Ibrahim Moiz, copyright and rights reserved
Unfortunately, I could not update this feature in November and December 2019 because of prior commitments and study. However, I hope to continue this on a monthly basis during the 2020s – new decade innit – if Allah permits.
Ismail Aly. Masr. Masr’s transformation from regional revolutionary in the 1950s and 1960s to turgid underachiever since has been well-covered; ironically, it was after her finest military hour in the October 1973 reconquest of the Sinai that this key country, bestriding the crossroads betwixt Asia and Africa, sank into a morass of almost masochistic policy minimalism under the rule of Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak. After the drubbing that Masr had received against Israel during summer 1967, it was ironic that it took a morale-boosting near-triumph to deflate her ambitions. This was partly because, for better or (probably) worse, Cairo’s successive dictators after Gamal Abdel-Nasser had chosen to cut their losses and adopt a policy of strictly constricted alliance with Israel’s major Western sponsor, the United States. A look at Masr’s top military officer during the Sinai reconquest, army minister Marshal Ahmed Ismail Aly, gives some hints as to the conservatism that crept into the officer corps that underpinned the regime.
Ismail was not popular among his peers, but nor was he a bad man or a poor officer. Rather his career was marked by a tendency toward cautious deference that, while occasionally prudent, was not always so and did little to endear him to his peers. Most infamous and defining would become his rivalry with his immediate subordinate during the 1973 war, the dashing and popular army commander Saadeddin Shazly. A hard-changing action man who led from the front with little fuss about the strictures of military hierarchy, Shazly’s popularity with the troops contrasted with his relationship towards Ismail, which was positively icy.
Partly Albanian by descent, Ismail had climbed the ranks in the period where Masr’s international prestige, if not her military effectiveness, was at its height. The 1950s and early 1960s saw an extraordinary wave of popularity around the military strongman Nasser, which he consciously stoked as a foreign policy tool to expand Masr’s influence. Nasser’s policies were rather less radical than his rhetoric suggested, but his mixture of bluster and calculation did initially serve him well, most notably in the 1956 Suez war where he coaxed the support of the Cold War powers to transform what had been a fairly straightforward military rout against the Tripartite powers Britain, France, and Israel into a political victory. This was almost the exact opposite of what Sadat would do with Masr’s initially brilliant advance in the Sinai in 1973.
By the 1960s, however, Nasser’s star was falling; not only had he made more promises and commitments than he could reasonably keep, but his shortlived union with Syria had collapsed and his fallout with hitherto friendly monarchies in the Arabian Peninsula peaked in the Yemen war, where – on the advice of Sadat, among others – he had plunged in the army to support a shaky republican regime against the Zaidi imamate it had ousted. Increased repression at home preceded the sound 1967 rout, and it would have been reasonable for Masr’s enemies to expect that she had sunk for good. Notably, this did not happen: not only did Nasser survive an attempted coup by his security heavyweights a mere month after the war, but he managed to leverage his influence over the various non-state actors and his reconciliation with other Arab rulers to keep Masr punching away at an attritional war against Israel until shortly before his fatal heart attack in September 1970.
By this point, Ismail’s military career seemed to have had come and gone rather sleepily. He had some several notable highlights: he served as military attache to the newly independent Congo in the early 1960s. Congo was a tinderbox; its ruler Patrice Lumumba was fiercely loathed (and eventually murdered) by the Europeans and Americans, who helped in every way they could a secessionist insurgency in the mineral-laden Katanga Province. The United Nations, seeking to mediate between its heavyweights and newcomers, sent in a peacekeeping force whose Masri section included Shazly. It was here that Ismail and Shazly first quarrelled, apparently over the question of jurisdiction: Shazly believed that the attache’s attempts to enforce discipline on his unit while Congo was aflame were missing the forest for the trees. The ensuing shouting match cemented the notoriety of the pair’s mutual antipathy in the Masri army even as they advanced in the army.
After the 1967 drubbing, Nasser had patched up his quarrel with Saudi Arabia and, in coordination with his wartime allies Syria and Jordan, opted for a strategy of slow-burning pressure on Israel, delivered via occasional flares on the border and assistance to the ascendant Palestinian fidayin insurgency. Soviet assistance to Masr – the first occasion that the region’s non-aligned states had taken a markedly pro-Moscow stance in the Cold War, stemming in part from Western assistance to Israel in 1967 – ratcheted up the stakes further. The logic ran that with Israel unable to afford comparable casualties, continued pressure until her enemies could reach some level of parity was the best option.
In spring 1969, Masr’s army commander Abdel-Monem Riad was killed in a well-aimed Israeli strike that also injured the frontline commander, Adli Sayed. Riad had been an active, innovative commander; his replacement Ismail was, by contrast, a safe and cautious option. As the war continued to bubble on and off, an Israeli raid in December 1969 caught the Masris at a particularly sensitive point. The military had been considerably more stringent since the 1967 war, and in a fit of pique sacked both army commander Ismail and naval admiral Fouad Abu-Zikry.
That could have been the end of Ismail’s career had it not been for Sadat’s succession and the political swirl around it. Initially picked as a pliable interim candidate to replace Nasser in September 1970, Sadat surprised everybody with his slow-burning energy and cunning. In the process of cementing power, he survived at least two coup attempts. The first, backed by the increasingly influential Soviets, came in May 1971 and was led by the same group who had installed Sadat as an attempted figurehead. They included his deputy, Ali Sabry; the interior minister Sami Sharaf; the security constable Shaarawi Gomaa; and the army minister Mohamed Fawzy, a feared disciplinarian who had occupied this spot since rescuing Nasser in 1967.
Tipped off by Sharaf’s aide Ashraf Marwan, Sadat acted fast. He promoted Ismail to spymaster and had him rifle through the intelligence files to uncover the plot. He was also fortunate in that Ismail’s successor as army commander, Mohamed Sadek, unexpectedly resisted the coup: not only was Sadek hostile to the Soviets, but he also thought a coup attempt during a period of military reconstruction to be suicidal. The upshot was that the coup attempt collapsed without military support, and the culprits were quickly purged. Buoyed by his unexpected survival, Sadat soon expelled the Soviet advisors from Masr and dispensed promotions to his loyalists: Ismail had been brought in from the cold to take over an increasingly powerful security structure, Sadek replaced Fawzy as army minister, confirmed loyalist Mamdouh Salem took over the interior ministry, and Marwan – a brother-in-law of Nasser, who has since been speculated as either a spy or a double agent in the Masr-Israel espionage contest – was promoted to serve as Sadat’s chamberlain.
Increasingly confident, Sadat began to draw up plans to reconquer the Sinai post-haste. Events would prove him right, but at the time this alarmed much of the army command: army minister Sadek warned against a premature attack, arguing for a careful reconstruction of the army in the absence of Soviet assistance first. Sadat was increasingly irked by his intrusive army minister, but satisfied himself for the moment with summarily sacking instead Sadek’s deputy Abdel-Qader Hassan and the naval admiral Mahmoud Fahmy, both of whom had publicly challenged him. Stung, Hassan began to discuss a coup with army spymaster Mostafa Mehrez and Cairo corps commander Ali Abdel-Khabir in September 1972. But the interior minister, Mamdouh Salem, caught on; he caught Abdel-Khabir, who duly confessed. This led to another shakeup, and was particularly unfortunate for Sadek: though he had not been involved, Sadat had been wanting an excuse to sack him, and the role of his former deputy in the scheme was good enough.
Sadek’s misfortune was Ismail’s fortune. By this time Saadeddin Shazly had become army commander, and he was aghast to hear that his old opponent was being brought back to control the army. He protested to Sadat, pointing out that he, as army commander, and Ismail, as army minister, could not possibly collaborate given their decade-long antipathy. Sadat brushed off the concerns blithely, but this was of course his unspoken point. By appointing at the army’s helm two mutually antagonistic figures, he could ensure that they would not collaborate against Sadat. Ismail was stolid and unimaginative, but he could be counted on for loyalty. Moreover, he was suffering by that point with a terminal cancer; even had he wanted to, he was in no shape to take Sadat on.
This was a good enough plan to preempt any coup plot; what it was not was a good recipe for a military command on the brink of a war. Yet to their credit, both Ismail and Shazly forced a strained cordiality and cooperated well enough in the runup to the war. They had to their advantage a scrupulously professional aide, Abdel-Ghani Gamasy, a studious officer entirely unconcerned with barracks politics who drew up and directed a superb battle plan. What was more remarkable was that even as Sadat, Ismail, and Shazly shuttled missives for support around Arab capitals, Israel – normally so alert – was entirely oblivious. The intoxication of the 1967 triumph had not, it appears, worn off and when the Masri and Syrian armies suddenly attacked from west and north in October 1973, the Israeli command was left entirely nonplussed. Directed by Gamasy and covered by aerial bombardment, two Masri armies under the respective command of Saadeddin Mamoun and Abdel-Monem Wassel swept aside the Israeli fortifications and overran the Sinai Peninsula.
But it was at this uplifting point that the cracks, so meticulously papered over, reemerged. With the wind in their sails and the enemy in disarray, Shazly and Gamasy wanted to press their advantage and move beyond the Sinai into the Levant. Sadat, who appears to have confined his ambitions to the Sinai, refused, and so stolidly did Ismail. They had a point insofar as Masri bombardment could scarcely cover an advance beyond the Sinai, but Shazly and Gamasy – who had actually commanded the operation – also had a point insofar as the Israeli army was in an almost unique disarray and would probably not have been able to respond promptly. At any rate, seniority held out; a furious Shazly had to relent, and the armies remained fixed at Sinai for the next fortnight.
Events beyond his control forced Sadat to rethink his caution. On the northern front, the Syrian advance on the Golan Heights had not gone nearly so well, and despite some early momentum the Syrian army was not only repelled but pursued into Syria by the Israelis. This threatened to disrupt the balance entirely, and an alarmed Sadat ordered a diversive attack to the Israelis’ west. By this point, the advantage held by the Masri army two weeks earlier had dissipated, and Shazly and Gamasy now protested against these orders. They were not alone: one field commander, Abdel-Aziz Qabel, protested at what seemed a pointless suicide attack, and only reluctantly obeyed when Ismail himself personally ordered it. The attacks collapsed, predictably, and an Israeli army riding their momentum now took advantage of the breach to storm back into the Sinai. Shazly by now was in a spitting rage, so Sadat promptly sacked him on the spot and replaced him with the cooler-headed Gamasy. There was furthermore misfortune for the Masris, as frontline commander Saadeddin Mamoun suffered a heart attack at this inopportune moment and his forces were unable to rally effectively.
The upshot was that, quite contrary to the formidable position of yesterday, the Masris suddenly found themselves dangerously exposed as a sizeable Israeli force steamrolled through the breach in the Masri lines and surrounded Wassel’s forces. This ensured that when Sadat and his cohorts accepted a ceasefire, it was on terms much more favourable to Israel than could have been expected. By the time the negotiations took place, Ismail – whose cancer would finish him off within a year – had followed his old rival Shazly in losing his job, and it was instead Gamasy who became army minister. Ismail, who did try to reconcile with Shazly on his deathbed, passed away thereafter, while Shazly eventually stormed into Libyan exile.
To everybody’s surprise Sadat offered terms that were ridiculously generous, aimed at shoring up a strategic partnership with Washington and, perhaps not explicitly at the time, détente with Tel Aviv. This astounded not only his army minister Gamasy – who lost his cool and stormed out of the negotiations at his ruler’s repeated concessions – but even the seasoned Israeli and American diplomats. Like the cat that had swallowed the canary, however, they gulped down what they could and set off a process of one-sided negotiation whereby Sadat, hailed as a champion of peace and reconciliation, would consolidate his rule at the expense of Masr’s regional strength. It was a bittersweet conclusion to the reconquest presided over by the odd couple he had set up at the army’s helm.
Daud Boulad. Sudan. The Sudanese state, which was Africa’s largest country by territory before its split in 2011, spans many different regional, ethnic, linguistic, and even religious groups. Attempts to unify these groups into an inclusive and encompassing Sudanese identity include the diametrically opposed secularism connected to the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement, now the ruling party of the South Sudanese state but once a significant irritant to the united Sudanese state; and the revolutionary-Islamist idealism of the Enqaz Front, which eventually became the official ideology of the military regime founded by Omar Bashir that ruled Sudan in the thirty years between 1989 and 2019. The short but notable career of Daud Yahya Ibrahim Boulad began promisingly in the latter camp and ended violently in the former.
To understand Boulad’s career, an overview of early Sudanese politics is in order. Modern Sudanese politics have been dominated by the north, and more specifically the sons of the Nile river valley and its cities. This mostly Muslim, mostly Arabophone and often Arab group dominated what is one of the world’s most diverse countries, largely on account of the fact that this was the area garrisoned and prioritized by the imperial power, Britain, that ruled Sudan before its independence. Much of the remaining regions in what became Sudan was ruled by various minor polities, such as the Fur sultanate from which Sudan’s western Darfur region derives its name.
The riverine region was no monolith: Khartoum and Omdurman had a fiercely-competed political scene including differences on regional policy, foremost pertaining to Masr to the north, unification with which was a target of the Khatmiyya sufi Mirghani family that founded one of Sudan’s major parties. Another religious order, the Ensar – whose roots lay in the millennarian nineteenth-century revolt against the British Empire – fundamentally opposed this aim. Unlike the Masr-linked Khatmiyya, the Ensar would look westwards, including Chad and Libya, for foreign links. They were popular in the Darfur region that bordered both countries.
Frustrated with the apparent provincialism and sectarianism of these early parties, more revolutionary parties came to the fore in the 1960s, often founded by student activists and inspired by transnational movements. The Sudanese communists and the Sudanese Ikhwan were two such parties; though fundamentally opposed, they both aimed to override the sectarian, regional, and ethnic differences in Sudan. Both parties played both a major role in the revolt that toppled Sudan’s first military regime in 1964, and both would later suffer internal splits over their attitude to the next military regime founded by Jafar Numairi five years later. Although he had originally been expected to favour the communists, Numairi survived communist challenges in the 1970s and thereafter cracked down hard on them. He also increasingly coopted the Islamists, whose wily, brilliant, and ambitious leader Hassan Turabi became a minister in his government during the late 1970s.
The roots of both the People’s Liberation Movement and the Enqaz Front lay respectively in the earlier communist and Ikhwan parties. By the end of the 1980s, both were dominated by military adventurers: John Garang, a southern army officer with Marxist inclinations, founded the Liberation Movement while Omar Bashir, a northern army officer, led the coup that toppled an Ensar government in 1989.
Daud Boulad, who hailed from a notable Fur family, was one of several provincial arrivals who emerged on the political scene in the 1970s. The “parochialist” Ensar party had been popular in Darfur, but Boulad opted for the Islamists and on their ticket won an election to become the first non-Arab president of the student union in his university at Khartoum. Here he rubbed shoulders with, and was initially encouraged by, Arab Islamists such as Tayeb Sikha, whose nickname Sikha derived from the word for the iron skewer with which he would menace opponents in campus battles. Sikha served as Boulad’s bodyguard, a position that would become faintly ironic in later years.
Before long, however, Boulad fell out with the Islamists. He claimed that despite their pan-ethnic ideology, they favoured Arabs and that he himself was a tokenist candidate. It is hard to know how accurate this was at the time; on the one hand, Boulad’s fellow non-Arab Darfur student politician Ali Mohamed, whose clan originated from Western Africa, meanwhile advanced swiftly through Islamist ranks, for whom he would later served as a major administrator, and Boulad himself ran at first for Numairi’s ruling party, which was at least as dominated by Arabs. On the other hand, other Islamists admitted casual favouritism towards Arabs even among their ranks. And the Enqaz regime that Bashir led would repeatedly favour Arabs against other ethnic groups, foremost and most destructively in Darfur.
But there were other factors in the Darfur imbroglio. Most notable was the war in neighbouring Chad, for which Darfur became a major recruiting and refurbishment centre in the same way that Pakistan’s northwestern agencies did with Afghanistan. This war featured various factions and warlords, some of whose ethnic groups overlapped into Darfur. It also featured the involvement of Libya’s Jamahiriya dictator Muammar Qaddafi on one side as well as the similarly unsavoury regimes of France’s Francois Mitterrand and America’s Ronald Reagan on the other. Numairi and Qaddafi had become bitter rivals by this point, and Qaddafi was helping Numairi’s principal opponent Sadiq Mahdi, leader of the Ensar movement who had been prime minister briefly before Numairi’s takeover.
But Numairi was overthrown by a popular revolt in 1985, and the following year Sadiq swept to power. A weak and vacillating prime minister, Sadiq was beholden to, often caricatured as a puppet of, Qaddafi – and he certainly helped the Libyan dictator, who had lately begun to recruit Arab vassals in Chad and increasingly preached the idea of Islam as an essentially Arab faith to be dominated by Arabs. Many Arab clans in Darfur were militarized and recruited for the war in Chad; they would espouse Arab supremacism in Darfur then and later. This blatant bigotry was recognized as such in Khartoum, yet for purely political reasons both the Ensar and the later Enqaz regime would for different reasons enable its Sudanese proponents.
Sadiq had other problems, which included the People’s Liberation insurgency in southern Sudan that he had inherited from Numairi. Though Numairi had managed to secure a decade-long peace in the south during 1972, a mixture of external subversion and internal unrest prompted war to break out in the south during the 1980s. The catalyst, though not cause, was the decision of Numairi’s religious affairs minister – Hassan Turabi, the leader of the Enqaz party – to implement shariah not only in the north, where the idea was broadly popular, but also the south.
A collection of militias and rebels in the south gathered around John Garang, leading to a decades-long war that bled the region. Sadiq and his successors would find the People’s Liberation Movement increasingly backed by Sudan’s rivals including Ethiopia, Israel, and the United States. The Ensar regime would pioneer the desperate measures, revolving around undisciplined and frequently brutal militias, that Bashir would later employ in Darfur. Sadiq’s inability to confront the southern insurgency contributed to the coup by which Bashir, in accord with Turabi, overthrew him in 1989.
Garang, unlike many separatism-inclined colleagues, was a Sudanese unionist and soon looked for collaborators in the Sudanese north in order to expand the war and eventually seize Khartoum. He found sympathizers among the dissident Marxists, but also many among the neglected peripheral groups, including those who had been victimized by militias linked to Khartoum. These included Abdel-Aziz Hillou, who became the Liberation Movement’s northern generallissimo; Yousif Mekki, a charismatic ideologue in the Kordofan Mountains; later Abdel-Wahid Nour, once a Fur communist activist and a prominent figure in the 2000s war at Darfur; and earlier, the restless and frustrated Daud Boulad, whose ambitions had been frustrated in the 1970s.
While Boulad’s career had stagnated, his Islamist former colleagues advanced rapidly during the Enqaz regime. Boulad’s former bodyguard, the Arab Islamist Tayeb Sikha, became Darfur governor in the early 1990s and would later advance into the federal cabinet; his fellow non-Arab activist, Ali Mohamed, would also become an influential Darfur governor in the mid-1990s. Boulad was by now thoroughly estranged from these colleagues, however, and spied in the Liberation Movement not only an alternative group but perhaps also a kindred spirit. He made contact with its northern general Abdel-Aziz Hillou, and they mounted a plan for a revolt in the 1991-92 winter. It was a propitious moment, Boulad believed: the Libyan-Sudanese partnership had led to years of intermittent ethnic conflict between Darfur communities and militias, and given the right leader – himself, naturally – they would spring into a revolt.
Unfortunately for the plotters, Darfur governor Tayeb Sikha had caught wind of the scheme. Having won considerable goodwill by attempting to assuage Fur concerns in the region, Sikha watched his former colleague enter Darfur with Hillou in December 1991, and immediately dispatched Arab militiamen to intercept them. Hillou escaped, but Boulad was caught; and Sikha, while wary of an overreaction that could spark an actual revolt, was in no mood to deal gently with his old friend. A broadcast of a captured Boulad confessing his treason did the rounds, but an expected spectacular trial did not occur; instead, he was quietly executed.
In the next decade, certain Darfur governors such as Tayeb Sikha and Ali Mohamed did try to implement at least symbolic reforms, without undermining the overall strategic aim of the Enqaz regime. Unfortunately for them and more so for Darfur’s inhabitants, an overall pattern of state protection towards predatory Arab militias – later called janjaweed, or mounted devils – would last some fifteen more years and spark Darfur into the same revolt that Boulad had pathetically attempted in 1991. He was not left to obscurity however; in 2000 a “Black Book”, attacking the Sudanese riverine elite for neglect, did the rounds; it appears to have been authored by non-Arab Islamists in Darfur, but Omar Bashir suspected it had been written by Hassan Turabi, the Islamist ideologist who had finally fallen out with him the previous year. Notably, this book referred to Boulad as a “martyr”.
Valiollah Gharani. Iran. The aftermath of the cataclysmic Iranian revolt in 1979, which toppled the Pahlavi monarchy and installed a clerical Shia republic in its place, has produced considerable commentary on the distinction between the old regime and the new. In many spheres, the two regimes could not be more different: one secularist, the other clerical; one monarchist, the other republican; one strongly allied to the United States, the other strongly pitted against it. Yet not only existed there similarities in both regimes – their varyingly autocratic tendency, their Iranian nationalism often at the expense of a nervy Gulf, and their prioritization of Persian culture above Iran’s other ethnic groups – but also more than a smattering of the same personnel. Major-General Mohammad Valiollah Gharani, who served the Iranian army first as its spymaster in the imperial regime and then its commander in the clerical regime, is perhaps the most outstanding case.
The army was the backbone of the Pahlavi imperial regime: it was from the army that its founder, the cruel and domineering Rezashah Khan, had emerged to topple the Qajar dynasty and impose a ruthless regime of European-modelled modernization on the country. Its effects included drumming up an army that was one of the most effective in Asia. By the same token Rezashah, and his succeeding son – who shall be referred heretofore as “the shah”, following popular precedent – were keen to keep rival officers from doing the same thing to them.
The Pahlavi emperors did this not only by keeping a close eye on army affairs – a future army commander, Fereydoun Djam, would complain that the younger shah micromanaged military matters to a ludicrous extent – but also by offering perks to the officer corps. Iranian generals were not simply political and military elites, but socioeconomic elites too: entry into and promotion in the army meant wealth and more importantly social prestige. Coupled with the common theme across any army of protecting the realm, and it is no surprise that aspiring lads would sign up. Among them was Gharani, who hailed from a middle-class family in Tehran.
The British and Soviet Empire were the region’s major heavyweights during the early Pahlavi regime. They had guarded respect for Rezashah, but in his attempt to resist these two allied giants during the Second World War the Pahlavi founder picked for once on somebody above his size. His refusal to evict Germans in Iran whom the anti-Axis allies suspected of trying to control this strategic country led to his own ouster in September 1941. To give the process an appearance of respectability, British officials had Rezashah abdicate in favour of his son.
The young shah, who had been bullied by his unmerciful father and initially lacked confidence and political strength, found himself increasingly irrelevant to a burgeoning political class in the war’s immediate aftermath. Postwar prime ministers wielded far more power than the office had held during Rezashah’s period: they included Ali Razmara, an ambitious and wily army veteran abruptly murdered by religious extremists in 1951; and most famously Mohammad Mossaddegh, a nationalist typical of the period who resisted British domination over Iranian oil. It was his insistence on nationalizing Iranian oil against extortionate British companies that would lead to his own ouster to the shah’s benefit, masterminded at British insistence by the scene’s latest empire, the United States. The laughable pretext was that Mossaddegh, who had not a communist bone in his body, was too soft on Iran’s large communist party, Tudeh, and that it was in the Cold War interest to topple him.
The United States’ candidate for prime minister was Fazlollah Zahedi, a former general who had been evicted from Iran by the British Empire for alleged pro-German activity during the Second World War. The postwar world was different, however, and Zahedi had lately become close to the United States; his son Ardeshir would later serve the shah as a longstanding and loyal ambassador to Washington. As it happened, Valiollah Gharani – at this point commanding the garrison at the important city Rasht, some four hours to Tehran’s northwest – secretly met Ardeshir prior to the coup, though he would not participate therein.
Planned and controlled by the United States’ burgeoning secret service, the coup brought on board a nervous shah, whose job was to sign a decree ordering Mossaddegh’s arrest and replacement as prime minister by Zahedi. Mossadegh’s loyal military aide, Taghi Riahi, intercepted the first attempt to arrest the prime minister. So panic-stricken was the shah that he immediately arranged a flight abroad. The Americans were more determined, however, and a second attempt – mounted by irregulars and crowds that had been paid by American intelligence’s allies in the Iranian merchant class and underworld – ousted Mossaddegh and installed Zahedi in his place. The shah returned to Iran with newly imbued confidence.
Zahedi did not last long as prime minister. While the Iranian monarchy became one of the United States’ most important and powerful supporters, the shah recognized that the Americans could break him as easily as they had made him. He was therefore intensely paranoid and especially leery of other political leaders, such as Zahedi, who rivalled him in Washington’s affections, and indeed he was sacked within two years.
It is unclear whether it was the ouster of Zahedi specifically or the general direction of monarchic rule, that alienated such officers as Gharani. Soon the former Rasht commander, who had been a passive bystander during the coup against Mossaddegh, came to regret it and privately complained to Iranian dissidents about the court’s corruption. Given the shah’s close scrutiny of his officers, it is thus remarkable that Gharani was nonetheless implicitly trusted, and indeed promoted to the twin position of army second-in-command and army spymaster. Given the constant collaboration between Iranian intelligence and their American counterparts, he was thus in a prime position to affect a coup himself.
Gharani’s exact plan is unclear, but it appears to have involved getting American preapproval before ousting the shah and installing a new prime minister. This was apparently to be Ali Amini, the ambassador to Washington, who was very close himself to the American political elite and a particularly close friend of the Kennedys. Amini was not informed, because Gharani’s plan failed at the first step. His secret meeting with certain American officials, at the house of his accomplice Esfandiar Bozorgmehr, in early 1958 found them unwilling to countenance such a risk, though they did not report it. Gharani and Bozorgmehr proceeded next to the British embassy, who did not report it either, and then Gharani sent Bozorgmehr on another try with the Americans, in a secret meeting at Greece. Knowing their audience, the conspirators tried to argue implausibly that the shah was inclining towards the Soviet Union.
This was rather hard to believe, and one of the two visits with the Americans was somehow leaked to the shah in February 1958. Incensed – foremost, one suspects, because he had let his guard down – the shah roundly berated the American embassy, whose pressure may nonetheless have forced him to give Gharani a light sentence. Nonetheless, Gharani appealed the sentence unsuccessfully, and after his release continued to squirm under heavy supervision, so that he was again imprisoned in 1963. During this period he often met with the clergy, which may have persuaded them of his religious conviction. There is no reason to doubt his sincerity, but it would pay dividends for him – albeit briefly – after the monarchy fell.
There is no need to recount the well-trodden story of the monarchy’s zenith and collapse. It is worth noting that, even at his proudest moment and the peak of his alliance with the Americans, the shah would always suspect anybody who would precede him in Washington’s affections. He had, for instance, only with great reluctance appointed Amini as prime minister in the early 1960s, in order to woo Amini’s friend Fitzgerald Kennedy, the incoming American ruler who had been strongly critical of Tehran. As soon as he had no use for Amini, the shah dropped him. In the end, though, it was not the Americans and their friends who brought him down but a gargantuan revolt inside Iran that rippled across socioeconomic lines and forced him to flight in 1979.
In the shah’s place came a republican triumvirate that would soon be dominated by the fiery preacher Ruhollah Khomenei. The original interim government, however, was not a one-man show, and its personnel comprised Iranian dissidents of various stripes and persuasions before Khomenei purged them. Taghi Riahi, Mossaddegh’s military aide in the 1950s, was promoted to army minister; and Gharani, who had the benefit of prosecution by the monarchy on his record, returned from retirement as army commander. Riahi would eventually resign in protest at Khomenei’s domination over his portfolio; a rather different fate ended Gharani’s career.
In the two months he held the job, Gharani distinguished himself by his loyalty to the new order. When unrest broke out in Iran’s Kurdish minority in the northwest, the official narrative from Tehran is that Gharani hauled out Ghassem Zahirnejad, a seasoned soldier – and himself a future army commander – at night and ordered him to proceed to the northwest in order to nip the Kurdish unrest in the bud. Zahirnejad, the story goes, wanted a rest until morning, but an urgent Gharani upbraided him and told him that there was not a moment to lose.
Whether one believes this particular story – the initial hostility between Tehran and the Kurdish periphery was a rather long, drawn-out affair before war actually broke out that summer – there is no reason to suppose anything other than sincerity on Gharani’s part for the new order. This is certainly how its enemies perceived him: in April 1979, he was murdered by and became the first high-ranking victim of a shortlived militant group called Forghan, which had been founded by an anti-clerical militant called Akbar Gudarzi and would target several more officials in the next year or so.
Gharani’s life and career encapsulate the torn loyalty that confronted many Iranian officers. At heart a patriot and a professional dedicated to Iranian interests, he was nonetheless quite willing to countenance, even with foreign support, the removal of certain regimes. Gharani’s trajectory from disabused royal loyalist to pro-American conspirator and finally revolutionary army commander puts him at several key points in Iran’s modern story.
Nacer Mohammedi. Algeria. Algeria’s two major wars since the Second World War each began with the mobilization of a widespread and somewhat populist insurgent group against the established order in Algiers. The first, celebrated war against French colonialism in the 1950s brought Algerian independence and the establishment of the insurgent group, the Front Liberation, at the helm of a single-party regime. The second, bemoaned war occurred in the 1990s after a military coup arrested the ascent of an alternative party, the Islamist Front Salut, who had mobilized against increasing regime corruption in the 1980s: soon both the Front Salut and Front Liberation became bystanders in a bloody war dominated by the deep state and a millennarian cult. Though the regime Front National and opposition Front Salut parties had faced off in the 1980s, they shared many similarities – in their appeals to Islam, Algerian nationalism, and radicalism that culminated in militancy against an unjust order dominated by foreigners, and in particular France. Few people epitomize this continuity as much as Major-General Si Nacer Said Mohammedi: he had served as the Front Liberation military commander in the 1950s and briefly its deputy ruler in the 1960s, before joining the Front Salut in his old age during the 1980s.
Mohammedi, like a disproportionate number of the Front National leaders, was a Kabyle from the mountainous, forested Amazigh-majority Kabylia region in northern Algeria. The French had, in classic divide-and-rule fashion, seen the Kabyles as somehow less essentially Muslim than their Arab neighbours, and attempted to mould Kabyles in education and outlook along French lines – a policy that continues to have repercussions into the postcolonial period. This did not, of course, prevent the region from becoming a major headache for the colonial regime during the 1950s war. At any rate, Mohammedi was not among the Kabyles who suffered colonial indoctrination: a peasant’s son, he reportedly taught himself to read and write and maintained a firmly independent outlook, for better or worse, throughout his life.
The fiercely pietistic Mohammedi was, like many other aspiring young Algerian Muslims, attracted to the Islamic revivalism of the Ulama Association founded by Abdelhamid Benbadis and Bashir Ibrahimi, which argued for an Islam-based Algerian identity in contrast to the colonial authorities, the piednoir French settlers, and even assimilationist liberal Muslims such as Ferhat Abbas who aspired to equality with Frenchmen under the French order. Shortly before his death in 1940, Benbadis had famously countered Abbas’ denial of a historical Algerian identity with the assertion of an “Algerian Muslim nation” with “its own culture, its traditions and characteristics, good or bad like any other nation”, which moreover was not, could not be, and had no inclination to be French.
The events of the 1940s, including the world war whose triumph culminated with an infamous mass slaughter of thousands of Algerians in Setif by French settlers and authorities, and a subsequent election rigged against the Algerians would eventually persuade Abbas and other liberal politicians of the need for independence. Young Muslims such as Mohammedi had long been convinced; not only did he credit the Ulama association with political advancement but also Islamic revivalism in everyday life; later, in an interview with the American researcher William Quandt, he would commend the Ulama for having opposed “degenerate” superstition, such as the veneration of saintly marabouts.
In his opposition to France, Mohammedi went much further than most of his compatriots. Following the precedent of the Jerusalem mufti Amin Hussaini, he signed up with the German army’s foreign forces, and fought with distinction in Eastern Europe and even the gruelling, doomed Nazi assault on Soviet Russia. In 1944 he was captured and remained in French custody until 1952, by which point many of his compatriots had long since come around to his way of thinking. Though the piednoir French settlers in Algeria, a rightwing lot in the best circumstances, tended to support the shortlived Vichy occupation of France by Germany, some Muslim Algerians also eyed the humiliation of the colonial power with some grim satisfaction: Zohra Drif, a famous insurgent fighter in the 1950s war, would later recount how her father, a Muslim magistrate, viewed France’s occupation by Germany as a divinely ordained punishment for their misdeeds in Algeria.
Early agitation against France had been led by Ahmed Messali-Hadj, a charismatic but divisive veteran of trade union politics in France who had nonetheless by the 1950s alienated many Algerian dissidents. They criticized him as a unilateralist removed from the ground reality; indeed, no sooner had the Front Liberation insurgency taken off in November 1954 than Messali-Hadj founded a separate group, the Mouvement Liberation, which was at the very least viewed as a lesser threat by France who would infiltrate it quite thoroughly.
Not until the mid-1950s, by which point the French stranglehold on Morocco and Tunisia was already weakening, did the Front Liberation National kickstart its insurgency. As often happens after independence, today the various lists of leaders, commissions, and committees that would transpire at the Front’s helm have become etched into the national narrative as if it was a setpiece process. The reality in the 1950s was rather more chaotic; many early leaders were killed or captured by France, and others competed over authority.
The Front was an impressively organized group by any insurgency’s standard, managing to juggle secrecy and typical effectiveness in the battlefield with well-oiled international diplomacy and overall cohesion. International diplomacy, indeed, would prove decisive; Algeria would become a major cause celebre of the international anticolonial, Muslim, Arabist, and even leftist circles: many young leftists including the famous ideologist Frantz Fanon would enter Algeria to enlist in its ranks. Similarly many Muslim countries – foremost Masr, whose military agents Fathi Dib and Ezzat Soliman were dispatched to Algeria to assist the revolt – sympathized with the Front, giving it an enviable diplomatic edge that few insurgent groups have enjoyed.
And yet at the Front’s top rung, the rapid turnover of commanders, the split between its external figureheads and its internal field commanders, and old-fashioned political rivalry would lead to several major power blocs. This article will only deal with the power bases relevant to its subject, but it is worth noting that there were several more cliques in the Front whose competition would influence its trajectory both during and especially after the war.
Seven of the official nine Front founders were picked off in the war: Moustafa Benboulaid, Abdelkader Didouche, and Larbi Benmhidi were slain at their respective fronts in the battlefield; Ahmed Benbella, Tayeb Boudiaf, Hocine ait-Ahmed, and Said Khider were captured on a trip to Morocco during October 1956, ending their participation and pushing a second rung of Front commanders to replace them. This elimination process left two founders still in the fray: the Arab commander Rabah Bitat and, more importantly, the Kabyle commander Belkacem Kerim. It was Kerim who founded what would become the war’s most resilient and ruthlessly effective front in Kabylia; he was among the few Front leaders as equally effective in the battlefield as they were in politics outside the country.
As a seasoned fighter, Mohammedi entered the Kabylia front as a top lieutenant to Kerim, marked by the German army helmet he wore as his particular trophy and his new nom de guerre, Nacer or Victor. The capture of the other Front founders in October 1956 prompted Kerim to take their place as its main representative abroad; he left Mohammedi to take his command over Kabylia.
Even as he continued to organize attacks on the French army, however, Mohammedi confronted competition by Messali-Hadj’s Mouvement Liberation. This was a double-edged threat to the Front: given Messali’s stature and experience in anti-French agitation, the Mouvement enjoyed a genuine organic following within Algeria. And yet the Mouvement had been strongly infiltrated by French counterinsurgency to the point that its leading field commander, Mohamed Bellounis, was decorated by the French army as their vassal in the Algerian maquis.
After repeated blandishments, threats, and skirmishes, Mohammedi resorted to brute force to make an example. During May 1957, dispatched a unit to Melouza, a village near Mesila known to harbour Mouvement sympathies. In a merciless killing spree, the village’s male adults – nearly four hundred men – were systemically butchered. This was only one of many massacres in the war, but unlike the majority it was carried out on the part of the celebrated Front, and would taint its legacy for years to come.
Shortly thereafter, Mohammedi followed Kerim abroad into newly independent Tunisia. Here, in the latest attempt to coordinate the various fronts, the Front had set up one of its two external legions to serve as both strategic reserves and overall strategists. Mohammedi was promoted to command this legion, whose responsibility included eastern Algeria; the less active western legion, based in newly independent Morocco, was captained by a wily, secretive, and cautious commander called Houari Boumedienne.
Soon the Tunisia legion faced a challenge. In order to interdict insurgent passage to and from Algeria, France constructed in September 1957 a massive electric fence along the Tunisian border, named after its army minister Andre Morice. Front supply lines, which had moved in and out of Tunisia with virtual impunity, were suddenly cut, isolating the battlefield fronts from their supporters abroad. France had earlier received a major diplomatic backlash for its destructive bombardment inside Tunisia; now, its airpower could be restricted to the Algerian side of the border, picking off whatever fighters managed to cross.
The barrier vexed Front commanders in eastern Algeria. They mounted several attempts, some quite dextrous and others clumsier, to thwart it, but could not circumvent it with anything near the required regularity. Mohammedi – drawing, one suspects, from the attritional warfare at Russia in which he had participated – opted to throw more and more fighters at the problem, resulting in more and more casualties. Whereas most units had been small earlier, the largest that Mohammedi directed at the fence, captained by Lakhdar Chirine in May 1958, numbered about a thousand fighters, who were sitting ducks for French bombardment.
This unimaginative strategy hit morale hard, and provoked a backlash among the Front field commanders. In autumn 1958, the Front founded a “shadow cabinet” in exile, chaired by Ferhat Abbas and including Mohammedi as a largely honorary minister. Only a few weeks after its inauguration, this cabinet was faced with a mutiny in Tunisia, which was quickly put down. The mutiny was captained by the Front’s leading field commanders in eastern Algeria – Mohamed Lamouri, Ammara Bouglez, and Ahmed Nouaoura – and was alleged, with no proof, to have had the tacit approval of Masr.
Some observers attributed ethnic factors – the mutineers were Arabs and the Tunisia command was largely Kabyle – but what was more clear was that they resented the military strategy. At any rate, the Front found this insubordination at such a trying point intolerable. The plotters were tried in a court chaired by Houari Boumedienne, the Morocco legion commander, and executed. Boumedienne would indeed distinguish himself as a hatchet man, putting down a similar mutiny in the western legion a year later.
Executions were not confined to the external front. Mohammedi had become uneasily aware by this point that the Front field commander who had replaced him in Kabylia, Amirouche ait-Hamouda, had acquired a taste for bloodshed. Amirouche – feared by French troops as the “wolf of Akfadou” after the forest that held his base – was a brilliant commander, probably the single best in the Front ranks. But he was also ruthless and paranoid; where French counterinsurgency could not beat him, they tried to subvert him by planting a number of plots, real and staged, against him. So paranoid did Amirouche become over the war’s duration that he began to suspect the new influx of recruits – largely leftists from the cities – as French spies. Over 1958, he carried out a series of bloody purges that, according to a possibly inflated French number, killed as many as sixteen hundred suspected “spies”. Many were claimed to have been tortured by his brutal aide, Ahcene Mahiouz.
The French army was of course keen to paint the insurgency in the worst possible colours, but at least Mohammedi believed there was something to the reports. After Amirouche was slain in 1959, Mohammedi sent another commander, Abderrahmane Mira, to replace him at the Kabylia front, with the explicit instructions to shy away from bloodshed and improve the Front’s conduct in the region. Mira arrived at Kabylia to find its command already competed over between Amirouche’s aides, the hatchet man Mahiouz and the widely respected Mokrane Oulhadj. This coincided with a new French campaign in Kabylia over the summer, where Mira was slain; not until October 1959 was Oulhadj confirmed as his successor.
The late 1950s had been a disaster for the Front, and yet they prevailed – largely through clever diplomacy and the escalating confrontation between France and the piednoirs – in the early 1960s. Coinciding with a mass upheaval of the piednoirs and their local collaborators, who emigrated to France, Algeria became independent in summer 1962. No sooner had this occurred, however, than a race for power began between the Front’s several power centres – competing organs of the Front, its external commanders, and field commanders. Eventually Houari Boumedienne, the calculating western external commander, played the key role when his well-drilled and well-rested forces seized Algiers and then set about pacifying what dissidence remained.
The Front became the official party of independent Algeria, with Ahmed Benbella – among the founders imprisoned in 1956 – effectively its leader. In this role, though, he was soon challenged from different angles by three of his former founders-turned-cellmates – Hocine ait-Ahmed, Tayeb Boudiaf, and Said Khider – as well as Belkacem Kerim, the Front founder who had remained at liberty. Ait-Ahmed soon allied himself with dissident field commanders including the Kabylia commander Mokrane Mokrane – with the ironic result that Kabylia remained for several years as much a headache for independent Algeria as it had been for the French colony. Meanwhile Ferhat Abbas, who was the figurehead in 1962-63, repeatedly locked horns with the overweening Benbella over the role of the party as opposed to elected politicians in the parliament. Backed by Boumedienne and his gamechanging military force, Benbella was able to overcome these challenges one by one.
Mohammedi, who was not especially interested in politics and politically the weakest Front commander, originally acquiesced to these developments. His main sticking point was that Algeria should be an Islamic polity, and so long as that was the case he was loyal to the regime. Most more sophisticated Islamists, including Front cofounder Khider and the ideologist Malek Bennabi, were soon politically marginalized. Their views were anathema to certain secularists, both among the liberal and the separate leftist camp; in the latter, Reda Malek, a former friend of Frantz Fanon who had written Front propaganda during the war and was involved in writing up the constitution, would be the most adamant opponent of the Islamists.
Benbella, who harboured Marxist economic ideas and took pains to claim that they did not contradict Islam, nonetheless presided over a regime whose secondary organs, at least, were manned by functionaries who treated practicing Muslims with contempt. He himself dismissed the blandishments of the Ulama leader, Bashir Ibrahimi. But at least at first Benbella did sufficiently persuade both Mohammedi and Boumedienne – who, though less ideological, was basically by upbringing a Muslim traditionalist and then viewed sympathetically by the Islamist camp – to serve in the socialist single-party state as his deputy rulers. In practice this role was rather meaningless: more relevant was Boumedienne’s control of the military forces as army minister. Having defeated his other rivals, Benbella viewed the defence minister with some disquiet, and promoted to the army command Tahar Zbiri, an officer known to have personal differences with Boumedienne. Yet Zbiri had sided with Boumedienne in the 1962 takeover, and in summer 1965 both collaborated in a bloodless coup that ousted Benbella and installed Boumedienne in his place. The wily, calculating military strongman had taken over Algeria almost by stealth, and he would rule it until his death in 1978.
Mohammedi had been purged by Benbella just months before the 1965 coup, which he initially supported and on whose junta he served. Yet, much like Zbiri, he fell out with Boumedienne by 1967. Their methods were different: Zbiri, rallying his field commanders, attempted an unsuccessful coup in December 1967. Mohammedi, however, travelled to his native Kabylia, a hotbed of dissidence. Speaking at a ceremony to remember the slain commander Amirouche, he attacked Boumedienne as a dictator.
Boumedienne could afford to ignore Mohammedi; he lacked both formal and informal power by this point, and his enthusiastic approval of Arabic as Algeria’s official language had not endeared him among many Kabyle dissidents. He remained politically irrelevant throughout Boumedienne’s 1970s regime and the subsequent 1980s regime of Chadli Bendjedid, one of Boumedienne’s military lieutenants.
By now cracks had appeared in the single-party regime; attempting to offset its economic problems by liberalizing the socialist economy, Algeria followed a familiar contemporary pattern that saw poverty and inequality lead to major dissidence. The Front, as the ruling party, was increasingly discredited. While socialist dissidence, led by Hocine ait-Ahmed, had long been a factor especially among Kabyles, a more potent dissidence emerged in the form of revolutionary Islamism. As had been the Front’s own precedent in the 1950s, Islam became the dominant framework of dissidence. The influential preachers Abbassi Madani and Ali Benhadj would channel discontent into the emergent Front Islamique Salut. In its call for an Islamic overhaul and its allegation of regime corruption as well as inauthenticity – primarily the Europhilia and Francophilia of the elite – it channelled sentiments similar to those that the Front Liberation had hit upon thirty years earlier.
In autumn 1988, mass unrest, which was bloodily put down, forced Bendjedid to relinquish the one-party state and hold multiparty elections. The Front Liberation was itself suffering rupture. It had never been a secularist party per se, and always had an at least consciously Muslim wing that included Bendjedid’s prime minister Abdelhamid Brahimi and its newly promoted secretary-general Abdelhamid Mehri. The 1988 upheaval prompted Bendjedid to sack Brahimi from the prime ministry and promote Mehri to secretary-general, but each Abdelhamid vociferously attacked regime corruption. The Front Salut continued to advance rapidly in the next few years, and an aged Nacer Mohammedi joined its ranks.
Nacer Mohammedi, who seems finally to have found a political party that he could identity fully with, ran in the 1991 parliamentary election on a Front Salut ticket. This fateful election, which the Salut leader Abdelkader Hachani won, should have given him the role of prime minister. Instead the army minister Khaled Nezzar mounted a coup, removing Bendjedid and installing a sinister emergency junta, known colloquially as the “Pouvoir” or power, that was variously fronted by one 1950s figurehead after another, few of whom had any power.
These included the celebrated Front Liberation founder Tayeb Boudiaf, whose attempt to investigate Pouvoir corruption ended abruptly with his own murder; the Front field commander Ali Kafi; Boumedienne’s former finance minister Belaid Abdesselam, who made a doomed late attempt to return to socialism; and Reda Malek, the former socialist-turned-capitalist whose main attraction to the Pouvoir was his militantly secularist opposition to any accord with the Islamists.
On the insurgent side, the Front Salut announced an insurgency but proved entirely incapable of its implementation against regime crackdowns; unlike the 1950s insurgency, the 1990s insurgency fractured into what were basically gangs, many of whom joined the millennarian Groupe Islamique Arme, a murderous cult that continued to match and outstrip Pouvoir atrocities well after the Front Salut had collapsed. Not until Liamine Zeroual, an army officer with a more accommodating policy, came to power in 1995 did some normalcy return, though Pouvoir and Groupe continued to trade atrocities for years thereafter.
Nacer Mohammedi did not live to see these developments. The old battler passed away, quite peaceably, during the war’s most horrendous period in December 1994. It was an unlikely ending to a career that had been forged in and shaped by conflict.
Abshir Musa. Somalia. The steady breakdown and collapse of the thirty-year-old Somali state in the late 1980s and 1990s made that swathe of the African Horn a byword for state collapse for years. A common point often raised by both longstanding opponents of Somali politics (not least in the neighbouring powerhouse Ethiopia, which tended to view its rival’s collapse with some malicious glee) and genuinely introspective observers was that Somalis were – despite their overwhelmingly homogenous ethnicity, culture, and faith – not suited for a modern state. They were too wedded, it was claimed, to nomadic and subsistence lifestyles, as well as to the debilitation of clan politics; a Somali state could only be upheld by clientelism or, as had happened often during the military dictatorship of Siad Barre, brute force. This article is not the place to discuss such theories and their merits, but it is easy to forget that in their early years Somalia’s founders had considerable room for optimism. One leading Somali military-cum-political leader who played a sizeable role both in the Somali state and its aftermath, and who decidedly did not fit the model of the clientelist or brute, was Major-General Mohamed Abshir Musa. This upright, principled officer had overseen the construction of a surprisingly effective security force as its first commander in the 1960s, and subsequently survived imprisonment to play a sizeable role in the events of the 1980s and 1990s.
The Somalia state was built off two Somali-dominated regions in the African Horn ruled by, respectively, the British and Italian empires in north and south; the Italian rout in the Second World War put their proportion of central-southern Somalia under indirect British suzerainty, but still governed by a post-fascist Italian colony until 1960. The discrepancy, both before and after independence, between these regions would prove a challenge to the emergent doctrine of Somali nationalism, which sought ultimately to reunite the Somali peoples in the African Horn, whose numbers were dispersed not only in modern Somalia but also in independent Ethiopia, French-occupied Djibouti, and British-occupied Kenya. In part, Somali nationalism emerged to challenge perceived clanism among Somalis that had helped subject them to foreign rule. The Somali Youth League, first modern party for Somali nationalism, adopted “unity for Allah’s sake” as a motto – but unity proved difficult to realize.
Nonetheless, in the 1950s prospects of decolonization and the end of colonial suzerainty, which was now untenable for the European empires, set off an optimistic mood among many Somalis, particularly those who, like most postcolonial elites, had been educated and politicized under a foreign rule they had come to resent. By this time it was clear that the Italian-British regime could not last, and in preparation for its replacement many members of the still modest Somali upper and middle classes were trained to build a functional state. In the mid-1950s, several Somali technocrats, officials, and officers were sent on training courses to Italy, whence they returned to fulfill governmental positions in the fledgling Somali state. This relatively small group includes almost a who’s who of early Somali politicians.
Among the officers sent for military and security training were many of the Somali state’s most prominent troops. They included the future military dictator Siad Barre, his deputy Mohamed Ainanshe and Hussein Kulmiye, future army commander Daud Hersi, as well as Abshir Musa. As in many colonial setups, there was little to differentiate military and security forces; a year before Somali independence in summer 1960, the colony’s native garrison was split into an army and a security force, led respectively by Daud and Abshir. By every account both were officers in the best postcolonial tradition, committed to their jobs, incorruptibly scrupulous, and optimistic about an independent Somali government that would overcome clan and political cleavages in favour of just modernized rule. They were certainly well-placed in the new state of affairs; not only did they command Somalia’s initially modest but rapidly expanding military-security forces, but Abshir was related by marriage to Aden Adde, the widely respected Youth League leader who became independent Somalia’s first ruler.
Unfortunately, the optimism of the 1950s proved to have been naïvete. Again like contemporary postcolonial democracies, the Somali government in the 1960s proved inept, fractious, and dysfunctional. The northwestern region Somaliland, whose leading politician Mohamed Egal flirted with the idea of a separate state, was brought into the Somali union by a sleight of hand (exercised by Mohamed Ainanshe, the leading Somalilander in the army) and promises of shared representation that were never fulfilled. Moreover the Youth League, in its pan-Somali optimism, soon and prematurely picked a fight with the neighbouring giant Ethiopia, hoping to liberate the Somali-dominated Ogaden region opposite Somaliland from the Amharic monarchy.
The subsequent insurgency in Ogaden, led by a colourful Ogaden chieftain called Makhtal Dahir, briefly captured the Somali imagination. Daud Hersi and Abshir Musa, who had overseen a rapid expansion of their respective forces, were instrumental in delivering assistance to the insurgency. By summer 1964, however, it was clear that Somalia had not the capacity to continue supporting a revolt that was out of its depth against the Ethiopian army’s might. Adde’s new prime minister Abdirazak Hussein now assigned to Abshir the unhappy task of informing the Ogaden insurgents that Somalia was washing its hands of the resistance; the blow was only softened by offers of residency and pensions in Somalia.
Nonetheless pan-Somali sentiment lingered, accentuated by concern over the fate of French-colonized Somalis in what would later become Djibouti. It was partly an appeal to pan-Somali sentiment, on which the incumbent regime was accused of negligence, that the Aden-Abdirazak government was ousted in the 1967 election. In their place came Adde’s former prime ministers Abdirashid Shermarke and Mohamed Egal, who set about consolidating their control over a fractious Somali political landscape in league with their loyal interior minister, Yasin Bidde.
This troika’s domination of the Youth League prompted its former stalwart Abdirazak to break away and form a new party, colloquially called Dabka or flame. Bidde swiftly banned the party and ordered the security force to crack down on it. Abshir Musa, who reported to Bidde but had a longstanding friendship with his Majerteen clansmate Abdirazak, moreover doubted the ban’s legality. After a consultation with legal experts, Abshir refused Bidde’s orders to close down Dabka. Bidde accused his constable of insubordination and attempting to form a parallel state, whereupon Abshir promptly resigned. The resignation of this popular and potentially troublesome officer was, of course, exactly what the government had wanted: his pliant successor Jama Qorshel faithfully cracked down on Dabka, whose appeal to the judiciary was also rejected.
By 1969, the troika were entitled to feel some confidence. The old guard – Adde and Abdirazak among the politicians, Daud and Abshir among the officers – were now out of the picture, but paradoxically this only endangered the regime. Daud’s successor, Siad Barre, had less qualms about military intrusion into politics. The murder of Abdirashid Shermarke in October 1969 by his bodyguard, Said Orfano, presented him an ideal opportunity, but he had to act fast: prime minister Egal, then in the United States, was on his way back while parliament speaker Mukhtar Hussein prepared to take up Shermarke’s role. Barre won the race, however, with a bloodless coup; prior to arresting the leading politicians and assuming power, he also arrested the constable Jama Qorshel in order to secure the security forces’ cooperation.
Barre’s subsequent military dictatorship, known dismissively as Faqash by its critics, lasted until 1991 and ended only during the dissolution of the country into civil war. Though he promoted a mixture of Somali nationalism and the scientific socialism so fashionable in that period, the regime was essentially and increasingly clientelist and focused on its dictator and his ruling clan. This is not to say that it lacked any redeeming qualities whatsoever; at least in the 1970s there was general stability and some prosperity. Barre’s rule was in its arc similar to the 1977-78 war he mounted in Ogaden against Ethiopia; it started well, but ended in disaster, and indeed it was the defeat in Ogaden that prompted the wheels to fall off the Faqash wagon.
Long before that, however, Barre demonstrated a tendency towards arbitrary rule that quite dwarfed the more chaotic vexations of the 1960s. Abshir was among the many 1960s leaders to be tossed in prison, apparently because the dictator feared his popularity as an alternative leader. It was in prison that he became strongly pietistic; indeed, at one point even his copy of the Quran was confiscated from him. At that point he was treated to an unexpected kindness by his cellmate, Mohamed Egal – the prime minister in the 1960s whose government had ironically sacked Abshir – who lent him a copy. He also reportedly resisted several attempts to coopt him; indeed, from Somalia’s future elite he was the only one who had not worked at some point in the Barre regime. Not until 1982 was he released, whereupon he went into exile first in Djibouti and then Saudi Arabia.
Barre’s crackdowns had meanwhile not been confined to the earlier generation of Somali leaders. Following the playbook of many a dictator, he had early on eliminated potential rivals in the junta. These included his deputy Mohamed Ainanshe, the interior minister Jama Qorshel, and the leading officer in his own coup Salad Gabayre, now the army minister who whose influence and closeness to the Soviet Union Barre feared. Within two years of the 1969 coup, these potential contenders for power had been imprisoned or executed on what appear to have been trumped-up charges. An actual plot, revolving around senior officers from the Majerteen clan, did transpire immediately upon the defeat to Ethiopia in April 1978. The Majerteen officers were foiled and executed, but one – Abdullahi Yusuf – did escape and made his way to Ethiopia, from where he and his Badbadinta Front would mount repeated attacks into Somalia.
By the 1980s, therefore, much of Somalia had already entered the civil war that would expand dramatically in the 1990s. Barre’s ruthless response, whetted by a newfound partnership with the United States to confront the new communist regime in Ethiopia, only aggravated the problem, and the Faqash assault on the northwestern Somaliland region in 1988 became the stuff of nightmare for its predominantly Isaaq clan. Similar to Baathist Iraq’s chemically leavened assault on Iraqi Kurdistan during the same period, this was the straw that broke the camel’s back: Somaliland was effectively out of government control from then on, ruled by opposition militias.
The Somaliland experience presaged what occurred in Somalia at the decade’s turn; large parts of the country practically fragmented and turned into fiefdoms of the dominated armed group therein, often organized along clan bases. The crisis eventually reached Mogadishu as more and more officials and officers broke away from a regime that was narrowing in its support base and increasingly brutal on opposition.
Abshir was among a large number of Somali dissidents, which also included the state’s founder Aden Adde, who returned to Somalia at this point in order to forestall the crisis. Along with a collection of intellectuals, politicians, and ministers, they wrote a famous manifesto in May 1990, which urged Barre to give up power to a transitional regime, which would include Adde and Abshir. Barre did, it appears, express some interest in coopting Abshir to the regime, but beyond this he ignored the manifesto. Its signatories spent much of the subsequent months – the last of the Faqash regime – trying to lobby either their constituents or mediate between warring militias.
It wasn’t until early 1991 that the regime fell; as Barre fled Mogadishu, the once-gleaming capital collapsed into brutal infighting among militias, with a particular targeted campaign against the Darod clan confederation from which he had hailed; militia leaders and commanders were often either unwilling or unable to control them.
Even as this happened, the winners struggled over the succession; the leading contenders were Ali Mahdi, a former minister and merchant; and Farah Aidid, an army officer who had once served as Barre’s aide. Aidid, with his tough and battle-hardened militia, claimed credit for the regime’s fall but it was Ali who had international recognition as the Somali ruler as well as the support of key militias outside Mogadishu.
In this struggle, Abshir Musa sided with Ali. The former constable returned to his home province Puntland. By now Somalia’s fragmentation into practical statelets controlled by competing militias was complete. They included the largely Isaaq Somaliland in the northwest, which soon announced an unrecognized but practical independence and where former Somali prime minister Mohamed Egal eventually established control. Largely Majerteen Puntland in the northeast largely came under the purview of the Badbadinta Front that had been founded by Abdullahi Yusuf and rebelled against Barre in the 1980s. This front, however, was not a homogenous entity, and Abshir’s arrival in Puntland complicated matters further.
Abshir had arrived at the Puntland port Bosaso claiming that a restoration of order was needed. His links in the international community and his widespread repute for integrity rendered him an attractive alternative to the domineering, controversial Badbadinta founder Abdullahi Yusuf. Yusuf, and eventually the Ethiopian regime that was his occasional sponsor, would soon accuse Abshir of sponsoring the numerous Islamist, and in particular Salafi, militants that appeared in Somalia during this period, though no proof was given to this effect. At most, Abshir could be accused of tolerating and perhaps sympathizing with the Itihaad group that briefly took over much of Puntland, primarily at his rival Yusuf’s expense, in 1992. Abshir’s pietism and his links to Saudi Arabia made him an easy target to be attacked as a “Wahhabi” zealot, though convincing evidence was never presented. Such polarizing claims were even more harmful given the famine that had broken out, which attracted a United Nations mission, led by the Algerian diplomat Mohamed Sahnoun and militarily captained by Pakistani officer Imtiaz Shaheen, over 1992-93.
The competition between Abshir and Yusuf never broke into warfare, largely because Majerteen clan elders managed to avoid an escalation. Nonetheless it soon took on regional and international implications. Because Abshir was loosely linked to his archrival Ali Mahdi, the Mogadishu commander Farah Aidid wanted to win Yusuf over to his side. The fact that Abshir, and not Yusuf, was invited to sign a peace accord on the Badabadinta Front’s behalf in Addis Ababa during early 1993 must have rankled the latter, and contributed to his prejudice against the Ali faction in favour of Aidid.
Aidid invited the United Nations’ Unisom mission to hold another peace accord at Mudug, but Unisom – correctly suspecting that Aidid wanted to use this as a pretext to weaken Abshir to Yusuf’s benefit – declined. Undeterred, Aidid and Yusuf signed a non-aggression pact in summer 1993 – a day before Aidid’s troops unwisely attacked a Pakistani Unisom convoy in Mogadishu. This threw the fat in the fire, and the United States stormed into the Somali fray in a hasty and ill-advised expedition against Aidid that culminated in the infamous Mogadishu battle four months later.
Even though Aidid had a son, Hussein, then serving in their army, the United States soon fixated on him as the ruthless warlord who had resisted the international community. By the same token, they warmed to his rivals, few as much as Abshir Musa. Based at the Bosaso port, Abshir was in a prime position to assist passage, and he was credited with using his influence to save American lives by their ambassador Robert Oakley, who would later call Abshir perhaps “the best Somali living.” The United Nations mission’s American advisor, April Glaspie, claimed that Abshir had accompanied her “through shot and shell” to secure the United Nations’ protection.
Be that as it may, Abshir lacked both the skill and ruthlessness to resist Abdullahi Yusuf’s steady advance. Though they formally buried the hatchet, Abshir left Somalia shortly after Yusuf secured his control over the Badbadinta and announced an autonomous Puntland emirate in summer 1998. He moved to the United States to get medical treatment for his disabled son, and that was the end of his relevance to Somali politics.
There was a very brief return that seemed to portend more promising things. In summer 2000, Abshir returned to Somalia and participated in an exploratory “parliament”, mediated by Djibouti, that sought to establish an interim government in a manner similar to Ethiopia’s later support of Yusuf in the mid-2000s. This “government” was led by Barre’s former interior minister Abdi Salad, but it was soon ousted amid significant opposition from key militia commanders – including Yusuf himself. Abshir’s relevance to this well-intended but shortlived project was that as the eldest member of this accord, he was elected this “parliament”‘s speaker – a purely symbolic role, but perhaps a fitting last hurrah.
There is a notable postscript. Perhaps because of his pietism, whispering campaigns by his enemies, or the dragnet approach to “radical Islam” by the United States after 2001, Abshir Musa was slapped with a deportation order in the mid-2000s. The situation had reversed itself curiously from 1993; now it was Abshir’s former rival Abdullahi Yusuf who, preparing to set himself up as the leader of a self-declared Somali government, was the toast of the international community and United States in particular. Happily enough, Abshir had sufficiently well-placed friends such as Oakley and Glaspie to prevent his deportation. Serving by now as an “elder statesman” to his local community rather than in Somali politics, he passed away in 2017.
Abshir Musa had been in the relatively small Somali elite that had dominated the postcolonial state’s early years and unlike several contemporaries was never accused of brutality or corruption. His political career extended beyond the Somali state’s dissolution and up to the civil war of the 1990s, where he was among the few leading figures who did not disgrace themselves. Yet these very qualities for which he was admired ultimately prevented him from playing more than a peripheral role in the Somali political arena.
FURTHER READING. Please note that these are not exhaustive sources; in some cases there is no satisfactory book on the military adventurer involved and often the researcher has to do more than simply fill in the dots. They are simply each the single best published books I have found, some of which are splendid and others not so.
William Daly; Darfur’s Sorrow: The forgotten history of a humanitarian disaster (Cambridge University Press, 2010).
Hazem Kandil; Soldiers, Spies, and Statesmen: Egypt’s road to revolt (Verso Books, 2012).
Abbas Milani; Eminent Persians: The men and women who made modern Iran, 1941-1979; Volume One (Syracuse University Press, 2008).
William Quandt; Revolution and Political Leadership: Algeria, 1954-1968 (MIT Press, 1970).
Philip Roessler, Ethnic Politics and State Power in Africa: The logic of the coup-civil war trap (Cambridge University Press, 2016).
Abdi Samatar; Africa’s First Democrats: Somalia’s Aden A. Osman and Abdirazak H. Hussen (Indiana University Press, 2016).