The World

How Militaries Rule

An Egyptian army officer poses for a photo outside a polling station in the Cairo suburb of al-Manial on May 27, 2014.

Photo by Jonathan Rashad/Getty Images

There was never a whole lot of suspense about the outcome of this week’s Egyptian presidential election. In the end, former army chief Abdel Fatah al-Sisi ended up taking 93 percent of the vote, though turnout was extremely low. His only rival, leftist Hamdeen Sabahi, wound up with 3 percent, putting him just behind void ballots, which were 3.7 percent.

Between 1952, when the Egyptian monarchy was overthrown by the Free Officers Coup, and the ouster of Hosni Mubarak in 2011, Egypt was led by current or former military officers. Though Sisi has technically resigned from the military, it now appears that after a brief interregnum, the officers are back in charge.

Meanwhile in Thailand, the military is also back in charge, having taken power in the coup-prone country last week. A senior army general briefed the media today, saying the coup was necessary to prevent a civil war. While the military has promised to hold elections once calm returns to the country, it has given no timeline.

Military rule is hardly an unusual phenomenon: In the first decade of the 21st century, militaries governed 19 percent of the world’s countries. But with these two prominent current examples, it’s worth taking a look at how militaries behave when they take political power, the subject of a new paper in the Annual Review of Political Science by political scientists Barbara Geddes, Erica Frantz, and Joseph Wright.

As the authors write, military officers are “men who specialize in armed force and maintaining order rather than in political affairs. They are more accustomed to hierarchy and obedience than to bargaining. Because their training and experience differ from those of civilian politicians, military rulers sometimes make different policy choices than would civilian autocrats.”

Unfortunately, the existing literature on military rule finds that “military-led autocracies are more likely to initiate conflict than are party-based autocracies.” This includes both domestic human rights abuses and international conflicts initiated to build legitimacy. Although there are also a host of examples of militaries intervening to prevent authoritarian crackdowns on citizens, as in the overthrow of Slobodan Milosevic in 2000.

The good news is that “military regimes survive less long than democracies or other kinds of autocracy,” and in contrast to party-based dictatorships they’re far more likely to be followed by a transition to democracy. “Nearly 62% of military regimes democratize,” the authors note, “whereas less than 45% of dominant-party regimes and 36% of personalist dictatorships do.”

But of course, military rulers don’t always conform to military discipline. The paper distinguishes between “military-led autocracies,” where decisions are made by a group of officers, and “military strongmen,” who are relatively unconstrained by the command structure. The dictatorship that ruled Brazil from 1964 to 1985 would be an example of the first type, Ugandan dictator Idi Amin would be an example of the second.

Military strongmen do not give up power so easily:

The dictator faces a greater risk than other officers of imprisonment, execution, assassination, or exile if the regime falls. Consequently, he may be more willing to start a diversionary war or to refuse to negotiate a return to the barracks, even in the face of mobilized popular opposition and possible violent ouster. Military dictators who face little constraint on their actions, that is, military strongmen, are more free to start wars and resist negotiating with domestic opponents than are leaders of military regimes, who must negotiate their responses with fellow officers 

In the current examples, this literature would suggest that as long as Thai coup leader Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha doesn’t take steps to start making his rule permanent, Thailand seems likely to see a return to civilian rule relatively quickly. (How long that rule will last before another intervention is a different question.) But in the case of Sisi, past experience in both Egypt and elsewhere suggests he may be staying put for a while.