La-a, la-a, ana ir-ra’is

The tanks are for a movie, you say?

The tanks are for a movie, you say?

Earlier this month I mentioned that the Arab coup d’etats that came immediately to my mind in the aftermath of the latest Mauritanian coup occurred in late spring or summertime. However, the indispensable alle reminded me of several other coups occurring in November, May, January. I gave several reasons for my belief that summer was a good time for a coup, some of which are not necessarily confined to that season. As alle suggested, I decided to go through as many Arab coup d’etats I could and catalogue them by month and decade in a spreadsheet, with graphs. Eventually, I hope to add any coups I may have missed and apply Sam Huntington’s three categories of coup to the data. Here are my initial impressions of the admittedly unscientific and general sample I gathered:

(1) The assumption that coups are more likely to be staged in the summertime than other seasons is only partially justified. The most coup prone months were July (7 coups), November (6 coups), August (5 coups), April and September (4 coups each). Coups occur in almost every month (October is the exception). Summer and autumn show higher activity than other seasons. Coups occur over more months in the summer than in the autumn, and the summer months have more coups on average (4.6) than autumnal ones (3.3). Autumn’s lower average is due to a lack of activity during October. Originally, I had offered a couple of reasons as to why I assumed that summertime would be the most common time for coups to occur. One was that summer was a time when leaders were likely to be out of the country or the capital on foreign visits or vacations, allowing those with a thirst for power to seize power more easily. This is also true of spring and early winter (leaders often make official visits at the beginning and end of the year). Coups while a leader is abroad are not as common as one might think, though, and they tend to take place in countries with small populations and low levels of development. Using Sam Huntington’s three coup categories, only one Arab state, Algeria, has seen a “Veto coup d’etat,” in which the military intervenes to override the overwhelming popular will of the people. Military coups in the Arab world are often bloodless as acts in and of themselves, though they may precipitate (or at least exacerbate) inter-communal or inter-party violence as they have in Iraq, Algeria, Sudan, and Comoros. Exceptions to this include the Iraqi coup of 1958, in which the putschists rather unceremoniously put the kibosh on the royal family.

(2) Since 1949 the Arab world has not known a decade in which there has not been at least two successful coup d’etats. The 1960’s through 1980’s are especially coup-laden, and the 2000’s have thus far known only two coups, both of them in Mauritania, fewer than any other decade. It is important to note the Cold War context of these decades, both the global Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, but also the “Arab Cold War” between the “progressive” republican (and often Arab nationalist) Non-Allied states and the conservative, often monarchical, Western allied ones. In view of this, the frequency of Arab coups is similar to sub-Saharan Africa’s during the 1960’s and 1970’s in its elevated number of coups. In the most coup afflicted states, periods during or following armed conflict, the period after the first Arab-Israeli War, the Sahara War, or the Sudanese Civil War for instance, are particularly active. During and after the 1980’s, coups drop off. Many states made their peace with Israel or accepted American patronage and developed a more effective internal praetorian complex in which organized domestic opposition from the military or other groups was co-opted, neutralized, or eliminated. Many of the leaders who came to power in the 1980’s have remained in power since, or until very recently. Coups after the middle 1980’s tended to occur outside of the American sphere of influence, particularly in Arab Africa. Several of these states were incapable of building a strong authoritarian order in the face of a variety of centrifugal forces, and a lack of strong unifying forces, politically, culturally, or otherwise. A variety of particular factors, which I will not parse, contributed to this failure in each state and continue to plague the weakest Arab states. As Naison Ngoma wrote in 2004,

[T]he seemingly unremitting rate of coups [ . . . ] shows that despite the improvements of sub-Saharan Africa’s economic performance (which is generally considered synonymous with the democratisation of the states) the danger of coups d’état remains high. Society’s expectations have tended to supersede governments’ economic capacity. The solution in this regard would seem to be economies performing beyond the demands made by the general society. Since this is hardly likely, given the general lack of capacity of the states in the region, military coups remain a realistic threat.”

(3) Syria, Mauritania, Comoros, and Sudan lead the coup count. Syria has had the most, though all of these occurred between 1949 and 1970. Comoros’s first coup came less than a year after its independence in 1975. Mauritania’s first coup came during the disastrous war in the Western Sahara, when mismanagement of the war effort caused military leaders to depose Mokhtar Ould Daddah in 1978. Close up, Mauritania’s tradition of coup and counter coup during the early 1980’s is reminiscent of Syria’s during the early 1950’s and 1960’s: both begin with disastrous wars, disgruntled military men, and a weak national identity ending with a strong man dictator of many years. Mauritania appeared to have broken that cycle for a brief time in 2007. The chances of that democratic experiment being restarted are lower than they might be if the former president had been removed legally. What will follow is increasingly murky.

Suggestions/recommendations, observations, comments, questions, corrections, etc. are welcome and encouraged.

7 thoughts on “La-a, la-a, ana ir-ra’is

  1. Excellent. I love it. I can’t remember the last time I saw some homemade empirics on a politics blog, so this is great. Now you just need some bivariate analysis. It sounds like you’re brimming with possible independent variables. If the data for them is as easily gathered as these data were, you should be able to run some fun correlations. As for causation, well …

    You don’t have to talk to Theda Skocpol to know that devising general theories for coups or revolutions is problematic. The coup distribution for Arab states is all over the place. One might eyeball the graph and suggest a slight tendency for autumn, but with so many different variables for each coup, it looks doubtful there is any one thread linking coups with season. Plus, you only have 39 total coups. With such a small number, your p-value (if, say, you compare this test statistic against a null hypothesis that coup-month distribution is equal) will probably be really high (I’m no statistician, but we could actually easily check this). That’s why coups and revolutions are so hard: there are so few of them to begin with.

    A good starting place might be to more clearly operationalize Arab coups. What is it about Arab coups that make them different from other coups? Even if there is a tendency for, say, bloodless military takeovers, is this tendency identifiably “Arab” in nature? Even if your graphs are just a lark, there’s no reason you can’t explore these questions for real. Coups may be hard to untangle, but it doesn’t make them not worth studying.

    A theory is only as good as the observations it explains, and topics like this are notoriously tough nuts to crack. As you’ve cited above, much of sub-Saharan Africa’s coup-itis is tied to the fact that economics outpaced politics (and plus, the positive economic trends in African countries have to be taken with a huge grain of salt: with such wealth concentration, it’s not like much is trickling down). Some Arab states suffer from the same problem, but there’s no mistaking the fact the Arab world looks much different than s-S Africa. If you can unpack Arab states and coups a little more, I think you would have a lot of cool questions worth exploring/gathering data/writing about. This exercise was a great first step.

  2. No coups, apparently, in Saudi Arabia or Jordan, to name two ‘non-cases’ that jumped out from a quick look at your (excellent) charts. Why not? I could only hazard a semi-informed guess or two.
    (In 1958 Crown Prince Faisal effectively took control of the Saudi govt from King Saud, but wasn’t a coup since it stayed in the family.)

  3. LFC, why not inside the family? If Rifaat al-Assad had managed to seize power from Hafez al-Assad in 1983, would that not have been a coup?

    In the case of Feisal, he was again marginalized before returning to take charge, and only after that got the crown, but still. Saudi Arabia has since coup-proofed itself pretty well by setting up the army & national guard as counter-balancing forces, and trying to establish an equilibrium of princely factions throughout the state. In Jordan, there was an attempt in, I think, 1958, or one could plausibly say that the king’s decision to bring down the Nabulsi government, suspend parliament etc, was a sort of intra-regime coup itself. And then Black September, of course, and the killing of king Abdullah.

    Anyhow, seizing power in an Arab monarchy either entails (1) being well-placed in the order of succession, thus limiting the number of potential putschists rather severely, but carried out many times with success in Gulf emirates, or (2) scrapping monarchy (or the current bloodline), which will be tough to gather support for in the regime elite, & risks destabilizing the state; as done by Nasser in Egypt, Qadhafi in Libya, etc.

    In Arab republics, on the other hand, coups are the only known way of changing a government…

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