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.
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