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.


Military-Related Variables

Degree of Institutionalization

The degree of institutionalization appears to be one of the most vital variables regarding an army’s response to protests. Armies with higher levels of institutionalization, in the Weberian sense, are less inclined to use lethal force against protesters in contrast to armies structured along less institutionalized, more patrimonial lines.

As Bellin explains, institutionalization exists where the military has “a sense of corporate identity separate from the regime . . . a distinct mission, identity, and career path . . . [and] will be able to imagine separation from the regime and life beyond the regime.”

Recruitment and promotion in institutionalized armies are rule bound and largely determined by performance and merit rather than political loyalty; in these regimes, an obvious distinction exists between the private and public domains, which inhibits predatory behavior toward society.

In patrimonial armies, however, the military elite is tied to the regime elite by linkages of kinship, ethnicity, sect, or place of origin; career advancement is determined by bonds of loyalty, not merit or professional excellence.

In this environment, there is no clear distinction between public and private affairs, and, consequently, corruption and cronyism become prevalent. In short, “the fate and interests” of the military elites become “intrinsically linked to the longevity of the regime.”

Thus, in contrast to institutionalization, patrimonialism—when armies are wedded to the regime through bonds of ethnicity, sect, tribe, or kinship—replaces meritocracy with cronyism and

political loyalty.

As a result, corruption becomes pervasive, lines between the public and private realms are blurred, and the military becomes intrinsically related to the regime. Under these conditions, an army will be more hostile to calls for change and less opposed to using force against demonstrators.

Makara disaggregates the degree of institutionalization—or lack thereof—into three distinct types according to the method of coup-proofing used by the regime: ethnic stacking, patronage distribution, and organizational factionalization.

While the first type fosters troop loyalty, the latter two methods increase the likelihood of troop defection. Another perspective is presented by Ulrich and Atkinson, who argue that an army’s degree of professionalism relies on a number of factors, such as the level of political culture.

This is evidenced by the state of the country’s institutions, the level of constitutionalism, respect for human rights, and the balance between the military and other institutions measured by budget expenditures.

The Army’s Relationship with the Regime

An army that is privileged by a political regime is likely to prop up the regime’s incumbent ruler in the face of massive uprisings, lest it lose the privileged status it has enjoyed under that leadership.

Privilege” here refers to a package of economic status, political influence, and social prestige provided to the military by the regime through a set of tangible and intangible advantages.

These include the allocation of high budgets for the military, enabling it to purchase advanced weaponry and equipment; decent salaries and benefits for officers and soldiers; and rhetoric and indoctrination that accords the military high respect and reverence in society.

Additional privileges include professional autonomy, sizeable influence in decision-making processes, and insubordination to other state institutions (other than the presidency).

If the military is marginalized, if it has found disfavor in the eyes of the regime, or if its standing in the regime is threatened by rival institutions—whether in the security sector or the bureaucracy—then the army may perceive an uprising as an opportunity to reconfigure the regime’s balance of power in its favor.

It may be inclined, consequently, to throw in its lot with the protest movement. 18 As Albrecht explains, a regime’s treatment of the military, reflected in its coup-proofing techniques, could rely on two different rationales: integration, which binds officers closer to incumbents; and segregation, which moves the officer corps out of politics.

The former provokes a greater degree of troop loyalty during crises than the latter.

The Army’s Bond to Society and Perceptions of its Role

The more an army enjoys a close relationship with the general population, the more likely it will refrain from repressing protests.

Although it is difficult to gauge this variable quantitatively, it is still possible to measure its weight in officers’ calculations by evaluating three factors: ascertaining whether the armed forces rely on conscripts or volunteers; analyzing the army’s perception of its role in state and society; and looking into the historical record of the army’s responses to popular revolts.

Backed by evidence from nearly all major uprisings over the past few decades, armies that rely on broad-based conscription are more representative of society and thus more restrained in using force against a mass uprising.

Examples include the Bulldozer Revolution in Serbia and Montenegro (2000), the Rose Revolution in Georgia (2003), the Orange Revolution in Ukraine (2004–05), the Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan (2005), and the January 25 Revolution in Egypt (2011).

In contrast, armies that are predominately drawn from one social or ethnic group, or those that rely on targeted recruitments or mercenary troops, are more likely to defend the regime.

Cases in point include the Islamist uprising in Syria (1979–82), the Saffron Revolution in Myanmar (2007), the Shiʿa uprising in southern Iraq (1991), and the uprisings in Bahrain and Syria in 2011.

An army’s self-perception of its mission and role is equally important. There seems to be a general agreement among scholars that if a military harbors a sense of historical commitment to “the nation,” it would be more hesitant to quell protesters.

For various historical and sociological reasons, officers of some Arab militaries (e.g., Egypt and Algeria) hold the conviction that their armies are above the regime; they consider themselves to be nation-builders engaged in the process of modernizing their countries and serving their societies.

As Gaub remarks, “an armed forces which is seen, and sees itself, as an agent of the state . . . will have very little difficulty dissociating itself from any given government if necessary.”

Other Arab armies (e.g., Syria and Arab monarchies) are intrinsically linked to the ruling regime; if the regime falls, they will also collapse or disintegrate.

Furthermore, historical precedents contribute to shaping a military’s behavior during popular uprisings; an army that has a record of human rights abuses or that has previously suppressed peaceful demonstrations is more likely to stay loyal to the status quo regime than an army that has no blood on its hands.

Institutional and Economic Benefits

Institutional, ideational, and economic benefits, by and large, foster loyalty to a regime.

To create bonds of loyalty with officer corps, various regimes in the Arab world have relied on economic coup-proofing, granting officers generous financial benefits, opportunities of (often illicit) self-enrichment and lucrative post-retirement civilian positions, and allowing militaries to establish vast parallel economies that provide independent sources of income.

Institutional benefits include granting the military huge budgets, access to state resources and modern weaponry, as well as elevated status in the state hierarchy and an aura of prestige and reverence in society. Therefore, militaries that have received institutional and economic privileges under an incumbent regime will tend to be more loyal to the state than those that did not.

Regime-Related Variables

Regime Legitimacy

Military elites are more likely to look askance at a revolution if they perceive the regime to be legitimate. By contrast, a military would be inclined to turn against a regime if that regime had lost its legitimacy and popularity in the eyes of soldiers and the general population. The Romanian military’s decision not to save Nicolae Ceaușescu during the 1989 revolution is a case in point.

On the contrary, the Chinese officer corps’ belief in the legitimacy of the regime, and the communist ideals it espoused, played a decisive role in backing it against the student uprising of 1989.

Certainly, defeat in war, poor socioeconomic performance, and entanglement in scandals are major causes of a regime’s loss of legitimacy. Classical historical examples include the 1917 Russian revolution and the 1979 Iranian revolution.

External Variables

External Aid to a Regime

Generally, international political and diplomatic aid for an embattled regime will bolster a government in the face of a popular uprising, decreasing the chances of mutiny and troop defection.

On the other hand, a regime will be severely weakened if it is ostracized, if international sanctions are imposed on it, or if its close allies decline to support it, which will in turn encourage the military to abandon the state and take the side of protesters.

Barack Obama’s reluctance to provide vital political support to Egypt’s Mubarak, and Vladimir Putin’s generous backing of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, were both influential in the divergent positions taken by the two armies during the 2011 uprisings.

Prospects of Foreign Intervention

Armies take into consideration the possibility of foreign intervention, and whether this intervention will support the government or the opposition.

Officers and soldiers who calculate that a foreign army will intervene to support the protesters are more tempted to defect, while those that expect a foreign military force to intervene on the side of the regime will be encouraged to remain loyal.

For example, in the context of the Arab Spring, the NATO intervention in Libya made the regime look more fragile, which emboldened the revolutionaries and accelerated the rate of defections among officers and soldiers.

Also, Mikhail Gorbachev’s reluctance to send Soviet troops to support the East German government during the 1989 uprising led to wide defections among the East German security forces.

Conversely, Saudi military support for the Bahraini government in 2011 encouraged its military to remain loyal to the regime.


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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