In 1949 witnesses spotted leftist party leaders Akram Hawrani and Faydi Atassi in Damascus with submachine guns engaged in an assault on the Ministry of Defense alongside soldiers of the Syrian Army. While politicians have long been portrayed as passive victims of military coups, they are often their perpetrators. It is confounding why civilians would choose to violate the norm of civilian supremacy over the armed forces. Yet no study has attempted to explain the crucial role that civilians play in military coups d’état, thus obscuring the widely recognized empirical fact of civil-military coup coalitions. My book book project, Politicians at Arms, investigates the domestic, regional, and international conditions in which party leaders extend political competition into their armed forces.
Research for the book is based on a variety of sources including Arabic language memoirs, manifestos, and private papers; consular reports of the British Foreign Office; and documents from the French Ministère des Affaires étrangères. I find that post-colonial Syrian and Iraqi politicians turned to the army for assistance because elites were polarized over the political and economic consequences of (de-)colonization; national, economic, and institutional development; and the regional and international security environment during World War II and the Cold War. Anti-establishment parties were intolerant of their conservative rivals’s custodianship over post-colonial states, but electoral inequalities prevented serious challenges to the status quo. Opposition parties, however, were too factionalized to coordinate resistance, so Ba’athists, Communists, Arab Socialists, Islamic Socialists, Arab Nationalists, Social Nationalists, and Nasserists established party cells in their militaries and built armed alliances for revolution.
My research improves our understanding of coup politics as well as authoritarian persistence in the Middle East. Building on Politicians at Arms, my essay Sharing Saddles outlines a theory of elite polarization and oligarchic dissatisfaction to show that guaranteeing military prerogatives does not secure the military's exit from the political sphere. Even where a segment of the political class secures the consent to rule from refractory officers, rivalries among the political elite undermine cross-partisan coalitions aimed at establishing democratic civilian control over the armed forces. Case studies of Tunisia (2011-14) and Egypt (2011-13) are based on interviews (conducted virtually from June-October 2020) with businesspersons, party leaders, and civil society activists; tax-offshoring data from the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ); loan disbursement data from the World Bank and IMF; and secondary sources in Arabic, French, and English.
“Sharing Saddles: Oligarchs and Officers on Horseback in Egypt and Tunisia,” International Studies Quarterly. January 2021.
I find that oligarchic elites veto attempts to establish civilian control over the armed forces when the prospect of democratization threatens their wealth and status. Establishing civilian control over the military thus depends not on the success of elite civil-military pacts but on the ability to balance revolutionary demands for social and economic justice with the interests of oligarchs and officers. Analysts and security sector reformers should pay attention to the grievances of civilian elites, instead of merely defining and accommodating the interests of refractory officers.
“Politicians at Arms: Civilian Recruitment of Soldiers for Middle East Coups,” Armed Forces & Society. June 2019.
This essay examines the conditions in which politicians recruit soldiers to seize power by investigating the understudied processes of military takeovers. Using British Foreign Office documents, Arabic language memoirs, and Polity data, I find that civilian statesmen in Iraq (1936) and Syria (1951) could not tolerate their civilian rivals’ incumbency but were unable to challenge them peacefully, so they recruited like-minded officers for coups. This suggests that while politicians do not necessarily want the army in the chambers, they sometimes favor praetorianism to the continued rule of their civilian opponents.
“Civilian Actors in the Turkish Military Drama of July 2016,” Eastern Mediterranean Policy Note. September 2016.
Wayward elements of the Turkish armed forces attempted a coup on July 15, 2016, deploying in critical locations in Ankara and Istanbul. Working under the assumption that civilian and military actors do not always have divergent interests, this article examines three questions about the role that civilians played in the drama of the military coups d’état. First, did civilians orchestrate the Turkish coup? Second, what was the civilian contribution to preventing the coup's success? Third how can we expect civilians to react to coups in different institutional and social environments?
Politicians at Arms: Coup Advocacy in the Post-Colonial Middle East, 1936-2016 (book monograph), under review, Cambridge University Press.
Civilians have long been portrayed as the passive victims of military takeovers, but they are often coup perpetrators. Helping soldiers seize power not only violates social and political norms, but also puts political leaders and their constituencies at risk of physical danger. When civilians transfer their social and political capital to armed agents, they increase their country’s coup-proneness by offering soldiers the dangerous combination of the sword and the pen. This is the puzzle from which Politicians at Arms derives its research question: why would politicians and political parties infiltrate their military and enlist soldiers in coup conspiracies? The book is the first systematic and comprehensive account of the crucial role that civilians play in advocating for Middle East coups. With over four-dozen accounts of twentieth century coups and attempts, the book tells the story of revolutionary party leaders who lurked behind the scenes while their partisans’s tanks occupied Damascus, Baghdad, Ankara, and Tehran. Their alliances with soldiers challenge the narrative that in coup-prone states those who possess the weapons dictate political outcomes.
“The Coup Taboo: Normative Effects of Stigmatized Coup Politics,” under review.
Is there a normative proscription against military coups? Using literatures on the legitimacy of military rule and anti-coup norms, this essay articulates the normative boundaries of stigmatized coups politics. The study assesses the operation of a coup taboo with case comparisons of Egypt (2013) and Turkey (2016)—as well as a brief historical survey of Iraq (1936-41), Syria (1949-70), and Turkey (1960-2011). Research is based on Arabic language memoirs and newspapers; interviews; reports from the British Foreign Office; fieldwork in Egypt in July 2013; and secondary sources in English and Arabic. First, the taboo regulates social behavior in situations where public discourse focuses on the legitimacy of coups. Second, anti-coup norms define membership to a community of legitimate states. Third, there are two unintended consequences of the coup taboo: (a) regimes that survive coup attempts use anti-coup norms to justify repression (Turkey, 2016); and (b) coup-makers have developed parallel norms to circumvent the taboo, like calling their behavior revolutionary (Egypt, 2013).
“Civilian Coup Advocacy: An Overview,” chapter in Encyclopedia of Civil-Military Relations (edited by Hicham Bou Nassif, Claremont McKenna College, and William Thompson, Indiana University) under contract with Oxford University Press.
“Learning from the Banality of Bolivia’s coup,” War on the Rocks. February 26, 2020.
“A Pyrrhic Victory? Addressing Expectations and Reality in the Wake of Tunisia’s Elections,” Democracy & Society, October 23, 2019.
“What the history of coups in the Middle East tells us about Venezuela,” The Washington Post. May 2, 2019.
“The Invisible Line: Soldiers and Civilians in the Middle East,” Jadaliyya. July 17, 2018.
Archival Research, Le Centre des Archives Diplomatiques, Nantes, France, August 2018.
Archival Research, The National Archives, United Kingdom, London, UK, August 2018.
Archival Research, Hoover Institution, Stanford University, Stanford, CA, July 2018.
Archival Research, The American University of Beirut, Beirut, Lebanon, July 2017.
Archival Research, The National Archives of the United Kingdom, London, UK, August 2016.
Field Research, Document Collection & Interviews, Amman, Jordan, August 2015-June 2016.
Field Research, Interviews with Palestinian Authority Ministers, West Bank, December 2014-January 2015.
Field Research, Short trip to Egypt to observe the Tamarod coup movement, Cairo, July 2013.
Grants & Awards
Duke Program in American Grand Strategy, Duke University.
2019. Travel grant rewarded for November 2019 Young Turks Workshop.
All-University Dissertation Prize, Syracuse University.
2019. Awarded for outstanding doctoral dissertation.
Hoover Institution, Stanford University.
2018 ($1,000+). Participant in the Workshop on Authoritarianism & Democratic Breakdown.
The Cohn Fund, Maxwell School, Syracuse University.
2018 ($4,000). Research grant rewarded for best external funding application.
American Political Science Association.
2018 ($200). Travel grant rewarded for Annual Meeting.
Andrew Berlin National Security Fund, Institute for National Security and Counterterrorism, Syracuse University.
2016-17 ($4,690). Research grant rewarded for research in security studies.
The John D. Nagle Fund, Maxwell School, Syracuse University.
2016 ($900). Grant rewarded to students conducting overseas research on socio-political change and injustice.
The Roscoe-Martin Fund, Maxwell School, Syracuse University.
2015-17 ($2,590). Grant rewarded for dissertation writing.
Middle Eastern Studies Program, Maxwell School, Syracuse University.
2013 & 2015 ($2,500). Grant rewarded for research, study, and travel in the Middle East.
Documents & Data
Middle East Political Elites (MEPE), a repository for historical data on Middle East elites, like memoirs, private papers, & manifestos
Politicians at Arms, Memoirs, in Arabic; reports of the Britain's Foreign Office; consular reports from French MAE