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Coup Proofing Turkey’s Military? History has Ominous Lessons

One month after the failure of the coup on July 15, Turkey decided to invade Syria. The historical record suggests this is a very bad idea. Here is why.


Credit: Activist Post

This article was originally posted in War on the Rocks

On August 24, 2016, 450 Turkish troops, supported by tanks, armored trucks, air, and artillery support, crossed the Syrian border as part of Operation Euphrates Shield. Initially, things seem to go well, though ominous signs already loom on the horizon. Pushed by Erdogan’s pride and anger, nationalist public opinion, and a strong urge to justify sunken costs, the Turkish army may get entangled in an endless counterinsurgency campaign. Unfortunately for Turkey, its military forces are undergoing a severe crisis that undermines its capacity to conduct such warfare. After the abortive military coup in July, the government engaged in a series of sweeping purges in its armed forces. More than 2500 officers, including at least 119 generals and admirals, were arrested or discharged, in addition to sweeping purges in the judiciary, police, schools, and universities. The regime also purged MIT, Turkey’s national intelligence agency, and as Gönül Tol maintained, its remaining agents are likely to invest more resources in fighting the elusive “Gülen conspiracy” than real terrorist threats.

The connection between the coup attempt in July and the military adventure in August is quite direct. One Turkish observer wrote that the anger on the coup brought Erdogan the public support needed for such an adventure. In TheWashington Post, Erin Cunningham and Liz Sly offered convincing evidence that the operation was delayed for almost one year by officers who eventually participated in the coup. If this information is true, then their purge enabled Erdogan to overcome remaining resistance and launch the invasion. Unfortunately for Turkey, the ramifications of the coup on the future of its Syrian intervention may be even bigger. Turkey is going into a military adventure in Syria precisely when its army is least prepared for such a task. As we shall see below, purges and coup-proofing treatments might be dramatically detrimental to military effectiveness, both in counterinsurgency and conventional wars. To use a medical metaphor, they are similar to chemotherapy treatments: very effective in fighting cancer, but at the same time ruinous to essential bodily functions.

Coup proofing and its ramifications: the historical experience


Credit: International Business Times

As a historian, the Turkish case tempted me to draw some comparative insights. I opened Caitlin Talmadge’s seminalThe Dictator’s Army, which examines the influence of coup-proofing on military effectiveness. Three of Talmadge’s case studies  —South Vietnam (1965-1975), Iraq, and Iran (1980-1988) — faced considerable threats of military coups and therefore subjected their army to rigorous coup-proofing treatments. The results were disastrous. In all three cases, officers were usually promoted based on political or personal loyalty. Sometimes, talented officers were purged or marginalized if they were seen as lacking the requisite loyalties.  Because maneuvers could be used as a pretext for military takeovers, the three armies were poorly trained. Further, their command systems were both centralized and convoluted to ensure control and allow governments to spy on units. Finally, there were considerable deficiencies in intelligence and dissemination of information: pessimistic or critical reports might have branded an officer as disloyal. These deficiencies were usually absent in armies unafraid of coups (i.e. North Vietnam), as well as Iraqi, Iranian, or South Vietnamese units exempted from coup-proofing treatments (In the case of South Vietnam, some units were far away from the capital and therefore deemed unthreatening. Iran only gradually coup-proofed the remnants of its old army. In Iraq, certain units were exempted after the war with Iran took a disastrous turn).

Such practices might be efficient to prevent coups, but at the same time they reduce an army’s capacity to fight external foes. As both Caitlin Talmadge and Stephen Biddle maintain, the “modern system” of conventional warfare is based, among other things, on merit promotions, small-unit initiative, complex training, decentralized control, and information sharing. These are precisely the functions that coup-proofing harms the most.


Studied the effects of coup-proofing: Caitalin Talmadge

Next, I examined the cases of Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany, familiar to me from my own research. The Japanese case adds a new dimension to Talmadge’s conclusions, as it shows how coup-proofing treatments might result in factional strife and distorted decision making. During the 1930s, a pervasive fear of coups inside the Japanese high command was a serious obstacle for merit-based appointments. Often, officers were appointed and demoted according to political allegiance alone. Kanaya Hanzō, a useless alcoholic, was commissioned in 1930 as the chief of the general staff for purely factional reasons. Lt. Gen. Nagata Tetsuzan, one of the most brilliant strategists that the Japanese army ever had, was declared by his factional rivals an “evil genius” and cut down in his office by a military assassin.

Following a failed revolt on February 26, 1936, the Imperial army had undergone extensive coup-proofing treatments. Scores of officers who belonged to the faction sympathetic to the conspirators were fired, including talented professionals. This infighting did not only preclude merit-based promotions but also distorted strategic decision-making. Recently, Andrew Levidis discovered new evidence on this that he discussed at a lecture at Harvard University in November of last year. He found that the decision to expand the conflict with China in 1937, a major cause of the Pacific War four years later, was strongly influenced by post-coup factional calculations. One faction was afraid that if it let troops out of southern China by downsizing the conflict there, its adversaries might use them to attack the Soviet Union instead. The war in China was therefore perceived as the lesser of two evils.


prompted an extensive campaign of coup-proofing: The February 1936 Incident

Nazi Germany is an interesting and different case in point. For most of the Third Reich’s history, Hitler and his minions had used relatively mild coup-proofing techniques. As Jasen Castillo and Dan Reiter both note, Hitler blunted the army’s teeth without excessively undermining military effectiveness. Unlike in the countries studied by Talmadge, German soldiers were thoroughly trained. Inter-factional rivalries, though present, were never as acute as in Japan. Apart from several top-brass positions, promotions in the Wehrmacht were largely based on merit and battlefield performance, not on loyalty to the Nazi Party (though “National-Socialist attitudes” did play a certain role). Hitler placed some limits on field initiative of top commanders through his famous “no retreat” orders on the Eastern front, but lower commanders had a larger degree of operational discretion. Commanders were usually unafraid to report delicate information, and many criticized Hitler’s decisions, sometimes to his face. The historian Harold C. Deutsch noted that between 1939 and 1940, for example, many top commanders criticized the impending attack on France. None of them was harmed, and many were even promoted. Instead of engaging in coup-proofing treatments likely to reduce military effectiveness, Hitler “vaccinated” his army through other means: bribery of generals, ideological inculcation, and establishment of parallel military organizations such as the SS.

That, however, changed after the abortive coup d’état on July 20, 1944.  That coup could happen, as a high Gestapo official complained, only because the conspirators were sheltered by their peers. “The army”, he bemoaned, “operated according to its own rules.” This document, found in a collection of Gestapo documents that were published in 1961 by Seewald Verlag, reveals that after the coup, hundreds of officers were purged by “honor committees” and many were executed, even if they had no links with the conspirators. Gen. Heinz Guderian, the noted Panzer leader who served as chief of the general staff after July 20, openly declared that future commissions to the General Staff would be based on National-Socialist convictions. Had the Wehrmacht not collapsed within months for other reasons, these coup-proofing treatments might have seriously reduced its war-making capacities.

Turkey: Ominous Signs Ahead


Turkish citizens after the coup. Credit: Times live

No country is the same as another, and it would be a folly to assume that Turkish events will unfold exactly according to theory or past precedents. We are not yet sure, for example, whether the post-coup measures in Turkey will include restrictions on training and field initiative as in South Vietnam, Iraq, and Iran.

We do see, however, ongoing purges in the armed forces. In its air force, the sheer number of the pilots purged may be causing severe personnel shortages. While, before the coup, Turkey had a normal 1.25:1 pilot-to-cockpit ratio, now they have a debilitating 0.8:1. The Turkish military analyst Metin Gurcan assumes that it will take the air force at least two years to fill up the vacancies (or ten years, according to a more pessimistic assessment). The special forces were also badly affected. The picture is not as dire in the Turkish army and navy, and the second army, which bears the main burden of Operation Euphrates Shield, is reportedly the least affected. However, the pilot shortage could diminish air support capabilities for the Turkish ground forces in Syria, and corresponding shortages in the special forces could also create problems for Turkish military commitments and ambitions. This problem may worsen, because denunciations and the witch-hunt feel to the ongoing investigations are likely to result in more dismissals.


These purges are a painful lesson for the Turkish army. It is very likely that in the future, promotions will be based on political allegiance, not merit. True, politicization of promotion is not new by itself. Admittedly, the old officer corps strongly preferred Kemalist candidates for promotion. But as there was a large pool of such officers in the army, the high command could choose the more talented ones. Unfortunately, Erdogan’s definition of loyalty is much more capricious. “The uprising,” he said, “is a gift from God to us because this will be a reason to cleanse our army.” Defense Minister Fikri Isik openly admitted that the purges are not limited to participants of the coup or even to Gülenists: Anyone who did not oppose the Gülenists strongly enough is likely to be demoted. Even loyal officers who are too independently minded or do not share Erdogan’s vision for a “new Turkey” may fall under this definition. The term “Gülenist” itself is now a code word for anyone with insufficient loyalty, to include people with no plausible connection to this movement. At the same time, officers who showed strong personal loyalty to Erdogan were promoted, including to key roles in Operation Euphrates Shield. President Erdogan may also interfere in the military education system in such a way that will prevent the Kemalist elite from replicating itself. There is already talk on opening the military institutions to graduates of religious seminaries. That, by itself, does not exclude promotion by merit. In the current circumstances, however, such graduates could be slated for promotion based on religious commitments and loyalty to Erdogan, regardless of their professional performance.


A symbol for everybody Erdogan dislikes: Fethullah Gullen. Credit: News Okezone

Erdogan’s reforms are also likely to create a fragmented military structure with a convoluted chain of command, yet another common result of coup-proofing. As Metin Gurcan reports, Erdogan intends to subordinate different branches of the armed forces to different ministries and make the chief of the general staff a weak coordinator directly subordinate to the president. Obviously, this move is likely to increase civilian control and make it difficult for conspirators in different branches of the armed forces to cooperate, but it could also give rise to factional strife. The elevation of loyalty to Erdogan as the primary criteria for promotion may incentivize opposing groups to compete for the president’s favor, leading to Japanese-style factional infighting. Information flows in the army must suffer as well. Erdogan will have to closely supervise the different branches of the armed forces to forestall future coups and prevent “Gülenist” incursions, resulting in a rigid and convoluted command and control procedures.

Erdogan has an alternative. Instead of terrorizing his army officers, he can woo, bribe, and seduce them, providing a measure of coup-proofing without an excessive cost to battlefield effectiveness. The Turkish president, however, chooses to apply treatments similar to South Vietnam, Iraq, and Iran’s. Tragically for Turkey, he also embarks on a dangerous cross-border adventure. Judging by the historical record, this is a very bad idea. If Turkey does not set modest goals and withdraw quickly after achieving them, the consequences might be serious indeed.


Overriding the King: Activists on US Campuses Make a U-Turn

“Racial justice warriors” in academia adopt reactionary views that were an anathema to progressives-liberals since the civil rights struggles of the 1960s. Such discredited ideas, now resurrected, include racial reductionism, segregation, cultural essentialism and disdain for rational debate. This is bad news – especially for the racial minorities that campus radicals purport to represent.

This article was previously published in Global Independent Analytics


In November 2015, a concerned Harvard student named Michele Hall looked with dismay at a wall in the Law School’s Carspersen Building, proudly displaying the portraits of past and present tenured faculty. As a keen supporter of racial justice, Hall was enraged to see what she interpreted as a “hate crime”. Someone, whose identity and motives are still unclear, crossed the faces of African-American professors with duct tape, while portraits of the tenured white were left unscathed. This incident took place in the heyday of vigorous student protests across American academia. In a large number of university campuses, undergraduate and graduate students demonstrate and submit long lists of demands to faculty and administrators. These demands usually revolve around issues of race and identity: removing the names of “racist white men” from campus buildings, sacking professors who offend racial sensitivities, and coercing students, faculty and staff to undergo mandatory training programs in racial sensitivity and politically correctness.

The American press, blogosphere and social media are now replete with heated arguments for and against the new movement. Some see it as authentic display of justified grievances, while others emphasize the danger to freedom of speech, research and inquiry. While I sympathize with the latter view, I also believe that some interesting aspects of the new movement are forgotten in the heat of the debate. One of them is what I call “the political U-turn”. Student activists, usually adherents of progressive and even radical leftist schools of thought, increasingly adopt positions once associated with the most conservative, reactionary forces in Western society.

Harvard Law School Black Tape Incident - evoked rage across campus

Harvard Law School Black Tape Incident

“Safe spaces” and racial reductionism: back to segregation?

For starters, let’s give Michele Hall’s article a second glance:

As a first-year law student, the first time that I walked down those hallways I was painfully aware of the white men that take up most of the space on the walls, but also proud to see black professors hanging right beside them. The portraits make me feel a strange tension of pain yet promise. I am constantly reminded of the legacy of white supremacy that founded this school and still breathes through every classroom and lecture hall. I am also shown the small inroads that professors of color have made, breaking apart the notion that whiteness is the epitome of legal scholarship. This is how I felt yesterday walking through those hallways.

In other words, Hall is assessing the law professors in her school exclusively or at least primarily through racial prisms. On the wall, she sees some of the most celebrated jurists of the United States, of multiple backgrounds, colors and ethnicities. Each of them has a fascinating legal career. Each may hold controversial opinions in contemporary legal debates, issues which should fascinate a Harvard law student. And yet, Hall is remarkably uninterested in such trifles. Black faces bring her pleasure, and white faces – pain. Complex legal personalities devolve into racial symbols.

This, in fact, is a reductionist point of view, vehemently opposed to by generations of civil rights activists. It judges an individual’s merits and demerits through inherited characteristics of color such as “whiteness” or “blackness”, not unlike the old ways of Jim Crow southerners. Thus, leaping backwards, contemporary student activists undermine some of the most important achievements of Martin Luther King’s movement for civil rights. King, after all, was fighting practices such as racial segregation in order to integrate African-Americans into mainstream society. Current activists vow to this tradition with one hand, while undermining it with the other. In Princeton, for example, they demand to remove the name of former president Woodrow Wilson from all campus buildings, because he allowed some of his minions to reinstate segregation in federal departments. At the same time, and probably without noticing the irony, the same activists demand to establish exclusive “safe spaces” or “healing spaces” for blacks, namely – to resegregate campus space. In one California college, black students expelled an Asian woman from their “safe space”, after she recalled being sexually harassed by a black male.  In Missouri-U, one of the main sites of protest, black activists expelled white allies in order to create an exclusive “healing space” for themselves.


Even the departments of Ethnic Studies and African-American studies, originally established in order to enrich the cannon with the culture of minority groups, often contribute to the resegregation of academic space. In many institutions, they became the de-facto ghettos of angry intellectuals, mostly from the ethnic group they purport to study, who speak mainly to each other in clear isolation from the outside world.

Essentialism through the back door? The struggle against “cultural appropriation”

Unfortunately, racial segregation is not the only reactionary ideal adopted by radical campus activists. Traditionally, the academic left was always suspicious towards romantic views of ethnicity, nationhood and culture. Such views, usually associated with the traditional, conservative right, held that a national culture has a core or an essence, confined and eternal, which accompanies the nation from times immemorial. Until relatively recently, intellectuals and activists from the progressive left incessantly mocked such “essentialist” views as unscientific fallacies, designed to reinforce the power and privilege of traditional elites. In their seminal works, Benedict Anderson and Eric Hobsbawm argued that such cultural traditions, far from being ancient and eternal, were in fact “invented” and “imagined” constructs designed by and for the modern nation state. Critics argued accordingly that cultures and identities are fluid entities, incessantly created, changed and reaffirmed as projections of imagined “others”.

Current campus activists, however, returned a full circle back to cultural essentialism; and with such unsophisticated vehemence, that even romantic nationalists from the nineteenth century might have been surprised. Notice, for example, the emerging fury against “cultural appropriation”. Students from ethnic minorities are insulted by Halloween customs “appropriated” from their cultures, such as turbans. In the University of Ottawa, the student government canceled a Yoga class, because Western Yoga constitutes theft from Indian cultures which experienced “oppression, cultural genocide and diaspora due to colonialism and Western supremacy”. Students with disabilities, for whom the class was originally intended, were deemed less important than the “cultural sensitivities” of a few activists.

Cultural appropriation? An "insensitive" Yoga practitioner

Cultural appropriation? An “insensitive” Yoga practitioner

At the same time, radical students from Oberlin College fumed over the local dining hall’s “inauthentic” offerings of East Asian cuisine. Tomoyo Joshi, a student from Japan, argued that non-fresh fish, undercooked rice and unqualified cooks are a cultural insult and an unfair appropriation of Japanese culture by campus whites. Diep Nguyen, a Vietnamese student, was similarly insulted when sampling her native cuisine in the dining hall:

Diep Nguyen, a College first-year from Vietnam, jumped with excitement at the sight of Vietnamese food on Stevenson Dining Hall’s menu at Orientation this year. Craving Vietnamese comfort food, Nguyen rushed to the food station with high hopes. What she got, however, was a total disappointment. The traditional Banh Mi Vietnamese sandwich that Stevenson Dining Hall promised turned out to be a cheap imitation of the East Asian dish. Instead of a crispy baguette with grilled pork, pate, pickled vegetables and fresh herbs, the sandwich used ciabatta bread, pulled pork and coleslaw. “It was ridiculous,” Nguyen said. “How could they just throw out something completely different and label it as another country’s traditional food?”

One wonders whether Ms. Nguyen ever considered that the crispy baguette, an essential ingredient of Banh Mi, is not exactly a “traditional” Vietnamese staple, but a “cultural appropriation” from French colonial cuisine. In fact, no food in the world can be reliably considered “authentic”. Far from recognizing the real nature of culture as an interactive process of dialogue and constant borrowing, campus radicals made a U-turn back into the well-worn path of cultural essentialism. Culture, as far as they are concerned, is private property that belongs to a certain group of people. Any authorized use by outsiders is strictly forbidden.

Is it "authentic"? A Vietnamese Banh-mi

Is it “authentic”? A Vietnamese Banh-mi

The assault on rational debate

In addition to ideas such as racial reductionism, segregation and cultural essentialism, the resemblance between the current protest movement and the old, reactionary right goes much deeper. Take, for example, the cult of subjective feelings and the disdain for rational inquiry. One of the most persistent complaints of campus activists is on “institutional” or “systemic” racial oppression. Yet, in numerous conversations with activists, I was rebuked when asking for specific evidence. Again and again, I heard that it is outrageous to ask for specific examples, because “that’s the way of the privileged to silence down the experience of people of color”. In any case, I was told, such systemic oppression could not be understood by a white privileged male such as myself. It can be grasped only by oppressed people of color, through their own personal experience. This sentiment is echoed in a “frequently asked questions” manifestopublished by a group of campus radicals in Brandeis University. Their worldview, they say, is not an “opinion” subject to rational inquiry, but an absolute truth felt through experience and hence unopen to question. The mere act of questioning is “violent”. I reproduce both question and answer in full:

Question: What are these violences [sic] and injustices people are talking about? Can you give examples?

Answer: First and foremost, this is a violent question because it essentially implies that the need for proof of harm is more important than addressing the harms. When this question is asked, it invokes this sentiment instead, “I don’t experience violence, so I don’t feel it exists. Would you mind in addition to experiencing these violences, do the labor of explaining them and proving that they are real?”

In order to further illustrate the point, the Brandeis students also bring an example from daily life:

Person 1: I have a stomachache. Please stop only providing food that upsets my stomach.

Person 2: Can you prove how and why your stomach hurts? Can you give examples of this pain? I can eat this food and I’m fine! How do I know for sure you’re not lying?

In fact, in order to rectify a medical problem, such as a stomachache, one must inquire how and why it came about (maybe it is not the food but something else? Maybe the food that person 1 asks for will only worsen her condition?) The same goes, of course, for social problems such as racism. How can one rectify them without studying the underlying causes with convincing evidence? But the students are not interested in a rational dialogue or inquiry. Rationality itself is disdained as the malicious tool of the powerful.

Reading the Brandeis FAQ in historical context, historian Niall Ferguson has observed that

This is not political language at all. It is religious language — and it reads in places like the reincarnation of the tracts that 17th-century Puritans used to publish. With their craving for “safe spaces,” their revulsion against rational discussion (not to mention Halloween), their fundamentally illiberal and indeed irrational state of mind, the protesters strike me not as “little Robespierres” but as the natural heirs of the Puritans who founded the British colonies in New England.

Religious language? American Puritans

Religious language? American Puritans

In fact, this disdain for rational debate was not limited to puritan thought, or even to Christian ideology more generally. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries it was enthusiastically adopted by a large number of conservative thinkers, politicians and educators who envisioned an organic, communitarian society held by bonds of warm feelings instead of cold rationalism. For Joseph de Maistre, one of the luminaries of the French conservative right, rational inquiry was a poisonous fruit of the French Revolution. In Weimar Germany, numerous intellectuals from the radical right romantically sanctified the intuitive, subjective and pure feelings of Germans towards their homeland. In their cruder form, these sentiments were used by nationalist politicians to silence dissent and demand unconditional loyalty to one’s reference group, whether national, ethnic or religious. Even today, the disdain for rational inquiry is easily discerned in populist right-wing movements, up to and including the Donald Trump campaign. The following paragraphs are taken from an account of a journalist who interviewed Trump supporters:

I spoke to a lot of his supporters who are waiting to come into this rally. And I asked them what they think of Donald Trump and whether or not they’re bothered by his inaccurate statements and whether they think they matter. And not a single one of them said that they thought it mattered.  They said they like him because they think he’s going to be a strong leader, and they think he’s going to bring the change to Washington that they want.

In fact, they blame the liberal media, as they say, on perpetrating lies against Donald Trump. They repeatedly asked, why don’t you ask this about Hillary Clinton, why don’t you ask this about President Obama? So there’s definitely a party line feeling among his supporters, that it is us-versus-them. And unfortunately, the media is very much the ‘them’ in this situation.”


The radical left students of Brandeis will be horrified to be compared with Donald Trump’s adherents, but it does not require excessively close reading to see the similarities between Trump’s populism and their own radical identity politics. Both sides are angry and dissatisfied, and yet scornfully reject any rational attempt to get into the root of the problem. Inquiry itself is disdained, pushed aside in favor of subjective feelings, identity and a strong awareness of “us-versus-them”.

Omens for the Future

Ideas and practices such as racial reductionism, segregation, cultural essentialism and disdain for rational inquiry were once an anathema of the progressive left. Some of them were already abandoned by the mainstream right when campus radicals decided to adopt and resurrect them. This is a pity. Ideological isolationism and reluctance to engage in rational dialogue are dangerous for any movement, but especially for those who strive to empower the marginalized. In order to overcome discrimination and reach positions of power, minorities and their advocates must create alliances, permanent and ad-hoc, with sympathetic segments of the mainstream. Much of Martin Luther King’s power, for example, lay in his ability to find political allies in the administration through rhetoric which stressed mainstream American values. By contrast, self-righteous isolationism, rage over bogus trifles such as “cultural appropriation” and refusal to engage in rational discussion never helped anyone, least of all the underprivileged. The new campus radicalism, progressive in name but reactionary in essence, would harm, most of all, the very people it purports to empower.

Beating the milking cow: The basic paradox of the left

The western radical left, and its proponents around the world, take pride in a critical, anti-statist approach. In their fashionable theories, however, there is a certain paradox, usually swept under the rug. And what have milking cows to do with all of that?

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The end of summer: the Arab spring and imperial disintegration

Since the Arab spring had turned into a hot summer, or, according to the pessimists, an icy Islamic winter, many people ask themselves whether the upheavals in the Arab world are likely to lead into an Israeli-Arab war or another kind of Middle Eastern escalation. In light of the threatening discourse of an impending war between Iran and the Israeli-American block, a consideration of the long-term consequences of the Arab spring is more crucial than ever.

This article is the second in a series on the meaning and consequences of the Arab Spring. For the previous one, see: The Arab Spring the the Art of Revolution.

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The Kafr Qasim Massacre and its Hidden Meaning

The brutal massacre of innocent Palestinian villagers, citizens of Israel, in Kafr Qasim is one of the most traumatic events in Israeli history. From October 1956 to this day, this massacre is raising troubling questions, some of which remain unanswered to this very day. How can we explain the contradictory, equivocal response of Prime Minister David Ben Gurion? What is the legacy of the famous ruling of Justice Benjamin Halevy on a “manifestly illegal order”?  What are the dangers lurking in the future?

And what has “Operation Mole” to do with the above?

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The Arab Spring and the Art of Revolution

This article was originally published in Ynet News.

The Arab spring is certainly one of the most stunning developments of our age. In Egypt, the regime fell after three weeks of popular protest. In Yemen it crumbled after ten months of bloody confrontations, and in Syria Bashar al-Assad still clings to power in defiance of the world and the ongoing resistance. Now, in retrospect, it is interesting to ask some questions. What is the difference between these different uprisings? Are there some rules for a successful rebellion? Or in other words, how can one define the “art of revolution”?

The Arab spring reached its climax in the winter, or in February 2011, to be more exact. Coincidently, I was travelling in Egypt in January, just two weeks before it all began. From countless conversations with taxi drivers, students, café goers, hotel owners, vendors and other people I have met randomly, it was not difficult to fathom that Hosni Mubarak’s rule is far from being popular. However, I have to admit that the Egyptian regime seemed to me, back then, as a relatively stable one. Grim looking pictures of Mubarak starred on passers-by from every corner, armed policemen stood vigilantly everywhere, and the secret police even found the time to constantly monitor me and my friends as we traveled around. The touristic sites, cafés, restaurants and falafel stands were bustling with customers, both local and foreign. Only a very sharp observer, much sharper than me, could have noticed that something is going to explode, and very soon. “You cannot imagine”, told me a young café owner in Alexandria, “how much we want a popular revolution, just like in Tunisia.” He was quick to add that he has no problem, not at all, with Mubarak’s foreign policy and the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty, but he had enough of Mubarak’s corrupted bureaucracy, nepotism, dictatorship and faulty economic policy.

Egypt in January 2011: The regime still seemed to be stable

Secret Police in the Streets, Political talk in the Café

More than the content, what was striking for me was the tone of his speech. The young café owner criticized Mubarak loudly, in a crowded, public place, and it did not seem to me that he was afraid of anything or anyone. How can it be? I thought to myself. How could he speak like that, with all of these plaincloth policemen lurking all around? However, I did not give it much thought at that moment.

In January 30, Egypt was burning. Mubarak, however, was still able to find time to have a phone conversation with his old friend, the Israeli politician Binyamin (Fuad) Ben Eliezer. Mubarak, according to Ben Eliezer’s testimony, was resolute to keep on ruling. Notwithstanding the demonstrations, he still believed that he will be able to overcome the crisis.  A few days later, the army forced him to resign. The massive demonstrations in Tahrir Square broke him and the Egyptian regime, which was regarded by many observers as one of the most rigid and stable in the Middle East.

Four down, and who is next? Ben Ali, Saleh, Gaddafi and Mubarak.


Why was the Egyptian regime overthrown so quickly, and with relatively little carnage? How can we cope with the fact, that in Libya Gaddafi had survived much longer, and the rebels were able to uproot him only after a prolonged civil war and foreign intervention by NATO forces? Why the demonstrations in Syria had transformed into a horrendous civil war, replete with government-directed mass slaughter, but Assad is still unable to break the resistance? Why did the demonstrations in Iran fail regardless of their initial dynamism? In order to find the answer, one has to take a step back from actual politics, and to examine three basic rules underlying popular revolutions throughout modern history: the defective army rule, the rule of centrality, and the rule of revolutionary inertia.


The Defective Army Rule

Katherine Chorley, in her classic study Armies and the Art of Revolution, notes that in the modern era, no popular rebellion can resist a well-organized army on the long run. Such rebellions can succeed, she argues, only when the army suffers from a substantial defect which prevents it from exercising the full extent of its power. In Egypt, for example, the army was compromised by the ethnic, religious affinity between its soldiers and the demonstrators. Just like the demonstrators, conscripted Egyptian soldiers hailed from all over the country. Given such circumstances, the army commanders presumed that an order to shoot on the crowd can engender mass disobedience. After all, the possibility that a soldier can encounter neighbors, friends and even family members in the crowd was far from being negligible.

North Korean soldiers marching. Will demonstrators ever be able to overcome them?

Indeed, many authoritarian regimes are well aware of this problem, and therefore tend to employ soldiers from religious and ethnic minorities (The Sikhs in British India), peasants from backward regions who feel no affinity with urban demonstrators (Northeastern soldiers during the Tiananmen protests in China), or an ideological special force which is committed heart and soul to the regime. The SS in Nazi Germany, as well as the Basij and Revolutionary Guards in Iran, are examples for such forces. Indeed, the presence of such an ideological special force in Iran helped the regime to brutally quell the post-elections protests in 2009.

In Egypt, however, the Mubarak regime did not enjoy the benefits of such a special force, and was therefore forced to rely on the regular army. It is perfectly reasonable that a resolute military action could have dispersed the demonstrators, at the price of a horrendous massacre.  However, from the point of view of the army leadership, this was a gamble that they did not wish to take. Instead, they preferred to avoid the dilemma, and to preserve their enormous economic privileges, by giving Mubarak’s head on a platter to the angry crowds.

The Basij in Iran: fanatically loyal to the regime

The rebels in Libya were saved by International Intervention


Just like the Egyptian army, the Libyan armed forces could not use the full extent of their power against the demonstrators in Benghazi. The Libyan army was weakened by desertions, but still, at the moment when Gaddafi gave the order to open fire on the protestors, they were doomed to be crashed sooner or later. The only thing that saved them and turned the tide was the intervention of NATO, that is- a formidable foreign power. Syria, in a way, is a similar case. Assad’s order to slaughter the demonstrators had triggered mass desertions from the army, but even here it is difficult to see how the rebels could have held so long without the backing of foreign powers such as Turkey, Jordan, Qatar and the west.

However, if we would like to understand why the Egyptian revolution succeeded relatively quickly, while in Libya and Syria protracted civil wars erupted, we have to also consider the “rule of centrality”, another iron law in the elusive art of revolution.

Libyan rebels: only foreign intervention ensured their success

The Rule of Centrality

In his fascinating yet highly disturbing book, Coup D’etat – A Practical Handbook, the historian and intelligence operative Edward Luttwak, writes that revolutionaries have to promptly storm their country’s center of political gravity. If this center, however, is out of their reach, they have a very serious problem, and their chances to succeed are slim. Based on Luttwak’s theory, the American diplomat Bruce Farcau argued that revolutions tend to succeed if they begin in the capital.

In a vast and crowded city such as Cairo, the power center of the Egyptian regime, the demonstrators were able to push the government out of balance and to quickly draw enormous international attention. The architectural structure of Tahrir Square was crucial in this undertaking. Tahrir, as anyone who traveled or lived in Cairo knows full well, is a big and accessible square in mid-town which can easily accommodate vast crowds. It is also adjacent to the American University of Cairo (AUC) and surrounded by hotel towers. These hotels, which quickly turned into hubs for journalists and photographers, were used to photograph the crowds in a bird’s-eye view. Such a view created an impression of mass human waves, and greatly enhanced the media impact of the demonstrations. In Libya and Syria, by contrast, the protests did not begin in the capital cities but rather in the provincial towns of Benghazi and Daraa.  In Libya, Tripoli remained a Gaddafi fortress right until the end, and in Syria the demonstrators reached central Damascus only recently. The failure of the rebels to act at the center made it possible for the government to concentrate its forces and to deal with the problem of desertions. The result, in both cases, was a lengthy, bloody civil war.

Tahrir Square, right at the center of Cairo. The impact of the crowds was enhanced by the bird’s-eye view


The Rule of Revolutionary Inertia

Popular demonstrations, wrote Friedrich Engels in his famous essay on barricade fighting, are based on a large number of volunteers. Therefore, they depend on the good will of tens of thousands of people, who have to leave home and to risk their life day after day . No one can force them to do so. Therefore, writes Engels, the revolutionaries have to constantly keep their inertia in order to inflame and increase their momentum. Stagnation and dilly-dallying will result in defeat.

Al Jazeera: The Motor of Revolutionary Inertia


And indeed, in Egypt we have heard about a revolutionary achievement almost every day. “The army refuses to shoot the people”, shouted the headlines. “Omar Sharif is with us,” demonstrators told each other in Twitter and Facebook. “Jamal Mubarak escaped to London”, reported Al-Jazeera TV network to ten millions of Egyptians in the privacy of their living rooms. Al-Jazeera, more than any other network, played an extraordinary role in “injecting” the daily achievement to the consciousness of demonstrators and would-be demonstrators. Its power was enormous, because it was out of the reach of the regime, enjoyed great popularity in Egypt and spoke the local language.  However, in Iran the regime was able to efficiently neutralize the communication between the demonstrators and to “keep them in the dark”. Therefore, they were not inflamed by daily achievements and their protests faded away. The absence of an international popular network in Farsi, which is (unlike BBC in Persian) not perceived as a foreign propaganda outlet, is maybe the most crucial difference between the revolutionary situations in Egypt and Iran.

These three rules, of course, are far from being absolute. Rather, they are ever-changing according to the political and social conditions in each respective place. Nevertheless, recognizing them may help us to better analyze and understand the events around us. How would the Arab Spring develop? Will it turn into an “Islamic Winter”? Where will it finally lead the region? The answer is still hidden in the darkness of the future.

A bloody transaction, or: why one Israeli prisoner is worth one thousand Palestinians?

I am proud to officially open the English version of the “Owl”. In this blog, I will try to open new windows to shadowy corners of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and Middle Eastern politics. Today I would like to introduce you to the hidden logic of Israeli-Palestinian prisoner swaps.

In the history of the Israeli Palestinian conflict, prisoner swap deals have always played a prominent role. Only recently, in October 2011, the Israeli government agreed to liberate and repatriate 1027 Palestinian prisoners, some of them arch-terrorists and murderers with blood on their hands, in exchange for one soldier, Gilad Shalit. This deal gave a free rein to intense feelings in the Israeli public, ranging from hurrahs to cries of anguish. The supporters of the swap, most of them from the left, or center left, emphasized the solidarity of Israeli society, its humanness and its indebtedness to the soldiers fighting in its name. The people who opposed it from the right, however, lamented the government’s “lack of spine” in front of terrorists. Some of them expressed the rather justified fear, that this hugely unequal deal may encourage Hamas to kidnap yet more soldiers.

Gilad Shalit immediately after his repatriation to Israel

And yet, both supporters and skeptics were amazed by the unreasonable “rate of exchange” in the Gilad Shalit deal. One Israeli soldier for more than one thousand Palestinian prisoners? How can it be? In Maariv, the conservative publicist Ben Dror Yemini raged because of the “high”, “intolerable” price, and even some observers on the radical left raised similar concerns. For example, Deborah Orr wrote in the Guardian, a well-known anti-Israeli venue, that an exchange of one thousand Palestinians for one Israeli soldier is nothing but dehumanization of Palestinians, as the exchange rate “tacitly acknowledges what so many Zionists believe – that the lives of the chosen [see footnote] are of hugely greater consequence than those of their unfortunate neighbours”.

As usual with Israeli-Palestinian affairs, all sides are splurging in a swamp of self-righteous, patriotic speech, and few dare to confront the simple, cynical and shocking truth behind the barter: prisoner swaps are a transaction, which follows basic rules of supply and demand just like any other. When an item is in short supply, and consequently high demand, its price tends to rise. If, however, the supply is high and the demand is low, the price will usually decrease.

If we accept this simple idea, it is not so difficult to understand why one Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, was swapped for 1027 Palestinian prisoners, and why his name is known all over the world, while their names are mostly unknown. It has nothing to do with the fact that Shalit is a “legitimate” soldier, and its Palestinian counterparts are “terrorists”. The economic principles behind such transactions are indifferent to moralistic considerations such as this. The crucial fact is, that it is very difficult for the Palestinians to kidnap an Israeli soldier, while the IDF can easily arrest terrorists or other Palestinian activists in their hundreds and thousands. Here is the key to  understand the swap: Gilad Shalit is more “expensive”, only because it was more difficult and dangerous to kidnap him.

Marwan Barghouti, leader of the Al-Aksa Brigades during the second Intifada. Prominent prisoners, such as him, were not released

And what about the so-called “prominent” prisoners, the “colonels” and “generals” of Hamas, as well as political leaders such as Marwan Barghouti and Ahmad Saadat, whom Israel refused to release? Because they are more dangerous for Israeli security, the demand for their release and consequently their price is much higher. And indeed, we have seen that Israel refused to release most of the “prominent” prisoners, and the few who were released were promptly expelled from the West Bank. Here, also, Hamas had finally approved the deal based on an understanding of its underlying economic principles. Its leaders preferred to release a large number of “cheap” prisoners, than to insist in vain on the repatriation of a small number of “expensive” ones.

Such an analysis may seem cold and heartless, but sometimes reality had to be faced as it is. From this point of view, it is interesting to ask: how can Israel improve its position next time it will be faced with a kidnapped soldier? First of all, the public campaign for Shalit’s release was a double-edged sword. From the one side, it is clear that without it, the government would not have been pressured to negotiate and pay a price for the deal in the first place. From the other side, though, this noisy, emotional and highly effective campaign raised the demand for Gilad Shalit in the Israeli side. His price, it is needless to say, soared with the demand. Given the absence of such a public campaign, it is reasonable that the swap would not have taken place at all (the demand is too low), or, if it would have taken place, the price in liberated Palestinian prisoners would have been significantly lower.

Elhanan Tenenbaum- Israel paid a very high price to release a drug dealer

Moreover, a cold analysis may show that contrary to the speculations of right winged publicists, there is no way to dramatically change the exchange rate in such prisoner swaps. As long as it is more difficult to kidnap Israeli soldiers than to arrest Palestinian terrorists, the formers will be more expensive than the laters; significantly more expensive. However, even in these circumstances, the mistakes that Israel had done in the previous prisoner swap with Hezbollah had dire consequences. Just to remind you: Israel had agreed to pay a high price and to release the terrorist Samir Kuntar, who murdered a little girl, for three dead bodies of soldiers. An even higher price was paid for Col. (retired) Elhanan Tennenbaum, a dismal drug dealer who fell into Lebanese hands. The leaders of Hamas, who have seen that Israel is ready to pay such a high price even for three dead bodies and one criminal, naturally concluded that the price for a living soldier will be substantially higher. In the future, I believe, Israel must not negotiate as long as it is unclear that the prisoner is alive, and never, never again should they barter living prisoners for dead bodies. This deal was so stupid, and its consequences for future swaps so dramatic, that it is a mystery for me how and why the Israeli government approved it.

Meanwhile, there is no reason not to assume that the next “bloody transactions” will be different. Patriotic lamentations or self-righteous rage are futile, as they cannot change the solid economic logic behind such deals. If Israel does not want to pay a similarly high price next time, it should refuse to do business altogether. Namely, to ignore kidnapped soldiers just as the US army is doing. However, taking the Israeli public opinion into account, it is hard to believe that such a policy is possible.