Arab coups: numbers, graphs and observations

The data from the previous posts on Arab coup d’etats has been adjusted for more accurate counts of successful coups. The data used in the previous charts and graphs referenced in the original summary post is slightly different, but the over all conclusions remain the same, with some tweaks here and there. Below are observations about coups and time of the year, states where coups are most popular, coups over time, categorizing coups, coup-proofing and etc. This is rough, unedited, unscientific data on 13 Arab states and 41 coups therein.

UPDATE: Data set now includes Qatar. New graphs are also added with new variables.

(1) From 1949-2009, coups tended to take place in summer, especially July (6) and August (5); November (6) also sticks out along with September (5). Summer and autumn appear to be the most common seasons, though at least one coup occurs in every month and every season.
(2) States leading the coup count are: Syria (10), Mauritania (7), Comoros (6) and Sudan (4). Of these big four, Syria’s most recent coup is the most remote of that lot — 1970. The most recent is Mauritania’s 2008 coup. Comoros’s most recent took place in 1999 and Sudan’s in 1989.

(3) Most coups took place between 1949 and 1979. After the late 1960s the number of coups decreases dramatically both in number and geographic spread. Countries that had previously been especially coup-prone — such as Syria and Iraq for example — stabilized through a process of coup-proofing — while younger states on the Arab periphery see many coups, the result of weak institutions, outside meddling, faulty state-building or some combination of the three. For instance, Comoros became independent in 1975 and its politics were grumpy almost from the get go on through the 1990s. Mauritania took just under twenty years to see its first coup and when it did, the coup d’etat became a new way of life for military officers, with junta politics institutionalizing and normalizing the conspiratorial and capricious state of mind that makes coups possible. Beyond the big four, coups are relatively rare, usually taking place quietly, as in Tunisia and the UAE or Oman. Every decade since the 1940s has seen at least two coup d’etats in an Arabic-speaking country.

(4) Using Samuel Huntington’s three coup categories it becomes possible to put each coup into a general category and make some comments. These are spelled out in Political Order in Changing Societies (Yale University Press: 2006).  Huntington’s run as follows: a) breakthrough coups are basically “revolutionary” coups that set up new systems of rule, imposing new elite structures, “the radical does not compromise with the oligarchy” (pg. 232) — Egypt 1952 or Libya 1969; b) guardian coups (also palace coups) are usually do not change the fundamental political system and is usually justified by rejecting incumbent leadership as inefficient, corrupt or incompetent. Guardian coups usually reflect a high level of factional infighting and a lack of a strong idea of the “public interest” within the ruling cliques. These are usually games of “musical chairs” — think of anything that happened in Syria from the second coup of 1949 through 1970 or Mauritania from 1978-1984; c) veto coups are those that move to contradict the popular will or the actions of a ruling elite, either from politically radical or reactionary/conservative perspectives. Only one veto coup has taken place in the period studied, in Algeria in 1992. 68.3% of the coups studied were guardian coups (28 of 41). 12 coups were breakthrough coups.

Applying these categories is highly subjective. The line between what constitutes a guardian coup and a veto coup is thin. Would, for instance, the 2008 Mauritanian coup be counted as a veto coup — it did overthrow an elected government — or a guardian coup? In the latter case the accusations of corruption and incompetence are all there and there is a strong case to be made that not much within the real system of power changed. The same goes for the 2005 coup, which indicates that the results do matter. For example, the 2005 coup led to an electoral democracy, with heavy military manipulation but nevertheless different from the dictatorship that preceded it, so can it be counted as a breakthrough coup? Here 1984 (the Ould Tayya coup) and the 2005 coup are both counted as breakthroughs because they drastically altered the political scene in a way that other rearrangements of juntas did not. The 2008 coup is classified as a guardian coup based on its rhetoric and because not enough time has passed to see how significantly the Ould Abdel Aziz government will reorganize power (or how long it will last). The 1995 Qatar coup is not included at all and will be included in later updates. An interesting exercise would be to graph these categories across months, looking at whether there is a relationship between what kind of coup happens during what time of year.

Here, coups that lead to long periods of rule distinct in character, style and ideology from their antecedents are treated as breakthrough coups; those that have made no long-term impact on the politics of their country, having led to brief, fractious and unstable governments, are classified as guardian coups.

A similar example: Egypt is included with 2 coups, the 1952 coup and the 1954 move that pushed Naguib out of the top post in favor of Nasser. The first is classified as a breakthrough coup while the second is a guardian coup. (Some may disagree with the distinction.) Syria is another case: the April 1949 coup that brought Husni al-Zaʿim to power is classified as a “breakthrough” coup for setting up the coup as a substitute for elections in Syria and putting the military front and center of politics. The November 1970 coup that put Hafez al-As’ad into power once and for all is also classified as a breakthrough. All other Syrian coups are classified as guardian coups. All of Comoros’s coups are in that category as well. Houari Boumediene’s 1965 coup against Ahmed Ben Bella is classified as a guardian coup as well, though this might be due for revision considering its impact on the institutionalization of the military in politics in Algeria, but there is also a case to be made that this was a process already underway at the conclusion of the War of Independence.

Two omissions are made: the 1941 al-Gaylani (Rashid ʿAli al-Kilaani) coup in Iraq is not counted here because at the time Iraq could only be called nominally independent; the 1948 coup in the Yemeni monarchy is also not counted because it does not represent a genuine “modern” military coup in the way that al-Gaylani’s might be said to but that the al-Zaʿim coup surely represents in recent Arab history. The 2003 invasion of Iraq is not counted as a coup.

(5) A note on coup-proofing. Coup-proofing refers to methods used to prevent coups from occurring either by organizing military and bureaucratic institutions to divide military and paramilitary factions so that they are incapable of ganging up on the man on the top or other factors such as improved technology (e.g., surveillance) or changes in the international climate over time that make the likelihood and possibility of coups decrease. James T. Quinlivan discusses this at length in “Coup-proofing: Its Practice and Consequences in the Middle East” (International Security, vol. 24, no. 2, Autumn, 1999) where he discusses such measures in three primary cases: Syria, Iraq and Saudi Arabia. In each case he identifies five common traits:

(1) the effective exploitation of family, ethnic, and religious loyalties for coup-critical positions balanced with wider participation and less restrictive loyalty standards for the regime as a whole; (2) the creation of an armed force parallel to the regular military; (3) the development of multiple internal security agencies with overlapping jurisdiction that constantly monitor the loyalty of the military and one another with independent paths of communication to critical leaders; (4) the fostering of expertness in the regular military; and (5) the financing of such measures. (pg. 133)

This is a process repeated by successful and long-sitting coup kings across the Arab world. This is primarily the case in states where coup leaders are in power, Libya, Tunisia, Mauritania, Sudan, (formerly) Iraq, Syria (even after the death of the elder As’ad) as well as states historically having strong fears of external subversion like Saudi Arabia. None of the Arab states has a monopoly on any of these tactics and practically all of them use them to powerful effect. The rearrangement of the security forces under the control of the Ministry of Defense and Ministry of the Interior and the development of multiple specialized forces in Algeria following the 1992 coup and the initation of the Civil War can be seen as a part of a process very much like this one. Boumediene’s development of the secret services and keeping the position of Chief of Staff of the Army empty for many years was getting at something similar. Today, many in Mauritania feel that Gen. Ould Abdel Aziz is attempting to coup-proof himself by building on tribal networks and reaching out to Islamist and other interest groups, bucking long-standing military taboos around the Islamist tendency.

Another graph below shows the number of coups by genre and those “coup-proofed” afterwards; that figure is an estimate, but accounts for those that visibly undertook the measures mentioned and those that have survived for long periods using similar methods. The large number of coup-proofed regimes (14) likely has a relationship to why regimes and leaders set up by coup-makers are so long lasting in the Arab states.

That whole process begins in the early 1970s in the Arab states that became independent in the 1940s or earlier (Egypt, Iraq, Syria). The graph below shows the number of coups during seven decades and the number of countries in the set becoming independent over the same period. In countries that became independent around or after 1960 (Algeria, Mauritania, Comoros, etc.), the process begins either immediately or in the 1980s. Taking the 13 Arab states examined here, as the number of independent states grows and then levels off the number of coups drops off drastically. There is likely a connection between the age of a state and its internal stability and ability to cope with coups and other extra-legal power transitions. There are exceptions to this, for instance Yemen, but many of these are complicated by colonial circumstances. Another significant variable also includes complications from the Cold War superstructure and decreases and increases in tension between the super powers (the United States the Soviet Union) as related to factionalism within certain Arab states.

The number of independent states in the set is important for several reasons (13 are looked at here) and can give some clues about possible relationships between the duration of independence and the likelihood of coup d’etats but clearly nothing solid. Time can likely be analyzed more effectively by some other method. An updated graph will also include points of independence for those countries that won independence after 1949 at some point in the future. Other interesting variables would be literacy rates, population (and population growth rates), rates of rural-urban migration, the number of state employees over time, the size of military budgets and manpower, the percentage of certain minorities within the officer corps, the size of the officer corps, the number of ideological factions possibly discerned over time within the officer corps, the amount of foreign military aid (in dollar amounts), inflation rates, GDP and GNP and possibly many, many others.

(6) An attempt at making similar graphics for the number of successful coups and failed coup attempts proved demoralizing and overly time-consuming. At some point in the future graphs for those might be posted, but only for specific countries (probably Syria, Mauritania, Comoros and possibly Yemen). Another interesting set to put together would be the rank of military coup leaders at the time of taking power. Suggestions, reccomendations and observations are welcome!

(7) Another graph accounts for the number of coups by decade, the number of independent states in the set and the number of armed conflicts (broadly defined but counted conservatively; that count needs to be refined; these include the Arab-Israeli wars, the Gulf Wars (all three), the Lebanese Civil War, the Algerian Civil War, the Yemeni Civil War, the Algeria/Morocco Sand War, the Western Sahara Conflict, the Palestinian Intifadas (one and two), the Libya/Egypt War, the Sudanese Civil War) in the Arab world:

(8) Yet another set of graphs accounts for the number of coups launched by officers of various ranks (on the day of the coup, not after self-promotions post-coup), and comparing different states’s coups by the rank of their plotters. The category “Other” includes either coups led by princes or members of royal families (i.e., individuals without actual “ranks” in the military sense or non-military officers). The “Mercenary” category was created to account for the various coups in Comoros carried out by French mercenaries, rather than actual military officers of the state. Zayn al-ʿAbidin Ben ʿAli’s coup is listed as “Other” only tentatively (if readers know what his rank was/is please post in the comments).

Colonels appear to make the largest number of successful coups. Generals come in second, followed by mercenaries (that category is made up entirely of Comoran coups and is separated to account for that peculiarity).

A more interesting graph would show attempted coups and the rank of their leaders. Another factor to consider would also be coups led by officer societies (such as the Free Officers) vs. those led by individuals or cliques without as direct “revolutionary” missions.

Attempted coups are difficult to count. Several appendixes have been made looking at these; especially in the Arab world where information about attempted coups and certain periods of internal strife is kept under wraps for political reasons or because subversive movements were crushed rapidly and never made it to the light of day or where press access was made impossible at the time. Two in particular stick out as especially useful, for the period from 1949-1980. After that, thanks to Hannes, this listing of coups/coup attempts helps to carry on happily. The post-1980 period is more easily understood, however, because of the wider availability of media reports on attempted coups. The first are the second and third volumes of the epic Revolutions and Military Rule in the Middle East: the Arab States by George M Haddad (Robert Speller & Sons: New York, 1971. The second is in “The Waning of the Military Coup in Arab Politics,” by Eliezer Be’eri in Middle Eastern Studies, vol. 18, no. 1 (January, 1982). Haddad’s is the more comprehensive of the two. It gives a listing of coups, revolutions and attempted coups and revolutions in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan (all in Volume II), Egypt, Sudan, Yemen and Libya up through about 1970. Haddad includes attempts, abortive coups and successful coups. It thus takes more time to catalogue but is nevertheless massively useful. It accounts for relatively minor counter coups in Egypt and gives a fuller listing for Yemen, which will alter the graphs above soon enough.

Haddad also wrote an article on this theme (and likely others) titled “Revolutions and Coups d’Etat in the Middle East: A Comparative Study” (Die Welt des Islams, vol. 10, issue 1/2, 1965). There he sums up the frameworks used in Revolutions and Military Rule in the Middle East, looking back to Ottoman and pre-colonial/semi-colonial times in Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. He observes that military take overs often came with reformist agendas, officers growing tired of weak monarchs and weakening states. Early coups were “invariably followed by reform movements.” And “reform has been, in fact, one of the motives of the coups as well as the raison d’être and basis for the legitimacy of revolutionary regimes that followed these coups” but “reform and change [. . .] have differed in their extent and in the degree of their permanent impact on the various countries.” (pg. 24) That is true in the Arab states as well, though the extent and degree of coup-makers’ performance on social and political reform is rather slim there.

Additionally, Be’eri’s includes an appendix of 55 coups and attempted coups, not including abortive coups. 31 of those are successes (56.36%) and 24 are failures. It also gives the names of the coup leaders (and their countries). Be’eri wrote a book on the subject as well (Army Officers in Arab Politics and Society, 1969), and its conclusions are problematic (his application of Marxian analysis is troubled and his use of primary sources coming from coup participants/victims is too narrow). The conclusions in the 1982 article are problematic as well; he confuses the control of bureaucracies and technocracies by military regimes and officers for these institutions becoming self-conscious and independent elements within the state, capable of balancing the power of the military/officer core. There is a chapter someplace by William Zartman where he wrote that the Algerian military remained so powerful because officers cross pollinated into all the other state institutions (the party, the bureaucracy), creating a system where it could control “normally” civilian offices and thereby direct the technocrats and civilian managers, while working more in partnership with than domination of the managers than technocrats. This is where the officers start wearing business suits. Be’eri has the technocrats and bureaucrats becoming alternate polls of power relative to the military, when it might actually be that those institutions became something more like poles within systems of officer politicking. In any case, its appendix is useful. One is disheartened that Be’eri transliterates محمد خونا ولد هيداله as “Muhammad Khouna Ould Qaid Allah” rather than Haid Allah (or something similar), as there is no ق involved whatsoever.


17 thoughts on “Arab coups: numbers, graphs and observations

  1. Very good. You really squeezzed these numbers to the full. Some pattern is emerging: occurence of coups between July-September. Is this because coup plotters have the children and wives out of the country during school holidays? I think so. Interesting. Will comment.

  2. This may not belong here, but this a definite proof that this AQMI is fabricated by among the stakeholders of this salafist mess: Algeria, Mali, the US, France, Niger, Libya, Mauritania and probably with the complicity of the UK and why not others in the framework of technical assistance among official states’ killer agencies. Don’t know the role of Spain. Not a word in this article on the US military that we all know they are there between Tamanrasset and Gao (interview of the Africom Chief in January with RFI). No one notice these alleged cocaine flights landing and taking off from November 09 to February 010 and thank you Salimab. The same go-between since the El Para saga are still involved (look like employed by both the Malians and the Algerians, no doubt about it now). Rançons are paid and the hostage takers never found until the next ransom demand. Jeremy Keenan, François Gèze, Salima Mellah and other “conspirationists” were right, with probably 1%-2% unaccuracy. This article is from a star journalist apparently (following what conspiracy theorists say)close to DRS: Salima Tlemçani of El Watan. Putting now everything on the back of a Head of a neighboring State: terrorism, drug traficking, ransoms, management of the go-between, etc, etc…

    The implications of the Malien “arabs” in this affair is becomingsold more and more. We learn from an interview of a Mauritanian salafist Ould Ahmednah that AQMI was also working with touaregs (if he was not told to say so from his jail).

    N.B: still wondering how the Spanish hostages went from Nouadhibou near the Mauritanian coast to Northern Mali (some 2000-3000 km), with everyone we are told chasing them: the Mauritanians, the Algerians, the Spaniards, the Malians, the US, the French, and certainly others we are told. They can’t have gone straight from nouadhibou to around Gao where the US military is hiding … I am re-reading again Keenan.,13546

    Kal: this is too much. If you know something, a post on this hostage mess is really welcome.

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