Guardians of the Arab State: When Militaries Intervene in Politics, from Iraq to Mauritania. By Florence Gaub. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press, 2017. 224 pp. $45.
Gaub, a senior analyst at the European Institute for Security Studies, has written the most comprehensive book on Arab army officers since Eliezer Be'eri's 1970 book, Army Officers in Arab Politics and Society.1 Gaub suggests the preconditions for Arab officers' coups d'état include the prevalence of national instability, their own politicization, capacity for intervention, and a compelling reason to overthrow the government. Egypt and Algeria, the author notes, were situations where the population encouraged and then approved of the military's steps into the political arena.
The book's main contribution lies in its analysis of Arab regimes' coup-proofing measures that put an end to the phenomenon. Regime stabilization took place at the expense of meritocracy and military effectiveness. Coup-proofing has also retarded the possibility of political change from within. This was the case in most countries that witnessed the Arab uprisings with the notable exception of Tunisia.
Unfortunately, the book has a number of factual errors. Gaub claims King Farouk committed the Egyptian army in 1948 against Israel because of public opinion, but except for the Muslim Brotherhood, most Egyptians were not enthusiastic about involvement in the Palestine conflict. She refers to Egypt's defeat by Israel in 1949 when the Egyptian army was routed in 1948. Nasser founded the Arab Socialist Union not in 1961 but in 1962.
Gaub notes that while the Lebanese army successfully aborted the 1949 and 1961 coups, its commanders have invariably ignored presidential orders to use force against any of the country's sects. While correct, this had nothing to do with military professionalism or avoidance of political involvement. Instead, army commanders— always Maronite Christians—maintain neutrality because they are presidential aspirants. To win the presidency—also reserved for Maronites—successful candidates must be accepted by all sects.
Gaub notes that Iraqi Shiites fought Iranians determinedly during the 1980-88 Iraq-Iran war but misses the real reason. During the first wave of the war, some 40,000 Iraqi Shiite recruits defected to the Iranian side. Iran treated them as Arabs, dashing their hopes to be treated as fellow Shiites, so Iraqi Shiites saw the war through the Arab vs. Persian lens.
These criticisms aside, the book is a welcome addition to the literature on the evolution of Arab armies' political role.
American University of Beirut