Nasser and the rise of Arab military juntas

Published 12.11.2019 00:29

The death of Egypt's overthrown President Mohammed Morsi under very suspicious circumstances and the subsequent death of his son also under equally suspicious circumstances has once again reminded us of the extent to which military juntas in the Arab world are willing to go to stay in power. Morsi was not just the first civilian president, he was also the only freely elected leader in Egypt's entire history.

While his government was dismantled by the July 3, 2013 coup, Morsi continued to be the legitimately elected president of Egypt during his six-year imprisonment. A claim that presented a direct challenge to the military junta governing Egypt. His death, in June 2019 has, at least for now, brought some relief to Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi's military regime.

The Arab Spring started in 2011 from Tunisia in North Africa to Yemen on the Arab Peninsula and mainly targeted Arab republics governed by military juntas. Ironically, it is the rich monarchies of the Arab world, the former foes of the military juntas that rose from the overthrow of Arab monarchies, that are now spending billions trying to prevent the fall of these juntas.

Like everything in politics, this is not altruistic. The Arab monarchies, themselves very unstable, cannot afford to allow transparent, accountable political process to rise up in Arabia to replace the juntas which will also encourage their own populations to rise up against the monarchies, all of which are absolute.

The only alternative?

For a long time, military governments have been considered the only alternative to colonial or monarchical rule in Arabia.

Ever since Col. Gamal Abdul Nasser took power in Egypt in 1952 following two coups, first against King Farouq then against his own coup partner, Col. Mohammed Najib, the rule of military juntas became the norm in newly independent Arab republics.

The Egyptian military coup d'etat, like those that would later follow elsewhere, in Yemen, Libya, Sudan, Syria and Iraq were all promoted as peoples' "revolutions." The peoples, however, were hardly involved.

These were, in their entirety, military affairs and remained so for the decades that followed. Even the handful of progressive intellectuals who supported the military coups as a vehicle for change were quickly sidelined and eventually excluded from any role in the future of the country. Indeed, it is impossible to find any parallels between the military "revolutions" then and the full-scale mass revolutions known as the Arab Spring, which started in 2011 against the military-led regimes from Tunis to Yemen and which continue to this day.

In school in the 1960s, in Aden, Yemen, I remember our notebooks which had the photos of Nasser and his leading military colleague, Abdul Hakim Amer on the front cover looking confident and forceful in their military uniforms.

From a very young age, everywhere in Arabia, we were not just indoctrinated that Nasser is the pan-Arab leader who can do no wrong, but also that the military is the only form of government.

We had absolutely no concept of civilian rule or even constitutions. It was in my late teens that I learned the meaning of the word "constitution," but not in my "civics" class at school! Yes, we had civic classes surprisingly.

The Nasser era

Despite Gamal Abdul Nasser's achievement in creating a wave of anti-colonial pan Afro-Arab revolutionary movements, the creation of military dictatorships and presenting them as the only legitimate system of government was one of the biggest catastrophes of Nasser's era.

One that we have suffered from over the past 60 years and we now witness, as the sleeping volcanoes wake up with fury. What Nasser gained as a revolutionary leader he lost as a national leader. And therein lies the paradox.

The distinction or confusion between leading a revolution and leading a nation. Decades after the "revolution," Qaddafi's Libya and Saddam's Iraq were governed by Revolutionary Councils! More than 60 years after Nasser's coup or "revolution" Egypt is still unable to put electricity in all its homes or clean water in all its taps.

And what is true about Egypt is true about Yemen where successive military juntas ruled following a coup (a.k.a revolution) more than 50 years ago. Revolutionary rhetoric became both, the vehicle for power retention and camouflage for incompetence. Hence nation-building was put on the back burner.

In speeches, as in their literature, the military juntas of today are still leading revolutionary movements, not nations. The pre-revolution promises of free education, free medical care and uplifting the masses from colonial subjugation have been substituted by the need to preserve and protect the country from the "treachery" of reactionary forces.

In Yemen, Saleh used to repeatedly say the military is the safety valve. This is a claim made by every military junta ruling in Arabia. The concept that the safety valves of a nation are the constitutional institutions of governance: An elected parliament, an independent judiciary, an accountable executive branch and a free investigative press do not exist; and so the "revolution" continues.

Corruption under military rule goes unquestioned. In Yemen, as in Egypt the military openly and legitimately operates commercial enterprises in construction, food supply chain and even garments using the state's resources in direct competition with the private sector. Where the profits of such organizations go is not difficult to imagine. Military procurement is another major wealth creator for military leaders. The list of junta largesse for its officers and consequential maleficence is endless. The list of those able to stand up against this is either non-existent or as in Yemen, very short.

I remember a meeting we were called to by the then president, the late Field Marshal Ali Abdulla Saleh to discuss a growing U.S. dollar crisis in Yemen. As Saleh berated our small group of invited business leaders for "provoking" the crises and for "mischief-making," a businessman sitting next to me interrupted Saleh saying, "Mr. President, you know the mischief-makers. They operate because you allow them, and if you want to stop them you have the power to do so." Saleh continued for a few more minutes before storming out. In the absence of a transparent and free political process, such instances are few and far between and corruption becomes rampant.

The anti-colonial stance

Nasser not only created an important anti-colonial awareness in the minds of Arabs but paradoxically also created a sense of mistrust between the people and their military. The young rifle carrying cadets who come from the oppressed neighborhoods of our region are not only the junta's tools of oppression, but it's victims too in the same way as the rest of the citizenry.

Tragically, this reality is difficult to note in the angry streets of the Arab Spring where young soldiers are frequently used to brutalize their compatriots. And more so, as the baby steps achieved in the quest for change are violently put down by the return of military juntas whose current methods make their past brutalities pale in comparison.

As the Arab world's pendulum swings back with a vengeance, the future promises to see the Arab Spring ultimately turning into one of the biggest firestorms that will surely consume not just the military juntas but also their regional financial benefactors. Ultimately, the people always win.

History has taught us that it is impossible to appease the fury of a betrayed people through cosmetic changes or suppress it by violence. Those who look at the explosions in the Arab world, passively deluding themselves and wishfully thinking that all will be put off, or actively supporting the counter-revolutionary forces, do so at their own peril.

The angry masses of Arabia, as they break the chains of 60 years of oppression, will not only hold accountable the military juntas and their regional benefactors but also their distant supporters.

Never before has the Arab world forced so many, inside and beyond its borders, to make a choice between a gradually but definitely dissolving past and a rising future that promises to usher the end of corrupted dictatorships and their benefactors.

* Yemeni political activist, former President of TAWQ, a nonpartisan democratic movement that includes members of various Yemeni political groups

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