Ghassan Charbel
Editor-in-Chief of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper

Africa... Beware the Republican Guard 

The president has the right to sleep at ease. What more do the people want? He threw himself into the fire to save them. Forget about the grudges of journalists and social media users. The interests of the opposition that only care about pouncing on the feats. Forget about poverty, unemployment and illiteracy.

Forget about behind the scenes talk about looted and wasted funds. About bank accounts in foreign countries. The groans of prisoners in detention. Most of all, forget about the constitution. Forget about the reports of ambassadors to their presidents in the West. Forget about how they report about human rights abuses, the lack of transparency and the exploitation of the judiciary to persecute the opposition.

Democracy is a western construct that has barely gotten off the ground. Remedies that are made from our own societies, diseases, traditions and norms are better suited for us.

He has the right to sleep. His fate is in safe hands. The republican guard can be fully trusted. They are hired from the very flesh of the regime, appointed from the hometown of the leader, and share his ethnicity and affiliations.

His aides have been chosen carefully. The guards are not mere guards. They are a powerful force that has been provided with the most modern weapons. Their members have received the best training. France, Israel or the Wagner group. Weapons and loyalty can transform a palace into a fortress. Moreover, “special forces” are an extension of the republican guard and of the same blood. This means radio stations will never be taken over and no coup can be declared over their airwaves.

The president is greatly at ease. He forgets that betrayal often lurks among those closest to him. The stab in the back often comes from a close associate, the republican guard or the special forces. It comes from the man who spent years making the salute and swearing to shed blood in defense of his president.

All this crossed my mind as I witnessed the military coups in Africa. There is always a colonel around who is looking at his watch, who believes he is a savior and holds magical solutions to poverty, unemployment and even global warming. The colonel is hungry for power.

I recalled what I once learned from the commander of the Republican Guard in Iraq. Ibrahim al-Daoud was the commander and Abdul Rahman Arif was the confident president. With Daoud in command, the republican guard swore allegiance to the president on several occasions.

When Arif received information that moves were being made against him, he did not hide his sense of security: “Ibrahim will come to them.” Little did he know that it was Ibrahim who led the coup in July 1968. Among the coupists were Saddam Hussein, Salah Omar al-Ali and Barzan al-Tikriti.

I once asked al-Daoud why he betrayed his friend. He replied that Arif may have been president, but he acted like an employee who was always looking at his watch to see when his shift is over. Rumors of corruption circulated around several of his friends.

The Baathists who stormed the presidential palace named al-Daoud defense minister. They would betray him in a matter of months, and he would be forced into exile.

Let us go back to Africa. A few years ago, the prevalent sentiment was that the continent had abandoned military coups that were common between the 1970s and 90s during the Cold War. Several books have been written about the lessons learned from generations of military figures who stormed presidential palaces under showy slogans before they too were overthrown in another coup or revolt.

In the last three years, we again witnessed colonels seizing power in western and central African nations. We saw what happened in Mali, Guinea, Burkina Faso, Chad, Niger and finally Gabon. Africa was having a tough time. Eight coups in three years. Let’s not forget conflicts, mercenaries and the threat of ISIS and other extremist groups.

The latest coups are taking place during a critical time on the international arena. Europe is being knocked around by the Russian war on Ukraine. The United Nations Security Council is effectively out of service. American-Chinese relations are witnessing a crisis unprecedented since Henry Kissinger “opened” the Chinese continent to counter Soviet ambitions.

The greatest weakness emerged in Europe, which was quick to take shelter under the NATO umbrella and American generosity to prevent Putin from declaring victory.

France failed in inheriting the role of Britain, which had exited Europe. It could not inherit the role of post-Angela Merkel Germany. The coups showed that France is no longer what it used to be. It is no longer easy for it to dispatch forces to restore an ousted friendly ruler back to power.

It is evident that France had failed in containing the negative sentiments still harbored by former African colonies. These sentiments were reinforced when African rulers were seen paving the way for French companies that did not hesitate in sending “gifts” to people in power. The youths began to see successive governments as fronts for French policy.

Of course, France cannot solely be held responsible. The responsibility primarily lies with those who abused constitutions and refused to build state institutions and improve education, healthcare and job opportunities. The Africans were left disappointed with the ballot boxes, with elections failing to introduce change. Moreover, some policies have stoked ethnic and racial conflicts.

Africa is a young continent. In half a century, its population will rival those of China and India. It will become a formidable market and can act as a major factory of the world if quality education is provided to its people.

Africa lies on a wealth of oil, gas and minerals that entice Beijing and Washington. Four players are active in Africa: France, whose role appears to be waning, and Russia, whose role may wane due to its war in Ukraine. This leaves the competition between the US and China.

Given the international developments and the major failures in Africa, the world can expect more “betrayals” by republican guards. The guards are another player. At times they can oust a president and at others, refuse to come to their defense.