The Arab World’s First Coup D’etat
While observers generally point to the 1952 Free Officers coup in Egypt as the MENA’s quintessential coup, the Oct. 1936 coup in Iraq stands as the modern Arab world’s first coup d’etat.
85 years ago, Hikmat Suleyman, the leader of the nationalist Ahali movement, and General Bakr al-Sidqi plotted against and successfully removed the government of Prime Minister Yasin al-Hashimi. Hashimi’s government staunchly repressed Iraq’s various political movements, including the Ahali group, and relied on clientelist networks to maintain power. The disillusioned activists began exploring options to strike at Hashimi and supplant him with Suleyman - ultimately establishing contacts with General Bakr al-Sidqi. Sidqi, a Kurdish army general, similarly grew disillusioned with the Hashimi government following massacres against Yazidi and Kurdish populations by the Royal Iraqi Armed Forces. Additionally, Sidqi shared Suleyman’s bitter sentiments over the government’s behavior, pointing to the leadership’s refusal to supply the armed forces with sufficient weapons while engaging in lavish purchases for high-ranking civilian officials. A dispute with Hashimi’s brother and the Chief of Staff, Taha al-Hashimi, further alienated the general from the government. With the shared goals of Hashimi’s removal, Sidqi and Suleyman thus formed a civil-military coup alliance - which struck on Oct. 29, 1936.
Iraqi soldiers under Sidqi’s command marched into Baghdad in the early morning. As these forces moved into the city, air force planes flew overhead and dispensed leaflets demanding Yasin al-Hashimi’s resignation and Suleyman’s ascension across the capital. The leaflet was also delivered to the king by Suleyman as Sidqi’s forces secured the city. To further press Hashimi’s resignation, Sidqi’s planes dropped bombs near his office. Shortly after, Hashimi tendered his resignation and Iraq’s king Ghazi bin Faisal called upon Suleyman to form a new government.
The post-coup government of Hikmat Suleyman and Bakr al-Sidqi faced significant challenges from its inception. Struggles within the new government and rivalries within the armed forces eventually culminated in Sidqi’s assassination and the forced resignation of Suleyman’s government less than a year later in August 1937. The government’s failure sparked a five-year period of chronic instability in Iraqi politics as six different coups followed. These putsches were punctuated with the April 1941 pro-Axis coup of nationalist Rashid Ali Gaylani and a group of officers known as the Golden Square. Gaylani fell from power when the British invaded a month later to reinstate the monarchy.
Ultimately, the Suleyman-Sidqi coup began a wave of coups d’etat across the Middle East and North Africa as nationalist officers and their civilian backers vied for power in Syria, Egypt, Iraq, Yemen, and beyond. These events would dominate political life throughout the 1950s-60s before notably ebbing in the 1970s.
Al-Marashi, Ibrahim, and Sammy Salama. 2008. Iraq's armed forces: an analytical history. Routledge.
Batatu, Hanna. 1978. The Old Social Classes and the Revolutionary Movements of Iraq: A Study of Iraq's Old Landed and Commercial Classes and of its Communists, Ba’thists and Free Officers. Princeton University.
Khadduri, Majid. 1948. The coup d'etat of 1936: A Study in Iraqi Politics. The Middle East Journal: 270-292.
Khadduri, Majid. 1960. Independent Iraq, 1932-1958: A Study in Iraqi Politics. Oxford University Press.
Kinney, Drew Holland. 2018. Politicians at arms: Civilian recruitment of soldiers for Middle East Coups. Armed Forces & Society 45(4): 681-701.
Simon, Reeva S. 2004. Iraq between the two World Wars: The militarist origins of tyranny. Columbia University Press.
Sorby Jr, Karol. 2011. IRAQ's FIRST COUP GOVERNMENT (1936-1937). Asian & African Studies (13351257), 20(1)
Tarbush, Mohammad A. 2015. The role of the military in politics: A case study of Iraq to 1941. Routledge.
Tripp, Charles. 2002. A history of Iraq. Cambridge University Press.
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.
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