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Exit, Resistance, Loyalty: Military Behavior during Unrest in Authoritarian Regimes

Holger Albrecht, Dorothy Ohl

A few years into the most recent wave of popular uprisings—the Arab Spring—studying regime trajectories in countries such as Syria, Egypt, and Yemen still seems like shooting at a moving target. Yet what has not escaped notice is the central role military actors have played during these uprisings. We describe how soldiers have three options when ordered to suppress mass unrest. They may exit the regime by remaining in the barracks or going into exile, resist by fighting for the challenger or initiating a coup d’état, or remain loyal and use force to defend the regime. We argue that existing accounts of civil-military relations are ill equipped to explain the diverse patterns in exit, resistance, and loyalty during unrest because they often ignore the effects of military hierarchy. Disaggregating the military and parsing the interests and constraints of different agents in that apparatus is crucial for explaining military cohesion during such crises. Drawing on extensive fieldwork we apply our principal-agent framework to explain varying degrees and types of military cohesion in three Arab Spring cases: Bahrain, Yemen, and Syria. Studying military hierarchy elucidates decision-making within authoritarian regimes amid mass mobilization and allows us to better explain regime re-stabilization, civil war onset, or swift regime change in the wake of domestic unrest.

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Perspectives on Politics, Volume 14, Issue 01, March 2016, pp 38 – 52
doi:10.1017/S1537592715003217 Published online by Cambridge University Press 21 Mar 2016