‘Soldiers of Democracy?’ by Sharan Grewal: Why militaries support and thwart transition to democracy : The Tribune India

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‘Soldiers of Democracy?’ by Sharan Grewal: Why militaries support and thwart transition to democracy

‘Soldiers of Democracy?’ by Sharan Grewal: Why militaries support and thwart transition to democracy

Soldiers of Democracy? Military Legacies and the Arab Spring by Sharan Grewal. Oxford University Press. Pages 336. £25

Navtej Singh

This pioneering work by Sharan Grewal, based on his revised PhD dissertation, focuses on the political transformation from autocracy to democracy through detailed case studies of Egypt and Tunisia. It is based on primary and secondary sources, personal interviews with civilian and military leaders, along with surveys of military personnel. He also probes the generalisability of the theory through a cross-national analysis of all countries between 1946 and 2010. The author brings the military front and centre to the study of democratic transition and consolidation, and examines critically why some militaries support and others thwart the transition to democracy.

The mass protests in the Arab world came to be known as the ‘Arab Spring’. The protesters rallied for food, freedom and social justice and demanded an end to the decades of dictatorships. While each country’s path to breakdown was unique and multi-faceted, a critical element in every story was the role of the military. This, Grewal stresses, was not unique to the region. Militaries often decisively shape whether a transition is initiated in the first place, making or breaking revolutions, triggering defections or standing up in defence of the dictator.

Grewal is of the view that despite their centrality, militaries have been relatively neglected in the study of democratisation. Scholars have focused less on understanding militaries and their motivations and more on the underlying factors: poverty, recession, lack of education or polarisation. He argues that it has been less clear why some militaries seize these opportunities and others — “soldiers of democracy” — ignore them. Likewise, the elites may want to use the military to repress the lower classes or to help them stage increment takeovers, yet it is less clear why the military sometimes obeys and other times does not.

The author highlights an under-studied structural factor — military legacies — that shapes the chances that democracy takes root. Although some scholars have begun to explore how coup-proofing shapes the military response to mass uprisings, the author extends these studies to show how they also shape democratic transition and consolidation. He aims to refine the understanding of what shapes the military’s attitudes towards democracy.

Grewal stresses that in contrast to the popular perception that the era of military coups has passed, the reality is that the military is likely to play an even larger role in future democratic transitions.

The author comes to the conclusion that in Tunisia, a military neglected and counter-balanced under autocracy saw its position improve under democracy. In Egypt, a military empowered under autocracy saw its privileges curtailed.

In fact, Tunisian and Egyptian militaries exhibit major differences in their corporate interests, composition and professionalism. Each of these variables should shape how these militaries view the revolution and democratic transition. In Tunisia, all three factors pointed towards supporting the democratic transition, while in Egypt, they pointed towards overthrowing it, thereby validating the author’s theory that a dictator’s coup-proofing strategy can create legacies that shape the process of democratisation.

Grewal argues that the desire for democracy is universal and contagious, yet democracy is by no means guaranteed to take root. New democracies must respect the military’s interests. He concludes that the military’s behaviour under democracy is shaped by how it had been treated under autocracy. Autocrats who had empowered their militaries produce soldiers who will repress protests and stage coups to preserve their privileges. On the other, autocrats who had marginalised their militaries produce soldiers who support democratising, but who are also more susceptible to incumbent takeovers and civil wars. The dictator’s choice to either empower or marginalise the military thus creates legacies that shape both the likelihood of democratisation and the forms by which it breaks down.

The structural factors and role of the international community also have a significant place. For the author, keeping the military far from politics is typically the better option for democracy. Thus, the control of power is a shared phenomenon and cannot be the sole individual wish.

Grewal’s book reflects his meticulous analysis and highlights new aspects of power and its control, along with recommendations for the future.


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