Twilight of coups in online era

EGYPT - What happened in Egypt should be obvious: A military coup d'etat which removed from power an elected president.

Still, most of the country's officials and journalists are desperate to avoid calling it a coup. Instead, they prefer softer terms such as a "military-facilitated transition", an "army-supported people's revolution" or an "extra-constitutional emergency action".

There is a reason why they use such coy language, for no other topic is more controversial in the history of Middle Eastern nations than the role of military interventions in politics.

The power and influence which the military enjoys in any country are so obvious that they are seldom commented upon. The military runs its own logistics, research, training, education and health facilities.

In almost all cases, it is trusted with keeping and auditing its own weapons. In countries which operate conscription, the military will have trained and kept the personal records of every single male.

In Israel, where both men and women are liable for national service, the army has the records of all Israeli citizens born since 1935. And in poor nations, the military is invariably better educated and better travelled than the broader population.

Add to that the often exaggerated patriotism which is the standard fare of military education and the real question should be why coups are so infrequent.

As the late Oxford professor Samuel Finer put it half a century ago in The Man On Horseback, still the seminal book on the topic, the military forms "a prestigious corporation or order, enjoying overwhelming superiority in the means of applying force.

The wonder, therefore, is not why this rebels against its civilian masters, but why it ever obeys them".

Britain and France, the two colonial powers which created the Middle East as we know it today, took a dim view of the military's involvement in politics: A coup by the British military against its political masters was always unthinkable and, in France, where generals often dabbled in politics, the institution was despised as a backward-looking, conservative Catholic-obsessed organisation whose instincts were often diametrically opposed to the aspirations of most French people.

Army promised modernity

But France and Britain ruled the Middle East for just five decades. Apart from carving out today's borders and creating a number of Arab nations which never existed before, neither the British nor the French left much of an impact on the region's political culture.

The one country which did so was Turkey, or the old Ottoman empire which ruled the Middle East for centuries beforehand. For the Ottomans, the army was always about modernity, the only force advocating progress, an idea passed on to the Arab military as well.

Today, military coups are regarded as backward developments, an expression of a deeper failure in a country's political system.

However, that was not always the case. During the 1960s, the military was seen as a progressive force for change in newly- independent underdeveloped nations, the only institution able to lead a country to post-colonial prosperity. That applied not only in the Middle East, but also in

Indonesia and large swathes of Africa

By the 1970s, however, the concept of military rule was progressively discredited, especially after the social and economic disasters of military-ruled Latin America became obvious.

When the Cold War ended, military involvement in politics became monumentally unfashionable, largely because the twin pillars and supposedly self-regulating concepts of the market economy and democracy appeared to have triumphed.

Contrary to the popular view which sees the military as omnipotent in the Middle East, the region actually followed the intellectual fashions of the rest of the world. Leaders in Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Libya and

Algeria all came to power through military coups. Yet by the early 1980s, all apart from Algeria have tried to shed their uniforms and attempted with various degrees of success to recycle themselves as civilian rulers.

Furthermore, in all the monarchies of the Middle East, the armed forces have never exercised decisive influence, since the kings, emirs and sheikhs rely on a broader historic and religious legitimacy which cannot be matched by any colonel or general.

So, although Saudi Arabia buys huge quantities of expensive weapons from the West, the country's military has no role in politics, and the king is never seen in military uniform because he does not need to be: The country was created by his ancestors, and bears his family name.

The same applies to Jordan where the army remained under the command of a British officer right until the end of the 1950s, and to the Gulf states, where it is not the military but the internal security services which are the real defenders of the established order.

Different types of coup

Still, it was inevitable that, once the existing political status quo in the Middle East was challenged by the latest wave of rebellions, the military would be forced to rethink its role.

And it has done so not only in Egypt, where in the spate of the last two years it first relinquished power and then retook it, but also in other countries in the region.

Analysts tend to count as military coups only those occasions when a sitting government or head of state is removed from power.

However, there are other, more silent and often unseen coups d'etat, when governments collapse because the military simply withdraws its support. Under this broader definition, the Middle East has already experienced not one but four separate military coups since the so-called Arab Spring began.

The first took place in January 2011 in Tunisia, when the military simply refused to fire on crowds of demonstrators, forcing the country's long-time ruler Zine el Abidine Ben Ali to flee.

The second coup took place in Egypt a month later, when the military pulled the plug on president Hosni Mubarak.

The third coup took place in slow motion in Syria, where the regime of President Bashar al-Assad abandoned previous civilian structures and embraced the military as the only organisation able to save it from defeat in the face of a rebellion.

And finally, there was last week's rather old-fashioned coup in Egypt.

It is noteworthy that in all these coups - including the latest one in Egypt - the Middle East's militaries have shown no desire to either monopolise power or remain in control of the country for long.

Not necessarily because military officers have suddenly become more modest individuals but because the generals understand that running a sophisticated country today is beyond their expertise.

The days when the military could take over the reins of power by simply controlling the national television and radio stations and a few state-owned enterprises are gone.

The online social media is beyond anyone's control, while even the economy of an under-developed nation is far too complicated for someone with no financial expertise to dabble in.

Just imagine a general with all his medals, sitting at the negotiating table with officials from the International Monetary Fund in talks about bond yields or money velocity questions.

Results, not ideology

This growing complexity and increased openness of Arab societies means that the coup in Egypt should not be seen as heralding a new wave of military involvement in politics throughout the region.

But the experience of Egypt does offer one important warning: that new governments cannot buy the support of their generals by simply showering the military with privileges.

Deposed Egyptian president Mohamed Mursi has tried to copy the tactic of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, another Islamist leader who had to contend with a politically-active military.

Like Mr Erdogan, who initially reassured the army that it could keep its privileges, Mr Mursi guaranteed his military immunity under the new Egyptian Constitution, left their businesses untouched and, for good measure, also appointed General Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, a devoted Muslim officer, as the army's new commander.

But it was the general who ultimately deposed Mr Mursi for one reason: Unlike his Turkish counterpart who presided over a decade of economic prosperity for his country, the Egyptian president and his ruling

Muslim Brotherhood failed in their most basic duty of administering the national economy and keeping the country together.

"Everyone felt knifed in the back by the Brotherhood, but the military was in a position to do something about it," commented Professor Robert Springborg from the US Naval Postgraduate School in California, an expert on the Egyptian military.

Exactly 60 years ago, Professor Majid Khadduri, the founder of modern Arab political science, predicted that if Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood ever came to power, it will rule for not more than one year.

Prof Khadduri also wrote that the people of the Middle East would judge democracy "by the results achieved rather than by its theoretical soundness", and that they would conclude "that they have been deceived by those in authority and that democracy has failed them". Sadly, he was proven right on both counts.