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.
“What’s In a Name? Experimental Evidence of the Coup Taboo” (with Sharan Grewal), Democratization, March 2022.
Does public support for military intervention decrease when it is labelled a coup? If so, how large is this “coup taboo”? We provide the first empirical evidence of the coup taboo across three large-scale survey experiments in Egypt, Algeria, and Tunisia. Across all three countries, we find that the coup taboo is substantial, with support for the military hypothetically removing the president falling by 15 to 50 percentage points when labelled as a coup. These results underscore the importance of labels, and suggest that anti-coup norms may be superficial, decreasing support for military interventions only when referred to as coups.
In this essay I use research on civilian support for and involvement in coups in the Middle East to contribute to the debate about Donald Trump’s efforts to remain in power beyond his legal term as the President of the United States. The essay introduces the concept of coup advocacy—or efforts by civilians to promote a coup in support of a wider political cause. I argue in favor of a simple definition of a coup d’état: a coordinated and rapid attempt to seize executive authority by violent or extralegal means. This definition centers classification of coups on the aims and actions of perpetrators, rather than their identity as civilians or soldiers.
“Civilian Coup Advocacy,” Encyclopedia of Civil-Military Relations (eds. Hicham Bou Nassif, Claremont McKenna, and William Thompson, Indiana University), Oxford University Press.
Available scholarship on civil-military relations and coup politics tends to treat military coups as originating purely within the minds of military officers, assuming that the idea to seize power stems from officer cliques. To the extent that societal factors (e.g., polarization, economic decline, party factionalism, sectarianism) explain coups, they merely account for why officers decide to seize power. Most research that discusses civilian support for coups does so within single case studies—almost entirely drawn from the Middle East and North Africa. Building on recent scholarship that disaggregates civil-military institutions, a small body of recent research has begun to systematically and comprehensively consider the theoretical and empirical importance of civilian involvement in coups. This perspective de-emphasizes the military’s possession of weapons and instead focuses on ideational sources of power. Civilian elites and masses often legitimate coups, organize them, manipulate information on behalf of the plotters, and finance coups for their own economic interests.
“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), revise & resubmit, 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.
“Trump-World on Horseback: Conservative Coup Advocacy in the United States,” revise & resubmit, International Studies Review (forum, organized by Jonathan Powell, Central Florida, and Erica De Bruin, Hamilton College).
This article uses research on civilian support for and involvement in Middle East coups to contribute to the debate about Donald Trump’s efforts to remain in power beyond his legal term as President of the United States. I argue in favor of a simple definition of a coup d’état: a coordinated and rapid attempt to seize executive authority. This definition centers classification of coups on the aims and actions of perpetrators, rather than their identity), and is broad enough to capture both traditional coups and “self-coups.” I argue that the storming of the U.S. Capitol on January 6 fits this definition. I classify this coup attempt under the rubric of civilian coup advocacy—or efforts by civilians to promote a coup in support of a wider political cause—which expands the scope of politically important “coup-adjacent” events worthy of study. Additionally, the plan that retired General Michael Flynn publicly floated, and that President Trump later pushed privately in the White House in December 2020, amounted to an invitation for the United States military to weigh-in on a civilian political dispute in favor of conservatives. Civilian coup advocacy such as this undermines norms needed to preserve democratic life, such as the prohibition against extra-legal and violent political competition, as well as the norm of civilian supremacy over the military. It signals to the conservative bloc that in exceptional political circumstances the army’s assistance is crucial, not forbidden.
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).
Soldiers and political elites in the Middle East have joined forces to stage coups since at least the Ottoman Young Turk movement. This activity is as puzzling as it is common. When civilians advocate for coups they not only put their followers and constituents at risk but also violate socio-political norms prohibiting the armed forces’s entrance into civilian political affairs. This essay demonstrates that revolutionary post-colonial Syrian and Iraqi party leaders (e.g., Ba‘thists, Syrian and Iraqi Communists, Arab Socialists, Syrian Social Nationalists) were well aware of their normative transgressions and expressed discomfort with inviting soldiers into politics. Their concern stemmed from contestation typical of any new nation-state: its development demarcated an analytical boundary between civilian elites and soldiers who were meant to serve the state. The essay is centered around these political figures’ internal and public deliberations about the proper role that soldiers should play in their revolutionary movements. The Turkish coup movement, Yön-Devrim, is also discussed by way of comparison. Research for the study is based on a variety of primary sources, such as Arabic language newspapers, biographies, and memoirs; de-classified CIA memos; British Foreign Office records; documents from the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
“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