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Understanding Military Responses to Revolt in the Arab World

Zoltan Barany analyzes the military’s role in revolution

Posted: October 11, 2011

The wave of revolution that began last winter in Tunisia and spread across the Middle East and North Africa reinforced some hard truths. One is the reality that indeed democracy may not be exportable, as outside of Tunisia, the prospect of any real transition to democracy is slim to none. The second is the perhaps harsher reality that, although not sufficient, military support from a preponderance of the armed forces remains a necessary condition for revolutionary success. Regime change, at a minimum, requires the military’s acquiescence.

In an article published this month in the “Journal of Democracy,” Zoltan Barany, the Frank C. Erwin Centennial Professor of Government, explains the armed forces' varying responses to revolt in Tunisia and Egypt, where the military refused to back the regimes, which subsequently fell; Yemen and Libya, where the military leadership split and the countries descended into civil war; and Bahrain and Syria, where with brute force the military backed the regimes, which have survived. These examples all confirm that the way a military responds to a revolution is the most reliable predictor of that revolution’s outcome.

Many factors shape a military’s response to revolution. Is the regime perceived to be legitimate? What kind of relations do the armed forces have with the state and civil society? Are soldiers paid generously and treated well? Has the regime satisfied political and socioeconomic demands? Do the armed services cooperate among themselves or are they marked by internal cleavages? Do soldiers have civilian blood on their hands? Is there a threat of foreign invasion? How powerful are the forces of revolutionary diffusion? Have officers been educated or received training abroad?

Tunisia and Egypt are the two cases where the soldiers backed the revolution and the regime fell. Tunisia’s military had long been overshadowed by the security agencies within the Interior Ministry. Further, many military officers had been sent to the United States for training. Predictably, the Tunisian armed forces had no special stake in the regime’s survival. Egypt was a different case. The military had been relatively privileged under Mubarak and had reaped huge economic windfalls in addition to benefiting from U.S. military aid. But the brass despised Mubarak’s son, who was in line to assume power, and was also increasingly anxious about youth alienation, Islamist radicalism and overall economic decline. The states’ police and security apparatus were growing at the army’s expense and the conscript army had significant ties to the society it would have had to turn against.

Yemen and Libya were distinct for the primacy of tribal affiliations, where bonds of tribe and kinship often rule the day, with negotiations settled through varying distributions of bribery and coercion. Many in the military doubted their respective regime’s legitimacy, and the military and security establishments were divided into numerous organizations each relatively cut off from the other. Lacking a unified military response, civil war broke out in both countries. With the military divided, other factors, such as foreign intervention, the strength of opposition forces and the regime’s determination to survive would become key to deciding ultimate outcomes.

In Bahrain and Syria the military was ordered to shoot, soldiers followed orders and the regimes remain standing. Beset by sectarian division, the military’s support for the regime in Bahrain was unsurprising. With a Sunni ruling family, a Sunni military leadership, a Shia-majority population and Shia-led revolt, the army did not hesitate to back the regime. In Syria the military is politicized and heavily involved in the country’s economy. The armed forces perceive the regime to be legitimate, enjoy a privileged position in politics and society and have engaged in past brutality on behalf of the regime, all highlighting a glaring lack of incentives to move against the current regime.

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