Stephen Chan: Political thought on the just rebellion, part 7. The man on horseback. This is a celebrated phrase, “the man on horseback.” It was in fact invented by the German philosopher Hegel. Hegel was a young lecturer at a German university at the time of the Napoleonic Wars. And the French armies were laying siege to his city and he had to evacuate. And he wrote to his friends afterwards, saying, “I have seen the future. The future comes on horseback.” Meaning the conquering armies of Napoleon. Meaning the conquering armies of Napoleon that by means of military force were bringing new constitutional orders to Europe, bringing with these new constitutional orders echoes of the values of the French Revolution. Values to do with the equality of all humanity.
This was something new in a Europe that was modernizing but at the same time had huge discrepancies in terms of the levels of citizenship, the levels of obedience owed to sovereigns, the levels of subservience that people in the lower classes had to give to sovereigns. The idea of an equality brought by military conquest, this was very very much summarized in Hegel’s phrase of the future on horseback. The man on horseback, the military conqueror who brings new constitutional order.
The Man on Horseback became the title of Samuel Finer’s famous book about military coups. And to this day that book remains the seminal text for how we study what is called civil military relations. But there’s a fundamental difficulty with using Samuel Finer’s book, and that is it’s A, a very very old book; B, it came out before most African countries achieved independence, or were very early into the years of independence; and C, almost all of the case examples that Finer used were drawn from Latin American countries.
The idea of the banana republic military ruler, the banana republic general, was an image that took root. It was transferred very very readily to Africa, for instance, where the archetype of the banana republic buffoon dictator in military uniform became Idi Amin of Uganda, it became Emperor Bokassa of the Central African Republic, which he called the Central African Empire.
But when we look more objectively at the phenomenon of military rule, it’s probably better to start in terms of Europe and its own recent history. If you look back to just the 1960s, then you will see that Portugal, Spain, Greece had long periods of military rule. These were regarded as periods of right-wing totalitarian military rule, times of great suppression of freedoms, times when political organization was impossible if it stood against the order imposed by the military rulers.
This seems like a dark hour for Europe, but in fact it was a very very recent hour. And of course the interesting thing is that Portugal was able to be freed of some of the military yoke in the 1970s precisely because of a military coup against a military government, but in this case organized by younger officers who had new ideas more in accord with the modernity of their day. And it was because of their actions that Portugal began to decolonize in Africa, that Portugal who up to that point in time was regarded as the sick country of Europe began to modernize and develop to the country that it is today.
And that was accompanied by a moment of military idealism. So, looked at from that perspective there’s more than one demeanor that could be associated with military rule. And in fact when you look at great modernizing moments in the 20th century, you look at the movement of the free officers in Egypt led by Nasser, at a stroke began the process of modernizing the country. When you look at what happened in Turkey, the uprising led by Atatürk at a stroke began the modernization, the development, and the secularization of Turkey. Of course you had a somewhat less fortunate demeanor of this kind of phenomenon in places like Iraq and Syria. But there is more than one way of looking at military rule.
But why is it so common, whether of a right-wing or left-wing, whether of a progressive or repressive nature, why is military rule so common in almost every single part of the world? You have different kinds of military government. You could say the People’s Republic of China was born of military government because of military conquest in the great civil war that ended in 1949. And you could certainly say that governments in Africa today such as in Zimbabwe were the product of military victory in struggles for liberation. Not everything that’s come out of those struggles has been beneficial, but a mixed record at very best, some of which has been very very good.
But the question that most vexes commentators when they look at civil/military relations is not the moment of liberation when an armed struggle was perhaps justified, it is what happens when in what seems like a stable civilian regime of long standing, the army rises up. And this is where theorists have been very very vexed as to how best to account for this phenomenon. People have written very very large tracts of very often unhelpful work to do with what they regard as a certain military condition. Someone like Samuel Huntington wrote about weakness in society on the civilian side of things, and this weakness automatically draws in the strength of organization of the military. The weakness of government creates a vacuum, which the military with its strength, fills.
This is a very very neat account, it’s a very symmetrical account, it is an account which could only have been written by a North American academic. Because of course what happens in societies where both the civilian government and the military are week institutions? Where the military is weakly organized and it’s only advantage over the civilian administration is that the military has got weapons? So by force of arms they can achieve a takeover of government, but not necessarily bring any further strength to that government and to its prospects of running the country for the betterment of its citizens.
All the same, we are looking now at an era where military governments are on the wane. They’re disapproved in Africa—the African Union no longer tolerates them, or tries its best not to tolerate them. You cannot be a military government and attain membership of the Commonwealth, for instance. You have to leave if you’re very very much involved in taking over the government by military means.
But military strongmen remain very firmly in the background of many countries. Probably the prime example of that as we speak at this moment in time is what’s happening in Burma. Even should there be victory announced for Aung San Suu Kyi and her party after so many years of struggle, even if it’s declared that she has won the overwhelming majority of seats, even so, by right the military will hold 25% of the seats in the Burmese—or the Myanmar—parliament. They will therefore move from being the power on the throne to the power behind the throne.
Or, you can have the example, as in Egypt, of President Sisi. The general takes off his uniform. The general puts on civilian dress. The general gerrymanders an election, declares that he is the president by normal processes, but has the army in reserve.
The era of naked military governments may have passed. The era of military figures, with military might, holding power in reserve, that era is still very very firmly with us today.