Today in Middle Eastern history: the 14 July Revolution (1958)

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We've talked recently about the British-Hashemite alliance that was forged in the Arab Revolt against the Ottomans during World War I. On the basis of that alliance, the Hashemites briefly became the dominant political force in the Arab world. At one time or another the Hashemites, with British assistance, were the preeminent Arab political power in Arabia, (Trans)Jordan, Syria, and Iraq. But after the 14 July 1958 coup that toppled their monarchy in Iraq, the family had lost everything except Jordan.

The British relationship with Sharif Hussein, the head of the Hashemite family and the ruler of the Hejaz, began to collapse even before the end of World War I. Hussein believed that Britain had promised him a pan-Arab state—with himself at the head naturally—in exchange for rebelling against the Ottomans, but as the war was ending he saw Syria-Lebanon handed over to the French, Palestine opened up to Jewish immigration, and Britain looking like it really had no intention of leaving Egypt, Transjordan, and Iraq. To be fair, London did allow Hussein to proclaim himself Caliph, and it really wasn’t Britain’s fault that almost nobody in the Islamic world accepted his claim. Nevertheless, Hussein complained, bitterly and repeatedly, to London, and was particularly fond of threatening to abdicate if the British weren’t going to make good on their promises to him.

Usually London would do something to pacify Hussein and talk him down from the ledge, but when his position in the Hejaz began to be seriously threatened by the Saud family ruling the neighboring Nejd (the middle of the Arabian Peninsula), and Hussein started to reach out diplomatically to the Soviets, the British government realized that it might be better off if the Saudis ran their client out of Mecca. Hussein’s final threats to abdicate were met, circa 1924, with a response that was something like, “don’t let the door hit you in the ass on your way out.” The Saudis chased him out of Mecca fast enough that the door wasn’t a real concern.

Hussein’s two sons, Abdullah and Faisal, both remained close British pals and were rewarded by being set up as client kings in the Transjordan and Iraq, respectively (Faisal initially tried to set himself up as King of Syria before France upended that plan in 1920). Abdullah’s descendants still rule Jordan, but the 1958 coup that is the subject of today’s post removed Faisal’s grandson, Faisal II, from the throne of Iraq—and from this this plane of existence, while we’re at it—and brought an end to Hashemite rule in Baghdad.

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Faisal II (Wikimedia Commons)

Faisal II has the somewhat remarkable distinction of having ruled his nation for over 19 years despite dying at the young age of 23. His father, Ghazi b. Faisal, crashed his race car and died in 1939, when Faisal was just shy of his fourth birthday. There were rumors, and who knows really, that Ghazi was murdered by his prime minister, Nuri al-Said—who isn’t going to escape this coup alive either, in case you’re wondering. Nuri engineered the young Faisal’s accession under the regency of Abd al-Ilah, who was Ghazi’s cousin and brother in-law, and yes he’s the third person we’ve met in this story who isn’t going to be alive by the end of it. I mention all of this in part to note that Faisal really kind of got a raw deal here. Many of the grievances that boiled over to fuel this coup had their roots in World War II, and Faisal had only just turned 10 years old by the time that war ended.

During World War II, as we know, Iraq was briefly controlled by a government sympathetic to the Axis, under a prime minister named Rashid Ali al-Gaylani. He rode a wave of Arab nationalism (or pan-Arabism if you prefer)—an ideology that obviously rejected British control of the country—to power, and in early May 1941 he drove Abd al-Ilah out of the country and took power for himself (Faisal II was all of six when this happened). Britain quickly invaded, and the subsequent Anglo-Iraqi War lasted well into…the end of that same month. But while Gaylani’s efforts went bust, the sentiment of Arab nationalism wasn’t going anywhere.

Once Abd al-Ilah was back in charge, it wouldn’t have been out of the question for the Hashemites to embrace this nationalist fever and run with it. After all, Sharif Hussein’s decision to declare himself Caliph shortly before the Saudis sent him packing was itself motivated by a kind of Arab nationalism. In fact, the Hashemites did try to adopt pan-Arabism in some ways in the 1940s. But in the 1950s, Arab nationalism mostly meant Nasserism, and Nasserism was anti-monarch and pro-republicanism (or pro-Nasser if we really want to be honest about it). This obviously wasn’t the kind of ideology that an Iraqi monarchy could really abide. But among the Iraqi population Arab nationalist sentiment continued to grow, and a group of Iraqi army officers looked at what Gamal Abdel Nasser and his fellow Egyptian army officers had done in 1952 and started to get some ideas.

The Hashemites were also a lousy conduit for Arab nationalism because for the most part they were still mostly taking orders from London. Britain was reluctant to leave Iraq altogether, especially after the Gaylani business, and so it continued to control a big chunk of the Iraqi oil industry as well as virtually the whole of Iraqi foreign policy. Iraqis, as you might imagine, resented this. Two mass uprisings, the 1948 al-Wathbah uprising in Baghdad and the 1952 Iraqi Intifada (which started in Basra but spread nationwide), showed how angry the Iraqi public was with the monarchy, but neither was able to affect real change either to Iraq’s government or to its servile relationship with Britain. Then Britain shoved Iraq into the “Baghdad Pact,” a 1955 anti-Soviet defense agreement with Iran, Pakistan, and Turkey, and the Iraqi public hated it. Later, when the Hashemites rejected the idea of joining Nasser’s United Arab Republic (a short-lived union of Egypt and Syria) but proposed instead establishing a Britain-approved union with Hashemite Jordan, that didn’t go over very well either.

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Abd al-Karim Qasim (Wikimedia Commons)

Ultimately, it took those army officers to pull off the revolution. They, under the leadership of General Abd al-Karim Qasim (d. 1963) and Colonel Abdul Salam Arif (d. 1966), formed a “Free Officers Movement”—just like the Egyptian group that had carried out their 1952 revolution—and began plotting a coup. They sought material support from Nasser and the UAR, but didn’t get it. It didn’t really matter. On July 14, 1958, Arif marched a brigade of soldiers into Baghdad, took over the radio station there, and proclaimed that Iraq was now a republic. The junta executed Faisal and Abd al-Ilah later that morning, and captured and executed Nuri al-Said the following day. Subsequent days saw waves of retributive attacks against supporters of the monarchy all across Baghdad, mostly encouraged by Arif.

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Abdul Salam Arif (Wikimedia Commons)

Qasim set himself up as prime minister and accrued most of the power in the post-revolutionary republic—which, to be fair, was as much authoritarian as republican. Arif, on the other hand, quickly found himself on the outs, because he and Qasim turned out to have some very significant ideological disagreements. Arif really believed in pan-Arabism, for example, whereas it turned out that Qasim, his pre-coup rhetoric notwithstanding, didn’t. Arif was therefore keen to join Nasser’s UAR, while Qasim wanted no part of it. Qasim’s mother was Shiʿa, and he therefore had strong family ties to Iraq’s Shiʿa community. Shiʿa, a minority within the Arab world, tended to view pan-Arabism skeptically, and Qasim seems to have viewed Nasser skeptically. At the very least, the new Iraqi leader didn’t seem too thrilled about ceding his new authority to the Egyptian president. Qasim sacked Arif in September and eventually had him arrested. Increasingly divested from his allies, Qasim gravitated toward the Iraqi Communist Party, which added Washington to his growing list of enemies.

It took a couple of years but Arif eventually had the last laugh, because he and his Arab Socialist Union party joined the Baʿathist-led 1963 Ramadan Revolution, which overthrew (with some level of CIA assistance, though the extent of it remains open to debate) Qasim’s government and executed Qasim himself. Arif then became the president of Iraq, a job he held until his death in a helicopter crash (that was probably arranged by the Baʿathists, but I digress).