The revolution and the military. An analysis of the Egyptian and Iraqi Revolutions

Author:Radu Alexandru Cucuta

Radu Alexandru Cucuta. PhD candidate with the National School For Political Studies and Administration, supported through the “Burse doctorale în sprijinul cercetarii: Competitivitate, calitate, cooperare în Spatiul European al Învatamântului Superior – BDCCC” program, financed within the OSPDHR and cofinanced by the ESF, email:

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Theories of revolution have looked over time at different aspects of this particular political phenomenon. Be it the characteristics that may make the revolutionary dynamic similar to natural occurring phenomena (such as disease or storms and hurricanes), the powerful, violent and sudden overthrow of an existing political structure and its replacement with a new regime, the all-encompassing transformations of social and political structures, most theories of revolutions have very little to say about the military's involvement in these events. Most theories regard the military's participation as only one of the multiple elements that enforce and make possible the revolutionary conjecture, whereas other theories limit themselves to noticing the empiric-derived presence of the military (or of military representatives) in the core of the revolutionary dynamic, without attempting to find an explanation for these occurrences or to conceptualize the participation of the military to revolutions.

The paper looks present theoretical outlook on this matter and underscores the limits of explanations provided by theories of revolution on the involvement of military in the revolutionary dynamic, especially in terms of explanatory power. Debating the most important theories of revolutions (and especially the outreach of the few ones that do try to tackle the problem of military involvement), I am trying to ascertain whether the military can be a leading revolutionary force (1), and if so, identify under which conditions can the military set out on a revolutionary path (2) and underline the main characteristics of these events (3), by looking at the Egyptian Revolution of 1956 and the Iraqi Revolution of 1958. Furthermore, I am trying to underline which of the hypotheses of revolutionary theory can be tested against these two cases and to what extent can we build upon these previous findings in order to develop a conceptual model of the military’sPage 418 involvement in revolutions (4). The result should be hopefully a more accurate explanation of the relation between the military and revolutions.

Theories of revolution and the military

In discussing the relation and debates between different theories of revolution I follow the order used by Jack A. Goldstone1 and John Foran2, which analyzes theories of revolution from a combined chronological and methodological perspective. The earliest remarks about the role the military may play during revolutions are made by the first generation of revolution theorists, the “natural history3” school, best represented by the works of Lyfford P. Edwards and Crane Brinton. The “natural history” of revolutions is the first attempt to study the field of revolution in a scientific manner, trying to free the analysis of the phenomenon from the inherent moral or ideological influences of previous undertakings (be they Marxist or, on the contrary, conservative writings). It is the firm belief of the theorists of the “natural history” school that revolutions can be studied in a quasi-natural scientific manner, by means of comparing the most important cases (generally, the study is confined to the American, French, English and Russian Revolutions) and theorizing on the repeated empiric occurrences identified as a result of the comparative undertaking.

The “natural history” theories of revolution seem to be the first attempt of explaining the phenomenon in social sciences (formulating a comprehensive research program, Brinton, for example emphasizes the need of applying natural scientific methods to the study of revolutions4). However, “natural history” theories remain within the field of understanding5 (there are several underlying assumptions about the nature of revolution – its similarity to natural phenomena, the natural tendency of social systems to regain their balance, the phased dynamic of the revolution etc.)

The role of the military in revolutions is not particularly an important one, from the point of view of the “natural history” theorists. Not only isn’t the military discussed as an institution per se (the only remarks in regard to the military concern the military defeat suffered by the Old Regime as one of the probable multiple causes of revolution6), but the “natural history” theories concern themselves mostly with identifying political regularities, in order to enforce their view of revolutions as a naturally occurring phenomenon and as a dynamic that, while following its own internal conditions has a virtually preset course. The other reference to the military’s involvement is also indirect: according to Brinton and Edwards7, the conflict between the radical and moderate revolutionary factions opens the possibility for a military’s accession to power, which ends the radical overtone of the revolution and leads the New Regime through a period of pragmatic and status-quo accommodating period.

A somewhat different theoretical account of revolution is given by Louis Gottschalk8, who compares the revolutionary process with the change of goods and commodities in capitalistPage 419 economies. The essential elements of this model are the “revolutionary demand” (seen as the existence of several “challenges”, political or social problems that require a swift solution, of whom the public opinion is aware), the “revolutionary offer” (the existence of a political revolutionary problem and of possible revolutionary leaders) and the weakness of the counter-revolutionary forces. In opposition to the conceptual scheme of Brinton and Edwards, Gottschalk’s arrangement can eventually accommodate the military’s involvement, but has very little to say about their specific participation to revolutions.

Summarizing, the “natural history” theories encounter serious problems in regards to their explanatory power and their generalizing capacity. The comparative undertakings are based on only a handful of exceptional cases and the attempts of building categories lead only to an oversimplified division between “popular” or “democratic” revolutions, “rightist” revolutions, “territorial-nationalist” revolutions and “abortive revolutions”9. In regards to the military's role in revolutions, the “natural history” theories ascertain only the possible ascension to power in the late phases of the Revolution of a leader with military background, who moderates the states policy and ends the revolutionary radicalism.

For the two selected cases, not only do the theories fail to accurately explain the role of the military, but there are also problems in regards to the predictions that can be drawn from Brinton's or Edwards' conclusions. In both cases, the military is the critical military actor, who manages to perform a successful takeover of power and implements the essentially revolutionary policies. The moderate “finale” of the revolution, under a military's leadership predicted by Brinton can be accounted for, but the dynamic in both the Egyptian and Iraqi case is totally different from the natural course the revolution was supposed to take.

The relation between the moderate and radical revolutionary factions, as set out by the “natural history” theories is partly inconclusive. There are several tensions between the revolutionary factions, but the leading actors (be they moderate or radical) are part of the military. Even if we attempt to divide the revolutionary leaders into factions (such as the conflict between the more radical Nasserite group against the rather moderate faction led by Neguib in Egypt or the more radical view on revolution of Qasim confronted with the radical pan-arabic projects of the Arif brothers in Iraq), Brinton's conclusion (the accession to power of a soldier) is misleading, as the most important conflicts that concern maintaining or gaining political leadership are all between military (in the Egyptian case, the feeble attempts of the Liberal Wafd party or of the Muslim Brotherhood to gain power are easily thwarted, whereas in Iraq the Ba'th led challenge is successful only on the long run, after a decade of political struggle). Moreover, for a considerate period, it is the radicals, not the moderate military who hold the upper hand and shape the institutions and policies of the New Regime. In addition to that, the particularities of the Iraqi case make the radical-moderate divide extremely superficial – the confrontation between the nationalism of Qasim, the Socialism orientation supported by the Ba'th party and the adherence of several key-figures to the Nasserite model make the labelling process an extremely subjective undertaking.

Summarizing, while the “natural history” hypotheses can explain for the moderate and pragmatic nature of the revolutionary state, the theories cannot explain why is the military the main (and to a certain point, the only) revolutionary actor and why the conflict between moderates and radicals (if we assume there is such a manifest divide in the Egyptian and Iraqi cases) is limited solely to actors coming from the military ranks. Furthermore, the moderate's eventual win, the onset of the Thermidorian reaction or the “convalescence” Brinton is talking about10 can bePage 420 accounted for only if we make concessions to the temporal frame (in the case of Iraq, the period may be shorter, the radicalism waning by 1963, when the Ba'th-ists eventually gain power, but in the case of Egypt, only the 6-Days War may mark the conventional end of the...

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