Nael Shama

The paper draws on evidence from the six cases of the 2011 Arab Spring— Egypt, Syria, Bahrain, Yemen, Libya, and Tunisia—to illustrate the dynamics of troop loyalty or defection.



By examining the events of the Arab uprisings, this paper looks into the nature and dynamics of armies’ responses to popular uprisings. It argues that the outcome of the massive, regime-threatening Arab revolts in 2011 can be assessed by how a military responded to protests: did the army shoot protesters, did it stay idle, or did it largely defect?

In light of the rich literature available on the historical experience of the “Arab Spring,” this paper shows that an army’s response to end popular uprisings in authoritarian regimes is determined by several key factors:

(a) the military’s level of institutionalization;

(b) its relationship to the regime;

(c) the degree of the regime’s legitimacy;

(d) the amount of international aid it receives;

(e) the prospects of foreign intervention; and,

(f) finally, the strength of the army’s bond with society and its perception of its own role within society.

Additionally, there is a factor often overlooked by scholars; namely, how the military assesses a regime’s capacity to solve the crisis in order to triumph.


This paper examines the nature and dynamics of Arab military responses to the uprisings that erupted in the Arab world beginning in 2010–2011, and which became known as the “Arab Spring.”

The vigorous wave of protests that swept many Arab countries was unprecedented in scope, size, creativity, ambition, and consequence. Ousting two heads of state in under a month — Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali—these uprisings demonstrated that the entrenched authoritarian Arab regimes were

more vulnerable than previously assumed, and their hopes were buoyed by the prospect of a radiant future of democracy in the Middle East.

The revolutionary current churned the stagnant rivers of Arab politics, sending shockwaves throughout ruling establishments in the region and beyond, including states as distant as Iran and China.

Yet, even at the zenith of the political storm, in describing the events of that extraordinary year as the “Arab Spring,” and heralding an epoch of much-awaited democracy, many analysts and commentators missed two crucial points.

First, although protests took place in various Arab countries, including Algeria, Jordan, Morocco, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates, out of the twenty two member states of the Arab League, only six countries experienced regime threatening mass protests that resulted in considerable bloodshed: Bahrain, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Tunisia, and Yemen.

Only four of these states—less than one-fifth of the total number of Arab states—saw their rulers ejected from power. As political scholar Eva Bellin remarked, the rest of the Arab world experienced a rather “silent spring” in 2011 in which “politics remained ‘business as usual.”’

Second, at the time of this writing, the fate of these six countries can hardly be associated with any kind of “spring.”

(a) Syria has descended into the bloodiest internecine civil war seen in world politics in many decades;

(b) Libya and Yemen have plunged into states of quasi-anarchy and are confronted with the specter of disintegration;

(c) Bahrain has quickly dodged reform;

(c) Egypt has returned to the worst brand of authoritarianism it has experienced since 1952; and

(d) although Tunisia fared well, its transition to democratic rule is far from complete.

Regarding the Arab uprisings, Arab states can be divided into three categories at a general level of analysis:

1) states that remained relatively quiet amid the storm, such as Morocco, Algeria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE;

2) states that witnessed regime-threatening protests, but whose ruling elites managed to deflate the momentum of protests and remain in power, such as Bahrain; and

3) states whose leaders were jettisoned from power, paving the way for either civil war or for political processes designed to build a new, ostensibly pluralistic and democratic, political order, such as Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen.

In all three categories, the coercive apparatus of incumbent regimes, whose capacity to suppress dissent is unquestioned, played a crucial role in shaping the outcomes that unfolded. Indeed, although causes of revolution are still widely debated by social scientists, one thing about nonviolent revolutions is clear: they can hardly succeed without the support, or at least the quiet acquiescence, of a regime’s coercive apparatus, particularly the military.

Long ago, Lenin observed that “no revolution of the masses can triumph without the help of a portion of the armed forces that sustained the old regime.

Decades later, sociologist Stanislaw Andrzejewski argued with much confidence that “so long as the government retains the loyalty of the armed forces, no revolt can succeed.”

The historical record of resistance campaigns in the period from 1900 to 2006 indicates that nonviolent revolutionary movements are forty-six times more likely to succeed when defections in security agencies occur.

This centuries-old conventional rule was clearly confirmed during the Arab uprisings. In all six main cases of the Arab Spring, the ruler ordered his security agencies to quash the uprising by force. It was the response of these agencies that proved decisive to the fate of the uprising.

Where the military— or, at least, parts of it—supported the protesters or exhibited neutrality, the incumbents were ejected from power in a relatively short period of time (Egypt and Tunisia). Where the military remained blatantly loyal to the regime, the protests were brutally suppressed (Bahrain and Syria). Where the military split between the regime and its opponents, civil war ensued (Libya and Yemen).

To be sure, the behavior of the military was not decisive only during the uprisings, but also in the political transition processes that ensued thereafter. Even before the uprisings, military intervention in domestic political affairs had been much higher in the Middle East than in most world regions.

Civil-military relations in the Arab world are marred by excessive military intervention in political affairs, heavy permeation of the state bureaucracy, and indulgence in commercial activities that includes the establishment of autonomous economic fiefdoms.

This paper looks into the literature of military defection during periods of massive societal mobilization. It is premised on the argument that the outcome of large, regime-threatening protests relies on one multilayered central question:

Will an army attack protesters, will it stay idle, or will its members defect? My argument is twofold:

1) firstly, I maintain that during intense confrontations between a regime and peaceful protesters, which pose a grave threat to the survival of the regime, it is normal for the military elite to assess the regime’s capacity to solve the crisis and act accordingly, whether by continuing to prop up the regime or by supporting the uprising;

2) secondly, I argue that armies with no viable future outside the orbit of the ruling regime are less inclined to focus on balance of power calculations, and so will most likely continue to support the regime regardless.

The first part of this paper strives to identify and contextualize the variables that determine whether a military will remain loyal to the regime, stay neutral, or defect to the side of the protesters.

The second part applies these variables to the six Arab countries in which the uprisings were most intense.

A final concluding section summarizes the main findings of the paper.

The Uprisings: What Explains the Behavior of the Military?

The Arab uprisings provided proof of the theory that the behavior of the military during a revolution—how it responds to peaceful demonstrators—“is the most reliable predictor of that revolution’s outcome.”

It is certainly not the only prerequisite for the success of a revolution, but it is definitely a necessary one. This begs a number of pertinent questions:

What are the variables that shape a military’s response to revolution?

What explains the variation in the behavior of militaries during the popular Arab uprisings?

In other words, what begets loyalty, and when and why does mutiny take place?

Although there is no scarcity of sources on military defection and loyalty amid popular uprisings, there is little agreement in the literature on the main determinants of military behavior.

While some scholars emphasize a military’s level of institutionalization, others focus on its degree of politicization prior to the uprising. Still others play down these variables and give additional weight to the impact of coup-proofing techniques, particularly ethnic stacking, in which rulers staff their armed forces with members from their own religious, sectarian, or ethnic groups.

Furthermore, most theoretical endeavors either focus on one all-explaining variable, presenting a reductionist, mono-causal factor as the sole determinant of military conduct, or, lacking parsimony, offer a lengthy list including all variables, whether central or peripheral.

Some scholarly works attempt to explain military behavior through neat dichotomies, focusing solely on the effect of external pressure, ethnic allegiance, or oil wealth. For instance, Blair argues that military officers who received training in Western institutions are more likely to support pro-democracy uprisings.

Instead of unidimensional approaches on one hand, and unparsimonious approaches on the other, this paper critically reviews the main body of literature on military behavior during the Arab uprisings, and suggests a list of seven central variables proposed by scholars that, I argue, largely shape the response of a military to revolution.

Of these seven variables, four are endogenous factors stemming from the nature of the military itself (military-related variables); another is connected to the attitude and legitimacy of the regime (regime-related variables); and two other factors are related to external influences (external variables), all of which will be discussed in the next section.

Moreover, I draw attention to one variable that has largely eluded the attention of researchers— that is, the military’s view of the capacity of the regime to solve the crisis.

Before discussing these variables, two important caveats must be addressed.

First, these variables apply only to endgame scenarios, defined as non-ideological and non-sectorial massive popular uprisings that threaten the survival of authoritarian regimes. This, by definition, excludes small protests, student movements, labor strikes, peasant uprisings, and regional movements.

Second, the variables suggested are not applicable to how a military responds to armed insurgencies. A popular resistance that shifts from using nonviolent to violent techniques changes its character immensely; therefore, it should be subject to other theoretical endeavors.


Nael M. Shama, Ph.D., is a political researcher and writer living in Cairo. He is the author of Egyptian Foreign Policy from Mubarak to Morsi (Routledge, 2013).




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