Military Defection and the Arab Spring
Summary and Keywords
The protests that began in Tunisia in December 2010, and quickly spread across the Arab world, have drawn significant attention to the impact of militaries and coercive institutions on protests and revolutionary movements. The actions of the militaries were a central determinant of the outcomes of the uprisings of 2010–2011. In Tunisia and Egypt the decision by military leaders to abstain from using force on mass protests to suppress them led to the downfall of the countries’ autocrats. In Syria and Bahrain, militaries defended political leaders with brutal force. In Yemen and Libya, militaries fractured, with some units remaining allied to the leader and using force on his behalf and others defecting. In still other states, leaders and militaries were able to forestall the emergence of large, regime-threatening protests.
To explain these divergent outcomes, scholars and analysts have looked to a variety of explanatory factors. These focus on the attributes of the militaries involved, their civil-military relations, the size and social composition of the protests, the nature of the regime’s institutions, and the impact of monarchical traditions. These explanations offer many useful insights, but several issues remain under-studied. These include the impact of authoritarian learning and diffusion on protest trajectory. They also include the endogeneity of the protests to the nature of a country’s civil-military relations (i.e., how preexisting patterns of civil-military relations affected the possibility that incipient demonstrations would escalate to mass protests). Scholars also have been understandably captivated by the aforementioned pattern of military defection-loyalty, focusing on explaining that observed difference at the expense of studying other dependent variables. The next generation of scholarship on the uprisings therefore would benefit from efforts to conceptualize and investigate different aspects of variation in military behavior.
Overall, the first-generation literature has proved enormously useful and laid the foundation for a much richer understanding of military behavior and reactions to popular uprisings in the Arab world and beyond.
At the end of 2010, few foresaw that a wave of popular uprisings against Arab dictators would soon engulf the Middle East, let alone that Arab militaries would play such a pivotal role in shaping their outcomes. Indeed, when the protests began in Tunisia in mid-December 2010, they looked like just another bout of tumult over a lack of opportunities in the neglected center of that country. Unlike previous episodes of protest, however, these demonstrations spread to other towns in Tunisia, along the way drawing in new societal constituencies, eventually making their way to the wealthy coast and the streets of the capitol. As in subsequent uprisings in the region, police forces proved unable to contain the protests. The Tunisian military deployed to the streets to protect infrastructure, but it otherwise did little to disperse the protests and repress the uprising. When the military failed to defend the regime and the security forces proved increasingly incapable of doing so, on January 14, 2011, the country’s dictator, Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali made a last-minute decision to board a plane for Saudi Arabia. It was likely as much a surprise to him as to other Tunisians that he would never return to the country he had governed for more than two decades.
Less than two weeks later, Egyptian activists held protests on January 25, a day intended by the regime to commemorate the police in Egypt. Despite the shocking turn of events in Tunisia, few experts thought at the time that the country’s president, Hosni Mubarak, would suffer the same fate as Ben Ali. Unlike in Tunisia, the military was a powerful actor that enjoyed close ties to President Mubarak, himself a former commander of the Air Force. Yet, protests swelled in the country’s major cities. By the end of January, the military had announced it would not fire indiscriminately on protesters to disperse them. As events escalated, Mubarak offered concessions, but the protesters, unmoved, continued to press for his removal from office. A long speech on February 10, in which Mubarak failed to announce he was stepping down, despite many Egyptians’ anticipation he would do so, sparked outrage in the streets. The following day the military orchestrated his ouster. In less than a month, popular movements in the Arab world had forced two dictators out—in both cases winning the complicity of their military establishments to do so.
In February 2011, a wave of protests began to spread across the Arab world. In some places, especially in the Gulf monarchies of Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Oman, and Qatar, protests remained small. In others places protests were significant, as in Morocco, Jordan, and Kuwait, but did not escalate to the point that citizens called for removal of the regimes. After leaders offered payoffs and in some cases limited concessions for reform, these protests largely subsided or were contained. With the exception of Bahrain, which would witness a large protest by its Shia majority population, the monarchies avoided regime-threatening protests. In Bahrain, the uprising ended after military and security forces, backed up by foreign mercenaries and aided by foreign troops, used force to disperse the protesters.
In Libya, protests began in February and quickly became violent after elite units headed by family members of Mu’ammar al-Gaddafi forcefully resisted the burgeoning uprisings. While military units headed by these family members remained loyal, others abandoned the regime and a rebellion centered in the western part of the country gained steam. These elements would coalesce into a rebel force that would eventually defeat Gaddafi’s military, and force the dictator from office, after NATO intervened in March 2011 to prevent a humanitarian disaster in the city of Benghazi. As in Libya, in Yemen the military also split along family and tribal lines. Some forces remained loyal to the country’s longtime president, Ali Abdullah Saleh and others abandoned the president. International actors sought to mediate a resolution, which would eventually result in Saleh leaving office.
For the first month of the tumult, it looked like Syria might avoid the fate of its neighbors and there would not be mass protests against the regime. Then in March the regime’s brutal treatment of several teenagers who had graffitied anti-regime sentiment in the city of Dera’a sparked outrage. Protests began, and it quickly became clear that the security forces and military would not only defend the regime, but do so brutally. The senior officer corps, led by the Alawi minority privileged in Bashar al-Assad’s regime, remained allied. While Syrian army units would eventually lose large numbers of deserting Sunni soldiers and some officers, many remained, including from the Sunni majority; no intact military units defected, even when the conflict later metastasized into a civil-war.1
In short, in just a matter of months popular uprisings had swept the region, leaving in their wake a combination of turned-out leaders, violent repression, and resurgent autocratic regimes. In each case, the military’s actions and its decision to repress protests were pivotal to the outcome.
The variable responses by the militaries in the region presented scholars with an apparent puzzle: why did some militaries use force to defend the regimes and others defect, thereby precipitating the leader’s departure from office? There was no ready answer to this puzzle. With some important exceptions, many theorists of revolution had little to say about the military’s role in popular uprisings (Barany, 2016, pp. 8–10). There was scant scholarship on Arab militaries by regional specialists; the study of coercive forces remained a niche and neglected field of study (Springborg, 2014). Theories of authoritarianism in comparative politics were also of little help. That vibrant and growing literature had heretofore largely neglected the coercive apparatus, as one analyst observes, preferring to explore the “democratic-looking” aspects of authoritarianism, such as parties and legislatures, rather than delve into the complexities of coercion and its perpetrators (Art, 2012).
Scholars and analysts, now reminded so vividly of the military’s role in leadership survival, sought to account for the striking events of the Arab Spring and the military’s role in shaping them. What followed was an onslaught of efforts to account for the puzzle of Arab military behavior during the uprisings. More than a dozen edited volumes by experts on the region, alongside a few sole authored books, were published.2 This accompanied what was now a flood of articles, conference papers, online commentaries, and journalistic reporting. Generally, these explanations seek to explain the apparent puzzle of military behavior in the Arab Spring, framed primarily in terms of the propensity for the military to defect, or not, when dictators faced a large protest calling for regime change.
These explanations can be grouped into several categories. The dominant variant focuses on some attribute(s) of these militaries or their civil-military relations to explain their responses to the 2011 uprisings. This includes arguments about the militaries’ bureaucratic features, cohesion, and ideational influences on military officers, as well as the implications of political leaders’ use of coup-proofing tactics. Other explanations stress the importance of societal factors and features of the uprising, alone or in combination with military attributes. A final class of explanation focuses on regime type or larger structural factors, such as the availability of hydrocarbon rents.
This scholarly literature is reviewed. A review of this scholarly literature is provided. While an exhaustive exploration of all the research on Arab militaries’ roles in the uprisings is impossible, key works and core themes are highlighted. For all the efforts to explain the events of the Arab Spring, however, many crucial issues remain neglected. Hence, a second section reviews three issues that scholars working on the next generation of scholarship on militaries and mass uprisings (and other issues related to the coercive apparatus and civil-military relations) might consider as they craft their research projects are explored. These include: the necessity of rethinking the dependent variables scholars adopt when studying military responses to popular uprisings; incorporating the impact of diffusion and authoritarian learning; and thinking more about the endogeneity of societal uprisings to civil-military relations.
Explaining Military Reactions to the 2011 Uprisings in the Arab World
The main classes of explanations for military behavior in the Arab Spring are reviewed. Arguments that focus on the attributes of the military are presented first.
Among the most influential analyses of military behavior in the Arab Spring is Eva Bellin’s article “Reconsidering the Robustness of Authoritarianism in the Middle East” (Bellin, 2012).3 In the piece, Bellin argues that a major cause of the variation in military behavior is the “institutionalized” versus “patrimonial” basis of military bureaucracies. Militaries exhibiting high levels of “institutionalization” are, in the spirit of Max Weber, “rule governed, predictable, and meritocratic.” They forgo predatory behavior toward society, promote officers based on performance, and evince a strong corporate ethos. Bellin contends these militaries are better prepared to “disengage from power and allow political reform to proceed” because they will not be “ruined by reform” (Bellin, 2004, p. 145). She argues that the institutionalized character of the military in Tunisia and Egypt, in combination with the costs of repressing the expansive protests that occurred in the countries, explain why both militaries defected from their autocrats.
In contrast, patrimonial militaries are organized around personal ties between a leader and his subordinates, which are based on primordial affiliations. These regimes have an informal structure organized around a central figure in which there is a deficit of institutions. Political loyalty and partisan criteria are paramount in personnel selection and senior officer appointments. Patronage and corruption cement these bonds. In this informal and highly personalistic incarnation of civil-military relations, military leaders depend on the ongoing support of the country’s leader to retain their positions and keep the regime intact. This depresses the emergence of a corporate ethos and renders these regimes invulnerable to reformist efforts. Bellin argues that this patrimonial aspect of civil-military relations in Syria and Bahrain explains why they are willing to defend the regimes, and why units headed by tribal or sectarian bonds in Yemen and Libya stayed allied, especially when faced with protests led by opposing social forces.4
Some scholars have raised analytical and empirical questions about the usefulness of the institutional versus patrimonial distinction. Lutterbeck, for example, agrees that institutionalization is an important characteristic of militaries, but questions whether Egypt’s military fully exemplifies the type (Lutterbeck, 2013). The Egyptian military is hierarchical, retains substantial autonomy and appears to adhere to routinized bureaucratic processes, but it does not meet the standards of a rational, meritocratic Weberian bureaucracy. Some analysts, for example, highlight the importance of political criteria, including a demonstrated willingness to play by the rules of the autocratic system, in promotions and appointments, especially of senior officers. The military is structured to ensure junior officers’ political quiescence and compliance within the senior military leadership, resulting in inefficient organizational practices (Brooks, 1998; Clement & Springborg, 2011). Junior officers who toe the line are promoted and can look forward to payoffs in the form of sizable sinecures upon their eventual retirement; these create powerful inducements for them to comply with the norms and practices of the organization within the autocratic state (Bou Nassif, 2013; Sayigh, 2012; Abdul-Magd, 2012).
The receptivity to reform associated with institutionalized militaries is also absent in the Egyptian case. The military’s equivocation and ambivalence toward the agenda of the protesters in 2011, and its subsequent actions during the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF)-led transition that followed Mubarak’s ouster (including the concerted effort to preserve and enhance military prerogatives) suggest it was far from open to reform (Masoud, 2011; Taylor, 2014; Lutterbeck, 2011). More opportunist than reformist, to many analysts, the military in 2011 simply exploited an opportunity to sideline Mubarak, and forestall the succession of his son Gamal to the presidency (Frisch, 2013).
Joshua Stacher’s analysis of Egypt and Syria in his book Adaptable Autocrats raises an alternative set of issues about the utility of the patrimonialist distinction in accounting for military actions during the Arab spring (Stacher, 2012). Rather than characterizing Syria as bereft of institutions and plagued by idiosyncrasies and informalities (as patrimonialism implies), he points to the distinctive configuration of power and authority within the regime. The problem for Syria, as Stacher describes it, is not that it lacks institutions and routinized ways of operating, but that its decentralized authority structure renders it difficult to adapt to changes in the ruling coalition. Power and authority are not concentrated in the presidency but reside within various power centers within the regime, including in the Baath party, military, and security services. Consequently, the members of the regime coalesced in favor of defending the system in which Bashar al-Assad was the lynchpin. In Egypt, in contrast, presidential authority was much greater and power was centralized in the executive. Stacher argues that this allowed the SCAF to step in and replace Mubarak, facilitating the regime’s adaptation to changing political circumstances. Unlike in Syria, the military did not have to fear the collapse of the regime should the dictator be replaced.
Stacher’s argument speaks to an important theme in Bellin’s work about the costs and risks to the military of jettisoning political leaders. One byproduct of institutionalization is that militaries are able to retain organizational autonomy and integrity apart from the political leadership; therefore they can continue their “distinct mission, identity and career path” independently from the leader (Bellin, 2012, p. 133; Bellin, 2004). This insight and its underlying implications are a pervasive theme in explanations about the Egyptian military’s actions in January and February 2011.5 The fact that the military could walk away from Mubarak without disintegrating seems crucial to understanding its decisions in January and February 2011.
How far this aspect of institutionalization actually goes toward explaining military behavior, however, is disputed by Michael Makara. As he describes it, the military’s institutionalization in Egypt may have created the option to separate from the president, but the limited costs the military organization faced in abandoning Mubarak does not explain why in the first place its senior leaders wanted to jettison him. In other words, the ease of separation could have affected the military’s decision calculus by reducing the costs to the organization of sidelining Mubarak, but there were other factors that also shaped that decision. In fact, a broader look outside the Middle East suggests that institutionalization itself cannot explain a military’s response to a popular uprising, even one that is large and socially expansive. Barany notes that there are many militaries that are institutionalized, as in the communist world, that have supported their highly corrupt leaders in office and engaged in repression on their behalf (Barany, 2016, p. 19). Lee’s analysis of the Burmese military is instructive and reveals a case where an institutionalized military saw repression as very much in its interest and was able to induce its soldiers to execute the orders without fail (Lee, 2015).
To answer the question of why a military would refuse to defend a leader requires a more complete specification of the military’s preferences and decision-making calculus during an unfolding uprising. In his book How Armies Respond to Revolutions and Why, Barany seeks to provide such a framework. He identifies a variety of factors that might shape a military’s decisions in response to popular uprisings, grouping them into four categories: “military factors,” such as the military’s cohesion; “state factors,” such as the regime’s treatment of the military; “societal factors,” such as the size, composition, and nature of the protests; and “external factors,” including the potential for foreign intervention. He proposes that this template can be applied, when the relevant information is available, to different cases and the military’s response foretold. Barany explicitly rejects the possibility of grand theorizing about what drives military responses, preferring instead to outline the variety of considerations that could matter in any given instance.6
William C. Taylor adopts a similar approach, compiling a somewhat narrower list of factors that might shape military behavior and grouping them into “restraints” versus “interests” (Taylor, 2014). These focus on issues such as the military’s efforts to protect its social esteem; whether or not it is fending off a challenge from a competing Ministry of Interior; and the military’s efforts to protect its budget from scrutiny. Like Barany, Taylor rejects the possibility of theorizing about when or why such factors might matter in a particular military’s decision-making calculus, preferring to allow for the possibility that any consideration could prove influential in any given case. These scholars’ reticence to overgeneralize and make untenable claims is admirable. They may be premature, however, in dismissing the possibility that there are in fact general patterns in civil-military relations that render some factors more important for some militaries in their decisions to defect from autocrats during popular uprisings. Indeed, other scholarship suggests that there are observable patterns that can explain the decision-making calculus of Arab militaries. This scholarship is discussed below.
Civil-Military Relations and Coup-Proofing
A second class of explanation suggests that there are clear differences in civil-military relations that yield different calculations by military leaders during uprisings. Rather than focusing on the attributes of the military alone, the focus of these scholars is on the relationship between the political leader and military. For example, several scholars hypothesize that the mechanisms that autocrats employ to safeguard against military coups determines whether the armed forces will defect from a political leader during an uprising.
Theodore McLauchlin, writing before the Arab uprisings, contrasts two strategies for generating the army’s loyalty: providing individual rewards and incentives and relying on group-based strategies that exploit ethnic ties to cement in-group bonds. These strategies affect the incidence of military defection through their effects on the information available to soldiers about the likelihood of regime survival.7 When loyalty is secured with individual incentives, soldiers in a popular revolt may doubt whether others will remain loyal and therefore whether the regime will survive; a cascade of defection ensues. In a situation in which the leader relies on ethnic (and likely also sectarian) selection, however, soldiers are reassured that others will stay loyal and the regime will endure. Consequently, “During an out-group rebellion, out-group soldiers might well defect to the opposition but in-group soldiers should remain loyal, placing strong limits on the defection cascade” (McLauchlin, 2010, p. 9). The approach is remarkably prescient in accounting for the pattern of elite loyalty and rank and file desertions that occurred in the Syrian military, where sectarian selection was practiced. Equally important, McLauchlin focuses on the centrality of information and strategic assessments that military personnel make during protests—phenomena that are often neglected in the scholarship on the Arab Spring.8
Both Bou Nassif and Makara discriminate among alternative coup-proofing methods—tactics leaders employ in order to effect the incentives and capacity of the military to engage in a coup d’ etat—to account for patterns of military defection.9 These methods create different incentives for military leaders to employ force in defense of a leader. Makara distinguishes among strategies based on balancing with parallel security institutions, employing material incentives, and exploiting communal bonds. The former two methods foster competition with non-military forces, thereby creating incentives for military leaders to defect in the event of an uprising (Makara, 2013, pp. 334–359). Bou Nassif draws similar distinctions, contrasting a strategy based on counterbalancing, on material incentives, versus on shared aversions. He argues that these strategies have variable implications for the military’s will and capacity to fire on protesters, emphasizing in particular how they create divisions between senior and junior officers and complicate the former’s decision to engage in repression (Bou Nassif, 2015a, pp. 245–275).
An alternative argument focuses on the “strategies of political control” employed by Autocrats. Ben Ali’s approach, for example, involved the military’s marginalization from political institutions and other constraints on its political influence, shaped the Tunisian military’s response to the uprising (Brooks, 2013, pp. 205–210). This strategy and its effects on the nature of the Tunisian military explain not only why senior officers failed to fire on large congregations of Tunisians protesting against the Ben Ali regime, but also why they did not even engage in more private and selective uses of repression to defend the regime (unlike their counterparts in Egypt), as well as the reasons for the military leadership’s peripheral role in managing the regime crisis in December 2010–January 2011 (Brooks, 2013). Moreover, marginalization is just one among several strategies that autocrats employ to secure political control of the military. Others include a “grand bargain” in which a political leader forges a deal with the senior military leadership to secure his position, and “divide and rule,” in which a leader forges bilateral deals with the chiefs of autonomous military units and manages a decentralized military and security structure (Brooks, 2013, 2016).
Examining the strategies of political control autocrats employ, in turn, can help illuminate several features of Arab militaries. The approaches that Ben Ali and Mubarak employed to secure the military’s complicity in their rule, for example, helps account for why the military enjoyed so much institutional autonomy in Tunisia and Egypt. It thus illuminates the source of the “institutionalizaton” that Bellin and others argue explains why they defected from their autocrats. It also explains why both militaries, albeit for different reasons, were excluded from daily coercive and regime maintenance functions. This, in turn, is crucial to understanding why these militaries both had significant social esteem, and why they then sought to retain it by not engaging in repression in early 2011. This approach also calls attention to the truly puzzling nature of the elite consensus that emerged in response to the uprising in Syria. When autocrats control the military with a divide and rule strategy, power is decentralized and there are significant centripetal pressures for factionalism and unit defection (Lee, 2015). Why, then, were military and security elites in Syria able to so capably coalesce and unify in support of a brutally repressive response to the initial uprisings? In short, by identifying fundamental features of coup-proofing or political control in autocracies, we can begin to see patterns in why militaries react so differently to the 2011 popular uprisings.
A third set of explanations focuses on the internal cohesion of the military and intra-military dynamics in shaping the decisions of the military elite (Barany, 2016; Bou Nassif, 2015a; Lee, 2015). Maintaining cohesion is often seen to be a major priority of militaries with a strong corporate ethos. Some argue, for example, that concerns about risks to cohesion were integral to the decision by the Egyptian and Tunisian militaries not to fire on protesters in 2011 (Bellin, 2012). Senior military leaders feared that ordering junior officers and their subordinates to repress regular citizens would test their loyalties and lead to splits within the organization.
In particular, this body of scholarship underscores the importance for understanding military actions in the Arab Spring of the different interests and priorities of senior versus junior officers and enlisted and conscripted personal. These generate divergent incentives to support a regime, and costs and risks of disloyalty, which in turn complicate the military elite’s decision to order subordinates to repress protesters (Barany, 2016, pp. 26–28). Bou Nassif argues, for example, that it was the inability to ensure that junior officers would execute an order to fire that forced the senior military leadership’s hand in abandoning Mubarak. In contrast, Syrian military leaders could engage in repression without risking a major fracture of the organization (Bou Nassif, 2015a, pp. 245–275). Dorothy Ohl and Holger Albrecht also focus on intra-military dynamics, focusing on a commander versus subordinate’s decision-making calculus, and highlighting the interdependence of their choices. For a military commander, assessments about the probability that the regime will survive and his ability to coordinate with other commanders is fundamental to a decision to stay loyal to the regime. Subordinates are much more concerned with their economic and physical well-being in calculating the risks of desertion (Albrecht & Ohl, 2016). This attention to the strategic dynamics of intra-military decision-making represents an important new area of scholarship on military responses to popular uprisings.
Some scholars have also looked to normative factors and the ideational character of the officer corps to explain the Tunisian and Egyptian militaries’ restraint during the uprisings. Scholars have suggested that these militaries were professional and in the case of Tunisia, “apolitical” (Cook, 2011). According to this line of argument, officers would have seen it as inappropriate for them to become involved during regime crises and hence the decision to stand aside was simply a reflection of their professionalism and commitment to maintain their mandate to protect the security of the state from external adversaries.
Some have argued that a prominent source of these normative beliefs is the foreign military training these militaries have received (Blair, 2012, pp. 3–16; McKenzie & Packard, 2011). For example, the percent of military officer corps participating in the United States’ International Military Education Training (IMET) program from 2000 to 2009 in Tunisia was nearly 4%, and in Egypt it was 2.5%, which amounts, respectively, to more than 1,400 officers and 11,000 (Taylor, 2014, pp. 12–19). The claim is that exposure to “Western values” and norms about the appropriate role of the military in the state account for the restraint of the Tunisian and Egyptian militaries in early 2011.
There are several empirical problems10 with this argument that William Taylor’s extensive analysis of these issues highlights.11 For example, the military that had the highest percentage participation in IMET—Bahrain’s at nearly 15% with 8,000 officers educated—quite willingly engaged in brutal repression of protesters. While Bahrain could be an outlier, Taylor’s large-n analysis does not support a correlation between military restraint and IMET participation. In addition, according to Taylor, foreign officers’ time in the United States as participants in IMET rendered them more critical of the United States, rather than less; this belies that they were readily socialized to Western norms of civil-military relations. Indeed, Egypt’s President Sisi’s stint at the Army War College seems to have done little to socialize him against intervention in politics, let alone repression of the regime’s civilian opponents (Kirkpatrick, 2014).
Social Structure of the Military and Nature of the Uprising
Another class of arguments focuses on the relationship between the military and society to explain military decisions in the Arab uprisings. Scholars emphasize the degree to which the military is representative of the social make-up of the country at large. Lutterbeck, for example, argues that the less overlap between the composition of the military and society at-large, the more willing is the leadership to order the use of fire to suppress protesters (Lutterbeck, 2013).
The selective recruitment and appointment from particular religious sects, group, or tribes, is critical in this regard. This is observed in Syria where major military positions are held by members of the Alawi religious sect, in Libyan and Yemen where particular tribes were favored, and in Bahrain where the Shia majority was excluded from the Sunni force. According to this line of argument, selection from particular groups deemed loyal or allied to the regime reinforced the bonds between the military and leader, rendering those forces more willing to use force in the latter’s defense (Barany, 2011).12
Conscription, in contrast, generally renders the military more representative of the population at large, especially in a homogenous society. This overlap between the composition of the military and society at-large, complicates repression against a mass uprising. As noted, asking soldiers to fire on a population with whom they identify can produce substantial disaffection and potential insubordination.13 Relying on a conscript army therefore might constrain military elites who prioritize protecting the cohesion of their institution. The Syrian military leadership’s embrace of repression despite the steady attrition of its Sunni conscripts, however, suggests that these considerations are not always paramount in the decision-making calculus.14
These differences in the social bases of the military become especially important when we consider variation in the size and composition of the uprisings that faced the Arab states (Bellin, 2012; Barany, 2016, pp. 35–36). In both Tunisia and Egypt the protests were not only large, but eventually came to represent a large cross-section of society.15 As discussed, many scholars contend that the threats to military cohesion posed by repressing such a protest were a major factor in the senior military leadership’s decision to forgo repression. In contrast, protests in Syria started out in peripheral towns and were small to start, consisting of members of the majority Sunni population; major constituencies stayed allied to the regime, such as those of Christian minority populations and the Sunni business elite, and the geographical scope of the protests was limited. For example, with the exception of the suburbs, protests did not extend to the city of Damascus. Yet, the fact that a Sunni-led protest movement sought changes in the regime that would likely have curtailed the privileges of the Alawi elite is vital to understanding the incentives of the Alawi-dominated officer corps to forcefully repress the protests.16
Autocratic Regime Type
A final class of explanations focuses on the regime type of the autocratic state. Research by Stepan, Linz, and Chehabi and by Barbara Geddes, for example, suggests that differences in autocratic regime type, including whether or not the regimes are personalist,17 single-party, or military regimes could be significant in understanding how resilient they were against popular uprisings and the incentives of militaries to turn against their leaders. There is, however, no consensus about how to characterize the regime types of the Arab Spring states as well what different regime types imply for the likelihood of military defection. Geddes, for example, labels states like Egypt, Syria, and Tunisia hybrid regimes. Jack Goldstone groups all the regimes together as “increasingly corrupt sultanistic regimes.” He contends that such regimes are vulnerable to revolutionary uprisings (Goldstone, 2011; Barany, 2011). Geddes, in contrast, finds that sultanistic regimes are resilient and that military regimes are more vulnerable to challenge (Geddes, 2003).
These arguments also mistakenly conflate variation in civil-military relations with variation in regime type. Consequently, scholars may conclude that regime type explains military behavior, when it is more specific aspects of civil-military that are causally important (Brooks, 2008; Biddle & Zirkle, 1996, pp. 171–212). For example, Ben Ali’s leadership of many key institutions in Tunisia had become increasingly consistent with a personalist regime, especially with the elevation of his family to positions of influence and decision-making reverting to the palace in Carthage. Yet, the dictator managed his relations with his military forces in quite a different manner. As noted, he marginalized his officers, excluding them from key centers of power. And it is this strategy of political control—not the broader personalist character of the regime—that proves critical to understanding the reasons why military leaders refrained from using force to safeguard Ben Ali’s position in office.
A second set of arguments about regime type focuses on the impact of monarchy versus republican regimes in shaping the trajectory of the Arab uprisings. With the exception of Bahrain, the states that withstood major regime threatening protests were all monarchies.18 Some have consequently argued that monarchies endured the Arab spring uprisings because they retain “a special cultural authenticity,” and legitimacy (Yom, 2012; Menaldo, 2012; Brumberg, 2011; Gause, 2013). They can draw on long historical legacies, popularity, and therefore “manage to still be autocrats, but in a less overt way” (Hamid, 2011).
Gause questions those conclusions, noting the difficulty of substantiating the claim that monarchies are inherently more legitimate and their populations necessarily more acquiescent in their rule. Certainly the sizable protests focused on political reform that occurred in several monarchies, such as Morocco and Jordan, raises questions about their inherent immunity to popular discontent.19 Some analysts point instead to specific “sustaining mechanisms” and the credibility of a monarch’s promises for reform to account for their resilience.20 Alternatively, Gause and Yom suggest that the monarchies benefited from durable domestic coalitions, regional allies, and foreign supporters, including the United States. They also can use their wealth and hydrocarbon resources “to blunt popular demand for reform” (those without hydrocarbon resources, such as Jordan, can rely on aid from their Gulf allies) (Gause, 2013, p. 1).21 These countries’ resilience during the Arab Spring is therefore largely due to “oil and geopolitics” (Yom, 2012).22
Brownlee, Masoud, and Reynolds argue that the nature of the regime does matter. It does not necessarily explain why protest occurs, but it can help explain why the military will stay loyal or defect from a political leader in the event protest does erupt (Brownlee, Masoud, & Reynolds, 2015). They argue that states that experience hereditary succession (the monarchies plus Syria, with the accession of Bashar al-Assad after the death of his father, Hafez al-Assad) or have significant hydrocarbon resources had militaries that remained loyal to their autocrats during the Arab Spring. Hereditary succession intensifies the loyalty of the military to the leader, while rents allow the dictators to compensate militaries for their allegiance, maximizing the autocrat’s “despotic power.” In the important case of Syria, however, the research cited previously suggests that other features of the regime might better account for military elites’ loyalty to Bashar al-Assad than the fact that his father was able to convince the country’s military and security barons to accept his son as his successor.
Springborg probes further into the apparent exceptionalism of the monarchies, asking whether they exhibit some common pattern in their militaries that distinguishes them from the republics in the region (Springborg, 2014). His analysis suggests that the importance of the monarchy-republic distinction is overstated, at least as it applies to civil-military relations. For example, he contends that Jordan and Morocco both have reasonably high levels of institutionalization like their republican counterparts in Tunisia and Egypt. Similarly, the familial dynamics that are key to civil-military relations in the Gulf monarchies such as Saudi Arabia and Bahrain also occur in Syria, Yemen, and Libya. Hence there are differences and similarities both within and across monarchies and their republican counterparts in the nature of the countries’ civil-military relations.
Finally it is worth remembering that there has been more variation in the susceptibility of the monarchies to protests than is sometimes appreciated. While Bahrain is an obvious outlier, Morocco, Jordan, and Kuwait experienced large protests, while Qatar, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, and Oman all avoided significant protests (Yom, 2012, pp. 74–88). Protests in the former did not devolve into calls for regime change, as they did elsewhere. Yet the fact that the protests occurred but were diffused and repressed before they escalated is intriguing. In other words, there might be more variation in Arab military behavior to be explained than scholars have heretofore appreciated.
Toward the Next Generation of Research on Militaries and Popular Uprisings
Despite the vast and ever growing literature on the Arab Spring and the military’s role within it, there remain some significant gaps and issues to be addressed in the scholarship.
Rethinking the Dependent Variable
First, future scholarship on military reactions to popular uprisings would benefit from greater attention to the conceptualization and measurement of the dependent variables under investigation. As the previous discussion highlights, scholars have devoted enormous efforts to identifying the causes of military decisions and actions during the 2011 protests. Yet, there has been surprisingly little scrutiny about the outcomes observed, and reflection on what precisely is to be explained about military behavior in 2011.
The most common approach within the extant literature is to focus on the “defection” of the military from the political leadership. What constitutes defection in any given study and how empirically it manifests, however, are rarely explicitly or systematically addressed. Moreover, there has been a lack of reflection about the assumptions built into the concept: from what precisely is the military defecting? Defection implies that the military is abrogating a basic commitment to defend the leader, but this is rarely specified or explained. Future research would benefit from explicitly articulating the underlying assumptions about autocratic politics that inform the concept of military defection, or other outcomes to be explained.23
One byproduct of scholars’ failure to reflect on their dependent variables is a tendency to collapse different phenomenon into the concept of defection. For example, researchers might refer at one point to the military “defecting,” and in the next, refer to its leaders’ “supporting the protesters.” These phenomena, however, are not interchangeable. The calculations that result in the military failing to defend a leader in office are likely distinct from a decision to coalesce with protesters in support of political reform; a military might refuse to use force on large congregations of protesters without having any interest in supporting those protesters’ political objectives. In the heady days of January and early February 2011, for example, many Egyptians saw the military as a benign ally of the “revolution.” Yet, in reality the Egyptian military’s unwillingness to defend Mubarak with force had little to do with any revolutionary sympathies, and a great deal to do with senior officers’ calculations about how best to protect their corporate interests (Springborg & Henry, 2011).
Scholars should also consider what else there is to be explained about military behavior beyond its use of indiscriminate force on mass congregations of protesters during the initial phases of regime contention. The dependent variable in much of the research to date on the uprisings has been rigidly framed around the stylized fact that some militaries fired on protesters and others did not. This narrow focus has obscured important differences in the roles played by the Tunisian and Egyptian militaries during the 2010–2011 uprisings. There were in fact dramatic differences in the centrality of military elites in decision-making. Consider that on the day that that Hosni Mubarak left office, the Egyptian military was holding meetings and orchestrating events, while the chief of staff of the Tunisian military was sent to work in the Ministry of Interior and was not informed of, let alone consulted about, Ben Ali’s decision to depart on a plane headed for Saudi Arabia (Jebnoun, 2014; Brooks, 2016).
The outcome of “repression” of the protests has also been too narrowly drawn in existing studies to capture the full variation in military behavior. True, neither the Tunisian nor the Egyptian military fired indiscriminately on mass congregations of protesters in large public spaces in December 2010 through February 2011. Yet, unlike the Tunisian military, the Egyptian military did use force. It just did so privately and (somewhat more) selectively in the detention and intimidation of protesters (McGreal, 2011). More subtle definitions and operationalization of the “use of force” would expose this variation. It would also speak to larger questions about repression in authoritarian regimes and the difference between a spectacular public display of ruthlessness versus the daily grind of discrete, mundane acts of authoritarian repression.24
Similarly, the outcome of “fracture” that is usually employed to describe outcomes in Libya and Yemen merits greater analytical scrutiny. Fracture is often characterized as an intermediate outcome between defection and loyalty. In Taylor’s analysis, for example, fracture is an ambiguous outcome that occurs when military interests and restraints are cross-cutting (Taylor, 2014, p. 51). There may be causal pathways, however, that produce fracture that are distinct from those that yield wholesale defection or loyalty. As Ohl and Albrecht argue, for example, there are distinct causes, related to the calculations of commanders and their subordinates, that explain the pattern of military disintegration, desertions, or unity (Albrecht & Ohl, 2016). In short, greater parsing or reconceptualization of dependent variables in future research might expose new differences and similarities in how militaries react to popular uprisings.
Diffusion and Authoritarian Learning
Scholars might also improve on the first generation of Arab Spring research with greater consideration of the dynamics of diffusion across uprisings (Hale, 2013, pp. 331–353; Weyland, 2012). The uprisings were not singular or even sequential events. They overlapped, and the events in one state were observed by those in other states across the region. 25 Demonstration effects in particular, and the lessons they imparted, are vital to understanding the pattern of protests.26 Tunisia’s success against its dictator influenced citizens in Egypt. Egypt’s example in turn reverberated among Arab populations across the region, as did subsequent events in Libya, Bahrain, and Syria (Patel, Bunce, & Wolchik, 2014). The violence observed in the latter as the uprisings evolved, for example, may have helped take the wind out of the protests in Jordan (Ryan, 2013, p. 125).
Activists and citizens, moreover, were not the only ones who learned by observing events across their borders. Political leaders and security forces also learned (Saideman, 2012, p. 718). As Heydemann and Leenders (2014) describe it, autocrats and their militaries were observing the development of other uprisings and the responses of armed forces, and calibrating their reactions and uses of force accordingly. In Syria, for example, they argue that the decision to respond aggressively and disproportionally to demonstrations and protests in March were driven by observations of how protests had unfolded in their regional counterparts. Whether Syrian authorities learned the right lessons, and therefore whether their strong repressive response to early protests was strategically wise, is another question (Stacher, 2012).27
One lesson, in particular, that autocrats across the region appear to have learned relates to the symbolic and logistical importance of public squares and spaces for protest movements. As Bunce and her colleagues describe it, regimes across the region “learned from the [Egyptian activists’] Tahrir Square strategy and did not allow protesters to establish a hold on geographically central locations” (Patel, Bunce, & Wolchik, 2014, p. 67). Iranian security forces, for example, prevented protesters from congregating in Azadi square in Tehran. In Bahrain authorities eventually demolished part of the Pearl roundabout that was the focal point for demonstrations. The Syrian regime also learned from its neighbors’ experiences and sought to prevent demonstrations near central squares in Damascus.28
In fact, this learning may explain in part why some regimes avoided regime challenging protests in the first place. Consider an intriguing incident in Jordan, as described by Jillian Schwedler and Ryan King (2014, pp. 174–175).29 Jordanians organized a protest in front of the Ministry of Interior (MoI) in Amman that started on March 24, 2011. It ended the next day when police and plainclothes thugs disbursed it.30 Jordanian authorities have a tradition of being relatively tolerant of protest. But this protest was different because activists camped out in front of the MoI, which was not a common protest site (unlike parliament, universities, and other sites). As Schwedler and King put it, the location in front of the MoI was significant because “its sister institution in Tunisia had been a central location for mobilization just two months earlier” (Schwedler & King, 2014, pp. 174–175). These events suggest that Jordanian security forces may have “learned” from what happened in Tunisia and decided to repress the protest quickly and decisively.
In summary, diffusion effects raise important questions about the trajectory of the uprisings and the forces that drove it. The information gleaned through observations could have altered the decision calculus of regional militaries and caused them to adjust their tactics accordingly. This might have allowed regimes to head-off or derail uprisings in some countries, and exacerbated them in others. In this way, diffusion and learning might have played a fundamental role in shaping the overall complexion of the Arab Spring.
Probing Endogeneity and the Origins of the Protest
One final issue that has been neglected by those who study military responses to the Arab Spring is the potential endogeneity of protests to civil-military relations in these states. Most of the literature, as previously described, first, identifies places where large and regime-threatening protests occurred, singling out the cases of Tunisia, Bahrain, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and Syria. Then scholars analyze the variation of military responses within this subset of cases. They set aside cases where the uprisings were small, or where the protesters did not make radical demands for regime transformation.
Neglect of these latter, “non-event” cases, however, potentially underestimates the causal effect of Arab militaries on the overall trajectory of the Arab uprisings. How, for example, might the nature of these militaries or their actions early in the wave of uprisings have affected the incidence of large-scale protest occurring in a state in the first place? That is, was the likelihood of protest occurring or not in part endogenous to the nature of a country’s armed forces or civil-military relations?
There are two ways civil-military relations might have affected the development of protests across the region. First, they could have affected the calculations of the activists organizing the protests. Activists in Egypt, for example, had been trained in nonviolent movements courtesy of the Serbians (Rosenberg, 2011). Those methods involved the “deliberate diffusion” of specific tactics targeting the military, including fraternizing and appealing to the military’s prestige (Patel, Bunce, & Wolchik, 2014, p. 65). Activists’ observations about the nature of the Egyptian military, in turn, could have affected their perceptions of whether these tactics would work, and therefore shaped their decision to adopt them. The Egyptian military’s corporateness and concern with maintaining its social esteem would seem to render it a good candidate for nonviolent tactics.31 Even had activists not foreseen the significance of Egypt’s military “type” in estimating the likely success of nonviolent methods, the military’s character might still have facilitated the success of the methods and therefore shaped the development of the protests in Egypt more broadly. In particular, the appeal to the military’s social esteem helped elicit an early promise from military leaders to withhold the use of force against protesters. This signal then provided information to those hedging over whether it was safe to participate, facilitating the growth of the protests.
Second, militaries could have affected the trajectory of the uprisings in different states through their initial responses to burgeoning protests. Military actions might have either contributed to the protests escalating, or preempted their growth. That is, they could have affected, as Lynch puts it, whether the initial phase of protests would “accelerate or fizzle” (Lynch, 2014, p. 20).32
With the coalescing protests, regimes “faced the classic repression/dissent nexus with fascinating results” such that “repression sometimes squashed dissent before it took root and at other times spurred much greater challenges” (Moore & Davenport, 2012, pp. 704–713). Scholars have observed that the initial use of repression among those states experiencing protests varied significantly.33 Some militaries might have done a better job of calibrating the use of repression as a result of better command and control, or their leaders’ superior strategic acumen. They might consequently have been better equipped to anticipate and apply repression—tempering the amount of force employed and its timing—in order to diffuse, rather than intensify, the protests.
Consider the aforementioned example of the March 2011 protest in front of Jordan’s Ministry of Interior. The military and security forces were able to act decisively, derailing a protest that had many of the basic elements of the regime-challenging events that occurred in other states. These events suggest that the Jordanian armed forces had the necessary control and a clear plan for when to let protests proceed, and when to preempt them.
In contrast, in Syria the military and security forces seemed far less equipped to manage events in a way that would curtail rebellion. The events in Dera’a that triggered the protests illustrate the counterproductive aspects of “poorly executed” repression. In mid-March 2011 a group of teenagers (none older than 17) spray painted graffiti calling for the fall of the “system.”34 At the time, few (including apparently Bashar al-Assad), thought that Syria would be drawn into the tumult across the region (Lesch, 2013; Heydemann, 2011, p. 8; Stacher, 2012, p. 16). The regime, however, “reacted furiously” to the events.35 The boys were arrested and brutally tortured. Interviews by the New York Times of family members of the boys suggest that had the regime instead moderated their response, perhaps warning rather than torturing the boys, and then exercising restraint in ensuing protests, events could have taken a different course—these people were not at the time looking for an opportunity to protest (Fahim & Saad, 2013) As the New York Times captured it:
It is impossible to say how things might have turned out had the Assad government taken a more accommodating stance toward the protest. Activists from Dera’a still insist that the pressures could have been contained, compromises reached, even after years of violent repression. Any such hope quickly passed as the deaths began to mount.
(Fahim & Saad, 2013)
In summary, the nature of civil-military relations and the restraint or effectiveness of the military in managing early protests could have played an important role in their escalation. In turn, these events raise larger questions about coercion in authoritarian states. “What prevents dictators from finding the ‘optimum’ level of violence that keeps potential opposition at bay without completely undermining domestic and international legitimacy?” (Art, 2012, p. 370). If the events of the Arab Spring are any indication, part of the answer may lie in the nature of the state’s civil-military relations.
The voluminous literature on the Arab Spring has yielded important insights about military responses to popular uprisings. It highlights the centrality of military attributes, civil-military relations, and societal factors as well as foreign and ideational influences in accounting for how militaries respond to these remarkable phenomena. The richness of this first-generation literature aside, more can be done to address gaps and unanswered questions. This includes expanding and clarifying the outcomes under investigation when we study military responses to protest movements, increasing attention to diffusion and authoritarian learning during waves of protest, and explaining the endogenous effects of civil-military relations on the incidence and trajectory of protest movements.
Most important, the events of the Arab Spring provide an opportunity to generate new interest and focus on the armed forces and coercive apparatus in autocratic states. They also provide an exciting opportunity to bridge what has in the past been a niche area of research—studies of the armed forces in the Middle East—to larger debates in comparative politics and security studies. Doing so will help generate new insights, not only for academic scholarship, but also for the many practical debates and concerns in which knowledge about the armed forces is essential.
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(1.) On desertions in the Syrian army, see Bou Nassif (2015c), Koehler, Ohl, and Albrecht (2016). On the absence of defections by intact units see Gaub (2014), Khaddour (2015), and Khaddour (2016). See also the data compiled by Al Jazeera’s defection tracker, Interactive: Tracking Syria’s Defections.
(2.) Note that I focus on works relevant to explaining the military’s role in the Arab Spring. There are many excellent works that explore other issues, especially those related to the origins of the protests themselves. In addition, while I have sought to be comprehensive, space precludes treatment of all works that bear on the military’s role and the analysis presented here is necessarily selective.
(5.) Analysts use different terminology, but many emphasize the importance of understanding Egyptian and Tunisian cases of the military’s retaining some autonomy or separation from the leader. See Lutterbeck (2011). See also the discussion in Greenblatt (2011), Droz-Vincent (2011), and Mustafa Kamel Al Sayyid’s reference to autonomy in Routledge Handbook of Arab Spring, ed. Larbi Sadiki (London: Routledge, 2015).
(7.) As McLauchlin highlights, there is an earlier body of literature that linked the variation in a leader’s penetration of the military and its divisions to patterns of defection and regime change. See Snyder (1998).
(13.) For this reason, fraternization and other efforts to appeal to soldiers deployed on the streets during protests are a key element of nonviolent tactics. In the case of Egypt, see Ketchley (2014, pp. 155–186) and Nepsted (2013, pp. 337–349).
(15.) Although, the sectors of society that were represented varied. See Beissinger, Jamal, and Mazur (2015). On the importance of variation in the protests also see Anderson (2011, pp. 2–7). There is a sizable literature on the impact of various social and global forces on the protests’ emergence. This is beyond this article’s focus, but for a sample of perspectives see Delacoura (2012, pp. 63–79), Campante and Chor (2012, pp. 167–187), Kandil (2012), and Dawisha (2013). Various treatments of these issues can be found in some of the useful edited volumes produced by scholars of the Arab Spring. See, for example, Henry and Ji-Hyang (2012), Kamrava (2014), Korany and El-Mahdi (2012), Gerges (2014), Lynch (2014), Al-Sumait, Lenze, and Hudson (2015), and Beinin and Vairel (2011). For some perspectives from the region see Al Aswany (2011) and Muasher (2014).
(16.) According to some accounts, sectarianism is key to understanding patterns of allegiances and defections in the Syrian military. See McLauchlin (2010) and Bou Nassif (2015c). Other scholars see a more complex story, observing the large number of Sunni conscripts and officers who remained loyal and didn’t desert. See Albrecht and Ohl (2016).
(17.) Personalist regimes represent a form of patrimonialism in which those with key positions in the regime are personally beholden to individual leaders for their positions. See Chehabi and Linz (1998), Geddes (2004), and Geddes (2003).
(22.) Yom raises one of the important, yet understudied, additional issues about the Arab Spring: the effect of foreign influences. With the exception of the discussion of military-to-military contacts and American pressure on Mubarak during the Egyptian protests, there has been relatively little systematic effort to think about foreign pressures and influences, long or short-term, on the protests and their outcomes. For insightful discussions of these issues in a broader context see Brownlee (2012) and Yom (2015).
(23.) For example Pachon makes the argument that the military did not defect in Tunisia because Ben Ali did not explicitly order it to fire. Other research supports a claim that no explicit order was issued. See Bou Nassif (2015b) and Jebnoun (2014, pp. 96–316). But this neglects the military’s role as regime defender of last resort; it was in this deeper sense that the military defected. See Pachon (2014).
(25.) Greater attention to the strategic interdependence of decisions made by the actors within uprisings is also warranted. For one effort in this direct see Albrecht and Ohl (2016) and Taylor (2014, pp. 53–55). On the necessary of greater sensitivity to these issues in studies of nonviolent popular uprisings see Rasler (2014).
(27.) See my discussion of events in Dera’a following.
(30.) The use of plainclothes thugs, which the regime could plausibly deny it had sent, is also intriguing (Ryan, 2013, p. 125). Egyptian authorities also relied on plainclothes thugs in the so-called Battle of the Camel. Syrian forces used nonstate militias to interfere with public demonstrations. Heydemann and Leenders (2014, p. 85) suggest this might be another example of diffusion effects and learning across autocratic armed forces in the region.
(35.) The local governor had them arrested, and their torture triggered protests at a mosque with a list of demands. Initially the army reinforced the police but did not shoot. But then four days later the military starting shooting. Thousands joined protests. When the regime failed to meet initial demands, the protests escalated (Stacher, 2012, p. 16).