Military defections didn’t determine the Arab uprisings

Dec 21 '18
Egyptian security forces reach Tahrir Square on Dec. 1, 2013, after dispersing Cairo University students protesting the ouster of Islamist President Mohamed Morsi. (Mahmoud Khaled KHALED/AFP/Getty Images)

Eight years ago, the Arab Spring uprisings led to the overthrow of longtime dictators Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia. Many have attributed these unexpectedly quick ousters to the countries’ militaries defecting from the regime and siding with the opposition. But these depictions are not only inaccurate, they also have serious implications for theory and policy.

In a recent article, we argue that such interpretation of these events represent “Myths of Military Defection.” These myths have led scholars to inaccurately compare two very different armed forces and equate defection from the regime with support of the opposition.

How did Egyptian and Tunisian militaries actually respond to the uprisings?

Some have described “opposition-military alliances” in the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings, in which the troops were largely peaceful and “chose not to shoot” at protesters. However, neither the Egyptian nor Tunisian military actually defected from the regime. Here, it is important to distinguish between the regime and the leader.

In Egypt, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) removed Mubarak to save the regime, and even continued to protect Mubarak and his family after he relinquished power. And the Tunisian military largely followed orders, including the limited use of violence, throughout the uprisings. In Tunisia, insubordination occurred among the forces controlled by the Interior Ministry, not within the military. What actually occurred was a police mutiny, not military defection.

Was polarization against Islamists more intense in Egypt than in Tunisia?

Another common myth surrounds the 2013 coup that unseated Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, a Muslim Brotherhood stalwart. Egypt’s regression into military rule is widely interpreted as either a reaction to growing Islamist-secularist polarization or a last-ditch alliance made by secular political forces who saw the military as their only chance to achieve power.

We argue that such readings fall short on several counts. While anti-Brotherhood mobilization was intense and the Egyptian military was in part responding to the demands of the people and to the Brotherhood’s attempt to monopolize power, the degree of polarization in Egypt was not exceptional. Tunisian secularists also staged massive demonstrations against the government led by Ennahda, an Islamist party. Mobilization was especially widespread in the wake of the assassination of two leftist politicians, Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi, by radical Islamists in February and July 2013.

Survey data show that ideological polarization in Tunisia was just as pronounced as in Egypt. A broadly similar camp of military supporters emerged in both countries during the first two years after the fall of Mubarak and Ben Ali. Popular mobilization can, at best, be seen as a necessary, but not a sufficient, condition for military intervention.

How has the relationship between the Muslim Brotherhood and the military evolved?

It might be tempting to read backward and assume that the animosity between the Brotherhood and the military in Egypt must have been as intense before Morsi’s ouster as after, but the reality is more complicated.

Based on public opinion data, we show that the marriage of convenience between the Brotherhood and the military that developed after the fall of Mubarak meant that throughout 2012 and 2013, supporters of the Brotherhood were actually more likely to also support the military. Significantly, we find that Islamist leanings start to be negatively associated with support for the military only after the 2013 coup. The relationship between Islamist-secular polarization and military intervention is not as straightforward as it appears to some.

Our analysis also suggests that, rather than Islamists turning against the military, third-party supporters turned against both the Brotherhood and the military. This is in line with a more general trend that saw support for the military among secularists in Egypt decrease between 2012 and 2013, while opposition to the Brotherhood grew. Rather than popular opposition to the Brotherhood translating into support for the military and pushing the armed forces to intervene, military intervention itself might have been a decisive factor in the dissolution of the alliance of convenience between the Brotherhood and the military that had developed after the fall of Mubarak.

Why military labels matter

While the outcome — the fall of a president — is not disputed, it still matters how it was achieved and how scholars and policymakers categorize it.

Empirical accuracy is a prerequisite for meaningful theoretical explanations, without which analysts risk perpetuating misleading official narratives. Additionally, focusing on the role of the military has led scholars to neglect the role of other actors. Instead of military defection, what took place in Tunisia was a police mutiny, which forced Ben Ali to not only relinquish power, but also leave the country. By contrast, Mubarak felt so secure in his relations with the military that he remained in Egypt and merely decamped from the presidential palace to another villa of his in Sharm el-Sheikh.

Such misinterpretation also feeds into the false belief that militaries can mediate transitions to democracy and has led scholars to underestimate the degree of regime cohesion. And accepting this official narrative of military defection affects specific foreign policy decisions. Neither the United States nor the European Union ever officially designated the removal of Morsi as a coup, which would have required them to halt aid. Although some E.U. and U.S. assistance was suspended after the August 2013 Rabaa/Nahda massacre, trade and aid have long since returned to pre-2013 levels. French and German arms exports to Egypt have even far surpassed the volume of previous cooperation. The United States continues to provide Egypt with the second-highest military aid package in the world.

Continuing to buy into a defection narrative that portrays the military as the champion of democracy provides a convenient cover for foreign policy decisions driven by strategic national security interests.

Amy Austin Holmes is an associate professor at the American University in Cairo, a visiting scholar at Harvard University’s Weatherhead Scholars Program and a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. You can follow her @AmyAustinHolmes

 Kevin Koehler is a research adviser at the NATO Defense College in Rome and in January 2019 will be an assistant professor at the Institute of Political Science at the University of Leiden. You can follow him @kev_koehler