Tunisian protesters in Sidi Bouzid on April 29 after a car crash killed 12 people, including seven female day laborers. The deaths triggered an outcry on social media, with users accusing farm owners of treating their low-paid, mainly female workforce "like cattle." (Moktar Mahouli/AFP/Getty Images) (Moktar Mahouli/AFP/Getty Images)

The question of why some militaries repress protesters while others side with them has taken on renewed interest. In recent weeks, militaries in Algeria and Sudan abandoned their dictators in the face of protests, while the United States has failed to get Venezuela’s to do the same. These events have led scholars to reflect on the factors that influence military defection and loyalty, such as the officers’ material interests, offers of immunity for past abuses and expectations of how other officers will respond.

Additional lessons, however, can be learned from Tunisia. In 2011, mass protests ousted Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. While close accounts suggest that Ben Ali did not ask the military to fire, most believe the military would have refused if asked. More explicitly, in May 2017, President Beji Caid Essebsi publicly asked the military to defend an oil site in Tataouine from protesters. Ten days later, the military instead allowed the protesters to break into and shut down the oil pump. Why does the Tunisian military routinely side with protesters?

In a new article for International Studies Quarterly, I examined this question by surveying 72 retired senior military officers. In the survey, I asked the officers how they would respond if they were ordered to fire on protesters. Two factors emerged as significant predictors of defection.

Identity and influence in Tunisia’s military

The first was the officers’ identity. The majority of the Tunisian military, especially the lower ranks, are recruited from the country’s interior regions. These regions have for decades been neglected relative to the coast, and therefore produce or initiate many of the protests, such as in Sidi Bouzid in 2010-2011 and Tataouine in 2017. Coming from the same interior regions, the Tunisian military tends to sympathize with the demands of their protesting brethren. In the survey, officers who were from the interior regions were almost twice as likely to side with protesters as officers from the coast.

More generally, these results suggest that the composition of the military relative to the protesters plays a critical role in defection. Military personnel are unlikely to repress members of their own group — be it an ethnic, regional or ideological group — and conversely, are more likely to repress the out-group. While the existing literature focuses exclusively on ethnicity, a similar logic should affect any identity group.

Beyond composition, the second predictor of defection in the survey was the military’s corporate interests. The Tunisian military was historically marginalized relative to the Ministry of Interior, suffering from lower wages, dilapidated equipment and little influence over policy. While much has improved after the revolution, officers continue to seek greater influence over national security policy. In the survey, officers who were not satisfied with the level of political influence afforded to them by the government were significantly more supportive of defection. These results suggest that military officers care not just about their material interests, but also about their political power — in this case, their policy influence.

In short, the Tunisian military’s composition and corporate interests have likely shaped its refusal to repress protests. These findings bode well for Tunisia’s nascent democracy, as they suggest that future presidents will be unable to rely on the military for repression. While a future strongman could in theory enhance the military’s corporate interests in an effort to convince it to repress, its composition is more difficult to change. The coastal regions are the electoral strongholds of counterrevolutionary parties; forcing these regions to send their sons to the military would be political suicide. But with a military predominantly recruited from interior regions, coastal elites will be less able to initiate a violent reversal to autocracy.

Implications for Algeria

These findings also help us to better understand other cases of military defection. Consider neighboring Algeria, where the military last month abandoned President Abdelaziz Bouteflika in the face of mass protests against his rule. This defection was somewhat surprising, as Bouteflika had largely satisfied the military’s corporate interests. Politically, the military had ruled from behind the scenes and materially profited from a swelling budget and corruption.

As I’ve argued before, the Algerian military’s composition relative to the protesters can help to explain its behavior. The Algerian military has historically leaned secular and Arab, allowing it to repress out-groups: Islamists in the 1990s and Kabyle Berbers in the 2000s. But today’s protesters are a cross-section of society — Arabs and Berbers, Islamists and secularists. The Algerian military finds it much more difficult to repress such protests when their brothers and sisters may be in the crowd.

The challenge now for Algeria is the path forward. So long as the pro-democracy movement remains unified and mobilized, the military will continue to find it difficult to repress such large, crosscutting protests. But if the pro-democracy movement fragments, perhaps as the result of elections, the regime may be able to paint the protesters as primarily a narrower out-group — say, Islamists or Berbers. It will then become much more likely that the military will repress.

Sharan Grewal is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Brookings Institution and an assistant professor of government at the College of William & Mary. The author would like to extend his gratitude to those who helped in conducting the survey.