrifying assaults in the big cities; the strange resignation of the prime minister, David Oglu… the crisis is a perfect timing for a mutiny.
We already have quite a few versions for why the coup failed. It’s not that important whether it was a sly plot staged by Erdogan or the military was simply tricked. One thing is clear: we have a failed coup as it has often happened in the history of the sultans and the Janissaries. However, there is no doubt that this failure becomes another step towards the weakening of the Turkish army. Turkey now demonstrates to the entire Middle East the opportunity to leave the phase of social and political monopoly.
This, however, is not such an optimistic process as it might seem at first glance. The sultan conquered the Janissaries, but this could be a pyrrhic victory. Neither the Kurdish nor the Syrian problem has dropped off from the agenda. In the history of the relationship between military and civil powers, the victory of the latter has often led to defeat war. Thus, after the joy of the annihilation of the Janissaries corpus in 1826, follows the pain from the defeat in the Russian-Turkish War of 1828-1829.