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Studies 26 June, 2013

Explaining Military Responses to Revolutions

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Zoltan Barany

Zoltan Barany is the Frank C. Erwin, Jr. Centennial Professor of Government at the University of Texas.  His most recent books are The Soldier and the Changing State: Building Democratic Armies in Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Americas (Princeton University Press, 2012), Democratic Breakdown and the Decline of the Russian Military (Princeton University Press, 2007), and, as co-editor Is Democracy Exportable? (Cambridge University Press, 2009).

Introduction

The recent uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa confirmed, yet again, that social scientists, not to mention politicians and intelligence analysts, are not good at predicting revolutions. We may correctly observe that a country or region may display all the symptoms of being ripe for an uprising - or, as Lenin memorably put it, "Europe is pregnant with revolution"[1] - but we have no idea when, if at all, a revolution might actually break out. Indeed, it is rather amazing how autocracy may exist decade after decade and then a seemingly trivial event can trigger a massive and, on rare occasions, region-wide upheaval against it: the handing-out of leaflets criticizing the monarch in Sicily in January 1848 or the humiliation of a fruit vendor by a low-level municipal official in Tunisia in December 2010.

While our puzzlement about what sparks revolutions continues, we do know one critically important thing about them: once they do begin, they can seldom succeed without the support of the regime's coercive apparatus, in particular the regular army. Lenin remarked that "No revolution of the masses can triumph without the help of a portion of the armed forces that sustained the old regime."[2] Andrzejewski was similarly categorical in his contention that "So long as the government retains the loyalty of the armed forces, no revolt can succeed."[3] The two seminal studies focused on the role of the army in revolutionary crises also reach the conclusion that revolutions will fail if the military remains intact and it is used effectively by the status quo regime.[4]

The army's response to a revolution is certainly not the only predictor of whether it will succeed in supplanting the status quo regime or not. Rather, the point is that the military's backing of or, at the very least, neutrality toward the revolution is a necessary condition for it to succeed. Consequently, if we could predict the army's reaction to a revolution, we would be in strong position to speculate about the fate of that revolution. Why do armies react to revolts the way they do? What determines whether they support the old regime, the rebels, or split their support between the two? Is it possible to predict the generals' reaction to a revolution in a specific context?        

The multitude of variables that may influence an army's stance toward a revolution cautions strongly against making an outright prediction. This analysis, however, is based on the premise that it is possible to make a highly educated guess about the military's response to a revolution if we know enough about that army, the state it is supposed to serve, the society it comes from, and the international environment in which it exists. Several scholars have attempted to explain the considerations that enter into the military's decision of how to respond to a revolution, either listing a few factors or privileging one variable or another in their analyses.[5] In most cases their attention was limited to attributes of the armed forces, the regime, or society. This essay argues that a more comprehensive approach, one that takes into account all the main sources where the army obtains its information, will not only lead to a more accurate prognosis of its likely reaction to a revolution, but will also have broad applicability to disparate settings.

Consider the following scenario: you are an analyst at an intelligence organization and your assignment is to advise your government of the probable action the armed forces are expected to take in Country X that is experiencing a revolutionary upheaval. Where will you start looking for answers? What factors will inform your inquiry? The objective of this essay is to give one the tools - more precisely, to identify the questions one needs to ask and answer - that will allow one to produce a coherent and logical analysis and to give his or her government the most informed report possible.

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[1] V. I. Lenin, "Lecture on the 1905 Revolution," Collected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1964), vol. 23, 253.

[2] Cited by D. E. H. Russell, Rebellion Revolution, and Armed Force (London: Academic Press, 1974), 3.

[3] Stanislaw Andrzejewski, Military Organization and Society (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1954), 71.

[4] Katherine Chorley, Armies and the Art of Revolution (London: Faber & Faber, 1943) and Russell, op. cit.

[5] See, for instance, Chorley, Russell, and, more recently, Eva Bellin, "The Robustness of Authoritarianism in the Middle East: Exceptionalism in Comparative Perspective," Comparative Politics, 36:2 (2004), 145-146; "Reconsidering the Robustness of Authoritarianism in the Middle East: Lessons from the Arab Spring," Comparative Politics, 44:2 (January 2012): 130-135; Zoltan Barany, "Comparing the Arab Revolts: The Role of the Military," Journal of Democracy, 22:4 (October 2011): 25-26; and Derek Lutterbeck, "Arab Uprisings and Armed Forces: Between Openness and Resistance," DCAF (Geneva Centre for the Democratic Control of Armed Forces), SSR Paper 2 (2011), 15-17.