Jonathan Powell & Salah Ben Hammou
In the early hours of July 23, 1952, a clique of relatively unknown Egyptian soldiers launched what would be dubbed “the blessed movement” and toppled King Farouk in a coup d’etat. The takeover was a relatively calm affair. The coupists managed to arrest key members of the royal military and capture strategic points within Cairo. By dawn, with the levers of power chiefly in their hands, the soldiers presented themselves to the world as Harakat a-Dubbat al-Ahrar: the Free Officers Movement.
Seventy years later, this story and its protagonists are well-known. The Free Officers’ 1952 coup was pivotal for the creation of modern Egypt and transformed its society from a landed aristocracy to a military republic. One member of the Free Officers and Egypt’s second president - Gammal Abdel Nasser - would become one of the 20th century’s most iconic figures and synonymous with anti-colonial and non-alignment ideals throughout the Middle East and the rest of the world.
But the story of the Free Officers extends far beyond Egypt’s borders. A full appreciation of the Free Officers’ legacy requires understanding how this event influenced the behaviors of individuals abroad - including soldiers, political leaders, and foreign powers.
Revolution & Counter-Revolution in the Arab World
Successful copycat coups are perhaps the most overt evidence of the Free Officers’ influence - especially those aimed at unseating colonial-backed monarchies. For instance, Iraq saw its own clique of Free Officers topple - quite brutally - the Hashemite monarchy in July 1958 and establish its own military-led republic, headed by General Abdel Karim Qasim. In Yemen, a Free Officers clique borne out of the decades-old Free Yemeni Movement toppled the centuries-old Imamate in September 1962, sparking a civil war that would split the country into two separate states for nearly three decades. Though not targeting a monarchy, Sudan’s Free Officer clique - allegedly formed mere months after its Egyptian counterpart took power - came to power in 1969 and installed Jaafar Nimeiri’s fifteen-year dictatorship. And in Libya, it would be a Free Officer offshoot led by none other than a young Captain Muammar Gaddafi that would topple the monarchy of Idris Snoussi the I and usher in four decades of authoritarian rule.
While these successful attempts dramatically illustrate the potential for revolutionary coups, they tell only half the story, as shown in the figure above. It’s also important to consider conspiracies that tried, but failed, to topple governments. Although Jordan’s Hashemite monarchy avoided the fate of its Iraqi counterpart, this was not due to a lack of effort from would-be copycats. In 1957, a clique of Jordanian Free Officers allegedly attempted to seize power in the Zarqa barracks but failed when King Hussein directly intervened to stop the coup. Similar conspiracies by Free Officer-inspired cliques and officers were similarly uncovered and stamped out in 1958, 1959, 1960, and 1963. In Saudi Arabia, authorities uncovered a Free Officers-inspired coup plot in 1955, in which the plotters allegedly had coordinated with Egyptian soldiers months before. At the conspiracy’s trial, then-Defense and Aviation Minister Prince Mishaal bin Abdulaziz allegedly confronted the plotters and asked, “which one of you thinks you are Gammal Abdel Nasser?” Similar plots - both allegedly concocted by air force officers - were uncovered in 1962 and 1969, resulting in hundreds of arrests.
The thwarted conspiracies suggest that like-minded revolutionaries weren’t the only ones learning from Egypt’s Free Officers - their targets were, too. Political leaders - particularly monarchs and privileged ruling classes - took steps to mitigate the risk of Free Officer-inspired coups. After the fall of King Farouk in Egypt, Jordanian authorities founded the General Investigative Department (GID) to vet out coup conspiracies in the armed forces. Other regimes took more dramatic measures - even staging preemptive coups. For instance, Sudan’s first successful coup in 1958, masterminded by then-Prime Minister Abdalla Khalil, occurred in part to preempt a Free Officers-inspired coup by lower-ranking soldiers. In Saudi Arabia, the royal family so feared a coup to the point that they forced King Saud’s abdication in favor of his half-brother Faisal. Other leaders took measures to insulate the masses from Egyptian influence, including Yemeni leader Imam Ahmad’s ban of radios.
Foreign Friends or Foes?
Egypt’s Free Officers also captured the attention of foreign actors like the United States and Great Britain. The US was actually aware of the conspiracy against King Farouk but withheld the information, allegedly in hopes of securing the new regime’s support in the developing Cold War. But this prospect quickly disappeared once the Free Officers revealed their anti-Western sentiments.
With Britain, the US moved to support the region’s pro-Western allies like Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Libya in the face of their nationalist, pro-Free Officer opponents. These measures became especially sophisticated after the Iraqi Free Officers toppled and massacred the royal family in 1958. For example, Western powers relied on their intelligence services to uncover ongoing Free Officer conspiracies (Libya 195; Jordan 1958, 1959; Saudi Arabia 1955, 1962) and inform their allies. In addition, contingency plans were also developed to safeguard the allies’ physical safety. In 1956, British intelligence devised a plan to rescue Libya’s Idris Snoussi in the event of a coup and allow him to address the nation through the radio to counter the attempt. Fearing a wave of Free Officer-style coups following the Iraqi monarchy’s demise, the US deployed troops to Lebanon to safeguard President Camile Chamoun while British forces shored up King Hussein in Jordan. Of course, these measures had varied degrees of success. Whereas Western support insulated the regimes in Jordan and Saudi Arabia, Britain’s decision to cut back support for Snoussi in Libya inevitably led to his downfall in September 1969.
Reflecting on a Coup’s Legacy
Coups are generally viewed as domestic affairs - and for good reason. These events usually start and end within a single country’s borders. But if observers, academics, and policymakers glean anything from Egypt’s Free Officers, it should be that coups can have much wider-reaching implications than often assumed. History invariably focuses on “successful” actions, as seen in places like Iraq and Libya, but a more telling illustration of the impact of Egypt’s 1952 on coups throughout the region suggests to look elsewhere. Beyond those successes, the region saw Free Officer-inspired conspiracies arise in various countries, with some of those plots only failing due to critical and sometimes dramatic acts from either ruling elites or their foreign allies.
Despite efforts by sympathetic leaders--particularly Qaddafi, who promoted dozens of coup conspiracies throughout much of Africa--coups directly inspired by the Free Officers would subside. Nasser's 1970 death, various acts of "coup-proofing," and--perhaps most importantly--increasing less being seen worth emulating, likely all contributed to the close of this tumultuous period.
The following was recently published at Just Security.
Salah Ben Hammou & Avery Reyna
Once considered relics of the 20th century, military coups have captured global headlines this past year. The recent wave of coups – removing governments in Myanmar, Guinea, Burkina Faso, Sudan, and elsewhere – have garnered widespread attention by policy-makers, academics, and political leaders alike. Observers have been especially quick to call on the international community to respond to the power-grabs. International actors, the argument goes, can leverage different resources like sanctions, membership suspensions, and embargoes to push coup leaders to cede political power and reinstate civilian rule.
For example, Frances Z. Brown and Thomas Carothers recently advocated on these pages for the United States to develop a global anti-coup strategy. Like similar commentaries, the authors list a compelling and exhaustive list of standards that the United States and international community more broadly should follow in the wake of military coups. These standards include explicitly naming and shaming coups as coups, advocating for a strict adherence to a transitional timeline, and collaborating with other international actors to pressure coup participants to step aside.
While all these standards are vital for a robust anti-coup strategy, the international community also needs to move beyond a focus on the military officers who take political power. In particular, anti-coup strategies should take steps to deal with the civilian allies, supporters, and instigators of military coups. This requires foregoing a one-size-fits-all approach and better understanding the political context where coups have occurred.
Civilians in Military Coups: More Common Than We Think
Although military coups invoke images of soldiers and tanks, these events often occur with the support and involvement of civilian constituencies. Despite this reality, civilian collaborators rarely receive the same level of focus and backlash as military coup leaders. Instead, there is a tendency to use different forms of civilian support as indicators of a “popular” coup – such as mass protests demanding military intervention. For example, protests demanding military intervention against then-President Mohamed Morsi preceded Egypt’s 2013 coup, contributing to a debate over whether the event constituted a military takeover at all, given its alleged popularity. Nearly a decade later, we know the answer to be a resounding yes.
In their article, Brown and Carothers rightfully call on the United States to give less weight to claims of coup popularity. But addressing civilian collaboration requires the recognition that civilians can play several different roles beyond just participating or rallying pro-coup protests. For example, research on Egypt’s 2013 crisis shows that civilian businesspeople and opposition party leaders coordinated with the military before the coup and used a host of financial resources to fund support for the takeover. Some evidence suggests that oligarchs – once benefactors of Hosni Mubarak’s authoritarian government – used their resources and media enterprises to rally support for the military’s intervention while also funding the Tamarod (or “rebellion”) popular protest movement. Civilian collaboration can also manifest in the post-coup context after the dust settles. For instance, coup leaders may formally withdraw from politics while still wielding their ties to civilian affiliates to influence the political system, thereby sidestepping any meaningful consequences for their actions. In other cases, civilian affiliates enable coup leaders to not only neutralize domestic opposition to the coup but to also appease the international community’s demand for a civilian government. For example, after Egypt’s coup, the transitional government saw several opposition leaders like Mohammed ElBaradei involved – lending the military government short-term credibility – but this token opposition involvement was short-lived as the military government consolidated power.
Understanding the various roles of civilians in illegal power-grabs and similar actions is also relevant to democratic backsliding in the United States, including attempts to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election and the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. Although there has been much debate on whether the attack constituted a traditional coup, it should be noted that then-President Donald Trump and his allies allegedly considered using the military to overturn the 2020 election results, and the Trump White House reviewed a draft executive order that would have facilitated this military involvement. In short, civilians are not the uniformly pro-democratic figures many observers and policymakers may believe them to be.
Here’s Why It Matters: Sudan’s Political Crisis
These concerns are not negligible or merely theoretical. The involvement of civilians can significantly complicate and hinder efforts to reinstate the rule of law after a coup. This can be seen in Sudan, where the issue of civilian collaboration has been present throughout the current political crisis. Following the fall of President Omar al-Bashir in the face of mass protests in 2019, a civilian-military government was formed to navigate the country’s transition to democracy. However, in October 2021, the military ousted the transitional government of Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok only days after a faction of former rebel leaders organized protests demanding a coup. In the face of widespread civilian opposition, Sudan’s coup leaders have since relied on a constellation of civilian members from al-Bashir’s regime – including figures from the former ruling National Congress Party NCP) and their affiliates – to shore up their government.
The coup regime’s allies have also been important in the face of the international community’s attempts to mediate talks between “civilians” and the military, namely the Tripartite talks. These talks – backed by the United Nations Integrated Transition Assistance Mission in Sudan (UNITAMS), the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), and the African Union (AU) – allegedly aimed to build a new civilian-led transitional government. Although international actors originally presented and supported the Tripartite mechanism (TPM) as a solution to Sudan’s political stalemate, observers and pro-democracy groups denounced the process as a sham, especially after the talks saw only the military and its allies (e.g., former NCP members, Popular Congress, Unity Party, former rebel leaders like Minister of Finance Jibril Ibrahim) present. Although coup leader General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan recently announced that Sudan’s army would be exiting the political process, pro-democracy groups noted that the military’s civilian allies like former NCP members would remain present and continue to represent the military’s interests . The Tripartite dialogue was halted by UNITAMS on July 6, after the withdrawal of the military; international mediators have since called for reconciliation between the pro-democracy groups and the civilian forces that supported and legitimized last October’s coup.
With the use of their civilian collaborators, the military’s leadership grows more capable of protecting its interests and grip on the country – even if military leadership formally exits politics. Its collaborators can still block meaningful security sector reform, pursue aggressive policies favoring the military, and neutralize anti-military opposition. While international actors may be genuinely seeking to promote a civilian-led government in Sudan after last year’s coup disrupted the country’s democratic transition, if they hope to succeed, their efforts must focus on meaningfully addressing the concerns of pro-democracy civilians who share this goal, not just on reinstating nominally civilian rule.
So What Can The International Community Do?
To better deal with civilian allies of military coups, the international community should indeed place less weight on supposed signals of coup popularity but also move beyond the blanket demand for a “civilian” government or transition. This means better appreciating the distinctions between actual pro-democracy civilian factions and those that are linked to the military. A civilian government handpicked by the military might appease the international community’s demands but does little to improve a country’s democratic prospects. In practice, a robust anti-coup strategy should also place the same pressures on civilian collaborators that military coup leaders face. Ultimately, military extrication from politics is a necessary requirement for democracy. But ignoring the different ways coup leaders seize and retain political influence – including through actors not wearing fatigues – undermines the goal of protecting or restoring democracy.
The following was recently published on The Washington Post's Monkey Cage.
Salah Ben Hammou
On Monday, Sudanese Lt. Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan announced that the military would withdraw from the U.N.-mediated tripartite talks — and pull out of Sudan’s political process more generally.
The announcement came eight months after Burhan and the military toppled the government of former prime minister Abdalla Hamdok, in October 2021. Hamdok’s government, working alongside the military, had been navigating the country’s democratic transition following the exit of longtime strongman Omar Hassan al-Bashir in April 2019.
Since the 2021 coup, Sudanese citizens have participated in widespread protests against its leaders, who have responded with brutal force. In addition to international condemnation and severe foreign-aid cuts, Sudan has seen a crippling political crisis develop over the past eight months. The recent U.N.-led talks reportedly aimed to build a political agreement between civilian leaders and the military. Now the coup leaders appear to be exiting the political stage — a surprising move that Burhan claims will allow the formation of a civilian government.
My ongoing research suggests the military isn’t likely to step away from politics entirely. A closer look at the civilian factions involved in the political process — many of which are known military allies — suggests that the military’s influence will probably continue.
When civilians participate in coup politics
Civilian collaboration in military coup politics around the world is actually quite common, if perhaps less studied. Sudan’s coups, for example, have seen frequent civilian involvement, including the country’s first successful coup in 1958, when Prime Minister Abdalla Khalil ordered the military to topple his own government. In October, I explained here in TMC how former rebel leaders who once opposed Bashir’s regime organized protests days before the coup to demand the military’s intervention against Sudan’s transitional government. But as recent developments show, civilian collaboration can extend well beyond the initial power grab and become part of post-coup politics.
Since the coup, Burhan and the military have reintegrated civilian remnants of Bashir’s fallen regime into the government, including members of the former ruling National Congress Party (NCP) and its affiliates. These measures include appointing party members to ministerial positions, unfreezing their financial assets and stacking the civil service with NCP loyalists.
This happened after the military’s reinstatement of Hamdok in November failed to quell unrest in the streets, and the former premier then resigned in January. The United Nations, the African Union and the United States put considerable pressure on Sudan to return to civilian governance. To that end, the military’s civilian allies — including the former rebels who demanded the coup — continue to participate in the tripartite talks. That didn’t sit well with pro-democracy groups like the Forces of Freedom and Change and the Resistance Committees, who boycotted the talks.
Why civilians take up the military’s interests
Beyond publicly legitimizing coup leaders, civilian collaborators can advance core interests of those who orchestrated the coup. And they can help neutralize anti-military opposition within the government by blocking legislation aimed at meaningful reform or barring the opposition from power altogether.
In other words, civilians can serve as proxies for the military itself. It’s a tactic politically dominant militaries often use — even in non-coup situations. For example, some analysts point out that Myanmar’s military relied on a political party to advance and secure its interests even in the face of a democratic transition. However, once that party saw a crippling electoral defeat, the military re-intervened in 2021, as political scientists Megan Ryan and Darin Self explain here in TMC.
In Sudan, pro-military civilians like NCP loyalists and their affiliates can ensure that the military’s economic enterprises and resource exploitation in the periphery — key points of contention for the pro-democracy movement — continue even if a civilian government emerges. In addition, the reintroduction of NCP loyalists into government and financial institutions puts party leaders in a powerful position against the opposition.
As the military reportedly intends to form a “Supreme Council of the Armed Forces” with unspecified powers after its exit, these developments give little indication that the coup leaders’ political role will evaporate. And the NCP and its offshoots, along with the former rebel leaders, have much to gain by continuing to support Sudan’s coup leaders. The NCP, for example, was outlawed after Bashir’s removal in 2019, and pro-democracy groups targeted its extensive patronage networks. In recent months, the military leadership has reversed many of these measures, though the party remains legally banned.
Similarly, former rebel leaders Minni Minnawi and Jibril Ibrahim faced little hope of electoral success with a democratic transition. But tying their fates to the armed forces and its affiliates may ensure them some political power regardless of electoral politics. Just as civilian support helps entrench the military’s influence, the military’s support can entrench its civilian allies.
What do Sudan’s pro-democracy groups think?
Pro-democracy civilian groups aren’t buying Burhan’s claim that he’ll step back from politics. In fact, the Forces of Freedom and Change denounced the move as “a tactical retreat and transparent maneuver” and have called for greater demonstrations for a genuine civilian government.
Some observers have noted that the announcement was also designed to divide the opposition. However, the refusal of pro-democracy groups to acquiesce could undermine the military’s gambit to divide its opponents and rely on its civilian proxies.
Since the announcement, Burhan has dismissed members of the ruling Sovereignty Council in preparation for the military’s exit from power, while anti-military protests continue to fill the streets. With the tripartite talks now canceled, it’s not clear whether these developments will prompt a further international response.
Are there takeaways here, for observers and academics — as well as policymakers? In the complicated politics of military coups, assuming a simple binary divide between “civilians” and “soldiers” obscures important details. And these assumptions may also miss the complex ways in which coup leaders retain political power — even as they claim to be stepping back.
Welcome to the Arrested Dictatorship blog. Posts on recent events are periodically updated as more information becomes available. It is currently edited by Jonathan Powell and Salah Ben Hammou at the University of Central Florida.
The 1995 Coup in São Tomé and Príncipe.
Egypt's Free Officers Through the World's Eyes.
J Powell & S Ben Hammou.
Anti Coup Strategies & Civilians.
S Ben Hammou & Avery Reyna
Sudan's Leader Says..
S Ben Hammou
Civilian Participation in Military Rule.
Salah Ben Hammou.
Reflecting on Revolution, Counter-Revolution in Sudan.
Salah Ben Hammou.
Don't Forget the Coup Plots! Salah Ben Hammou.
Coup allegations in Djibouti. J Powell.
Conspiracy in the Congo? J Powell.
The Int. Community, Coups, and Electoral 'Attaboys. J Powell & Salah Ben Hammou.
Decolonizing Coup Data, Salah Ben Hammou.
Coups and Democracy, J Powell & Mwita Chacha.
Coups & Clickbait, J Powell.
Iraq 1936, Salah Ben Hammou.
Failed Coup...Successful Transition? Salah Ben Hammou & J Powell