Role Model or Role Expansion? Popular Perceptions of the Military in Tunisia

Published date01 June 2022
Date01 June 2022
Subject MatterArticles
2022, Vol. 75(2) 321 –337
Political Research Quarterly
© 2021 University of Utah
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/10659129211001451
This article analyzes popular attitudes toward the mili-
tary’s role in politics. Prior survey research has shown
that the vast majority of people, across a wide variety of
political and socioeconomic contexts, have very positive
perceptions of the armed forces. Empirical evidence can
be found across the globe, including countries in the West
and the Global South, and also across different political
regime types, including democracies and authoritarian
regimes. Yet, beyond generally positive attitudes, we
know very little about people’s preferences for the role
that the military should play in politics and society. This
prompts us to pose a broad question: who wants the mili-
tary to adopt which role in society and politics? More pre-
cisely, we remain interested in why some individuals
prioritize the military to primarily serve in its traditional
role of providing security from external and domestic
threats while others prioritize role expansion, which is an
expanded role for the armed forces in politics, society,
and the economy.
This puzzle is important not only for scholars of civil–
military relations but also for students of democratic tran-
sitions. Understanding who wants the military to do what
in the context of such transitions will allow us to disag-
gregate the highly abstract notion of trust in the armed
forces. Moreover, in the context of an unfolding demo-
cratic transition, military intervention in politics remains a
major alternative to the uncertainties associated with the
democratic process. Unpacking support for military role
expansion will therefore generate insights into the drivers
of anti-system attitudes. Our study of popular perceptions
toward military role expansion promises to contribute to
the literature on civil–military relations and the research
program on democratic consolidation.
In this article, we explore politics in Tunisia, a country
experiencing a volatile transition process since the oust-
ing of longtime dictator Zine El-Abedine Ben Ali in 2011.
We uncover which political cleavages drive variation in
support of role expansion, which we conceptualize as the
military’s increased engagement in politics. Our investi-
gation focuses on two contrasting cleavages in contempo-
rary Tunisian politics: first, a cleavage going back to the
authoritarian past and pitting the losers of the recent dem-
ocratic transition against elites who rose to influence as a
result of the revolution; and second, an insider/outsider
cleavage between supporters of the post-authoritarian
1001451PRQXXX10.1177/10659129211001451Political Research QuarterlyAlbrecht et al.
1The University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, USA
2Leiden University, The Netherlands
Corresponding Author:
Holger Albrecht, The University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, AL 35487-
0166, USA.
Role Model or Role Expansion? Popular
Perceptions of the Military in Tunisia
Holger Albrecht1, Michael Bufano1, and Kevin Koehler2
This article introduces a theory on military role expansion in emerging democracies and poses a broad question: who
wants the military to adopt which role in society and politics? Drawing on an original, nationally representative survey
conducted in Tunisia, the article explores people’s preferences for the military to remain a security provider or serve
in government and contribute to policing protests. Findings reveal that public support for military role expansion is
substantial and varies across political cleavages. We test hypotheses to account for cleavages driven by the country’s
authoritarian past versus partisan divides during Tunisia’s transition to democracy. Findings indicate that popular
support for military role expansion is driven by anti-system sentiments prevalent in contemporary Tunisian politics:
while voters prefer the military as a role model for security provision, non-voters support its enhanced role in politics.
These observations have ample implications for the research programs on civil–military relations and the dynamics of
democratic consolidation. Tunisia’s experience warrants greater attention to anti-system attitudes caused by people’s
disillusionment with democratic procedures. In turn, authoritarian legacies do not appear to play a prominent role
during such challenging transitions toward democratic consolidation.
military, Tunisia, role expansion, opinion poll, democratic consolidation
322 Political Research Quarterly 75(2)
2 Political Research Quarterly 00(0)
elite compromise that led to the current democratic sys-
tem, on the one hand, and constituencies who might not
feel adequately represented in democratic Tunisia, on the
other hand. Based on these general premises, we consider
two rivaling hypotheses on attitudes regarding military
role expansion in post-authoritarian Tunisia. First, the
authoritarian holdover hypothesis suggests that support
for, or opposition against, role expansion is driven by
preferences based on the pre-revolutionary constellation
of political forces—in particular, on opposition against
the rise of a new set of political elites and resistance to
transitional justice. Second, the anti-system hypothesis
holds that a lack of trust in new democratic political insti-
tutions drives expectations for the military to take on a
more prominent role in politics.
Drawing on an original nationally representative sur-
vey (2017) as well as on the most recent wave of the
Afrobarometer survey, we report two main findings.
First, popular support for military role expansion is sub-
stantial with close to 50 percent of Tunisians calling on
the military to assume a more prominent role in policing
protests and serving in government. Second, this support
is primarily driven by an insider/outsider cleavage and
not by differences deriving from the authoritarian past.
From a larger perspective, the challenges of consolidation
faced by post-authoritarian Tunisia bear greater similari-
ties to the challenges of populism in other parts of the
world than to issues of post-authoritarian civil–military
relations more narrowly conceived.
The remainder of this article proceeds as follows: we
first discuss the theoretical background of our inquiry. We
then briefly examine politics in contemporary Tunisia to
develop testable hypotheses on variance in popular per-
ceptions of military role expansion. A third section out-
lines our research design and introduces the survey data
upon which our findings are based. A fourth section
reports our empirical findings before we conclude by
summarizing our argument and suggesting implications
for further research.
Perceptions of the Military
Existing public opinion research across the globe empha-
sizes overwhelmingly positive perceptions of the mili-
tary. Scholars of public attitudes in Western countries
have reported high levels of trust in the military gener-
ally (Burbach 2017; Hines et al. 2015; King and Karabell
2003) but also in specific policies associated with the
military, including defense spending (Simon and Lovrich
2010) and veteran affairs (Kleykamp, Hipes, and
MacLean 2017). Surveys report very high levels of pop-
ular trust in the military across time and different coun-
tries, regions, cultures, and political regime types.
Relying on available data, the inevitable conclusion is
that the military is among the most trusted institutions in
the world.
Take the Arab Barometer as an example.1 As Figure 1
shows, the surveys report values between 76 and 82 per-
cent for all countries included and even higher levels of
trust when focusing only on Tunisia. Alternative data
sources produce a similar picture. According to the Pew
Global Attitudes surveys, the percentage of respondents
who insisted that the Tunisian military had a good or very
good influence on how things were going in the country
stood well above 90 in 2012, 2013, and 2014 (Holmes
and Koehler 2020, 21). The World Values Survey suggests
that almost two out of three people worldwide trust the
armed forces. Popular trust in the armed forces is near-
universal and much higher than trust in civilian political
Despite these seemingly robust findings, we remain
interested in variance among social and political constitu-
encies regarding their perceptions of the military as well
as their preferences for more specific dimensions of mili-
tary activity in politics and the economy. Hines et al.
(2015), for instance, lament that public support for the
military in the United Kingdom is high even though
respondents had a limited understanding of what the mili-
tary was doing. Neither have respondents offered support
for the conflicts in which the military was engaged,
namely, in Iraq and Afghanistan. With regard to the
United States, scholars report significant differences
along partisan divides with respect to people’s percep-
tions of the military (Krebs and Ralston 2020).
The question of what people exactly like about the
military is particularly salient outside of the universe of
consolidated democracies. Civil–military relations theory
in consolidated democracies is based on the idea that sov-
ereign democratic states create standing armies under
civilian control to protect the polity against external ene-
mies (Huntington 1957; Janowitz 1960). In many parts of
the developing world, the military has not always acted in
accordance with this Huntingtonian role model. Instead,
many countries of the developing world have experi-
enced what Alfred Stepan (1973) called military “role
expansion”: the assumption of tasks in politics, the econ-
omy, and society writ large beyond the mere provision of
external security. While Alfred Stepan, in his formative
contribution, has been primarily interested in the conse-
quences of military role expansion—for instance, mili-
tary autonomy from civilian oversight, military
effectiveness, and human rights—we remain inspired to
study popular preferences regardless of whether the mili-
tary does in fact assume a greater role in politics.
To begin with, we set out to explore attitudes toward
military role expansion and therefore reintroduce a
research topic that has largely been ignored since the work
conducted in the guise of modernization theory a half

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