Coup-Proofing Democracy: Egypt and Tunisia in Comparative Perspective

My dissertation is a book-length project exploring why some transitions to democracy succeed, while others fail. Empirically, the leading cause of democratic collapse is a military coup. However, in part because the military is difficult to penetrate, existing literature has focused on factors that create an opportunity for a coup, rather than explaining why the military may want to seize this opportunity.

Drawing on nearly 100 interviews with high-level civilian and military officials in Egypt and Tunisia and an original survey experiment of military officers, I argue that how autocrats choose to “coup-proof” their militaries will affect whether their militaries gain or lose from democratization. In particular, autocrats who pursue “cooptive coup-proofing,” buying their militaries’ loyalty through a share of power or shared identity, create militaries that fear the rise of the out-group and the loss of their institutional privileges, sparking a coup against democracy. By contrast, autocrats who pursue “divisive coup-proofing,” internally fragmenting the military or counterbalancing it with a paramilitary force, create militaries that stand to gain from the centralization and rebalancing incentivized by democracy, and thus support the transition.

The dissertation tests this theory at three levels of analysis. First, at the macro-level, I demonstrate through a cross-national analysis of democratic transitions between 1815 and 2007 that formerly coopted militaries are more likely to stage coups against new democracies, and that they see a reduction in their privileges prior to their coups. Second, at the meso-level, I present case studies of post-Arab Spring Egypt and Tunisia, based on nearly 100 interviews conducted in Arabic over 13 months in the field, including with a former president, two former prime ministers, and five senior generals. I argue that the formerly coopted military in Egypt staged a coup because it saw a reduction in its privileges over the course of the transition, while the formerly divided and counterbalanced military in Tunisia supported the transition because it saw an improvement in its material, political, and institutional power under democracy. Finally, at the micro-level, I conduct an original survey experiment of military officers in Tunisia, demonstrating that changes in the military’s corporate interests over the course of a transition have a causal effect on their attitudes toward democracy. Subsequent chapters take the dissertation one step back, examining why some autocrats choose cooptive or divisive coup-proofing, and then one step forward, examining what factors could facilitate democratization even in those hard cases of formerly coopted militaries.

The dissertation thus demonstrates that decisions autocrats made during early state formation – in particular, whether to coopt or divide the armed forces – have important, downstream consequences on the likelihood of democratic consolidation. Moreover, the cross-national analyses find that the level of development, economic recessions, and disillusionment with democracy matter only in the presence of a previously coopted military; a previously divided military that has seen its fortunes reverse under democracy is unlikely to thwart a transition even when the conditions are ripe for a coup. The will of the military to intervene is a crucial missing piece of the puzzle of why some transitions succeed and others fail.

Table of Contents:
1. Introduction
2. Theory: Coup-Proofing and Democracy Consolidation
3. Cross-National Analysis, 1815-2007
4. Case Studies: Egypt and Tunisia
5. Survey Experiment of Tunisian Military Officers
6. The Colonial Origins of Military Power
7. Could Egypt's Coup Have Been Avoided? Democratization in Difficult Contexts
8. Conclusion