A military dictatorship is a form of government wherein the political power resides within the military; it is similar but not identical to a stratocracy, i.e., a state ruled directly by the military. Like all dictatorships, a military dictatorship may be official or unofficial, and as a result may not actually qualify as stratocratic (some military dictators, like Manuel Noriega, are nominally subordinate to the civil government). Mixed forms also exist, where the military exerts a very strong influence without being entirely dominant.
The typical military dictatorship in Latin America is ruled by a junta (derived from a Spanish word which can be translated as "conference" or "board"), or a committee composed of the military's most senior leadership. Other military dictatorships are entirely in the hands of a single officer, usually the senior army commander. In either case, the chairman of the junta or the single commander may often personally assume office as head of state.
Most military dictatorships are formed after a coup d'état has overthrown the previous government. One very different pattern was that followed by Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq which began as a Ba'ath Party state but over the course of existence became a military dictatorship as its leaders donned uniforms and the military became closely involved in the government.
In the past, military juntas have justified their rule as a way of bringing political stability for the nation or rescuing it from the threat of dangerous ideologies. In Latin America the threat from communism was generally used, in the Middle East danger from Israel and later Islamic fundamentalism proved an important motivating pattern. Military regimes tend to portray themselves as non-partisan, and a "neutral" party that can provide interim leadership in times of turmoil, and also tend to portray civilian politicians as corrupt and ineffective. One of the almost universal degrees of a military government is the institution of martial law or a permanent state of emergency.
Although there are exceptions, military regimes usually have little respect for human rights and use whatever means necessary to silence political opponents. A military regime is also rarely willing to leave power unless forced to by popular revolt, whether active or imminent.
Latin America, Africa, and the Middle East have been common areas for military dictatorships. Much of the reason is that the military often has more cohesion and institutional structure than most of the other institutions of society.
Military dictatorships can be contrasted with other forms of dictatorship. In most current and historical communist states, the center of power exists in civilian party officials, and very careful measures such as political officers and frequent rotations are taken to prevent the military from exercising independent authority.
Since the 1990s, military dictatorships have become less common. Reasons for this include the fact that military dictatorships no longer have much international legitimacy, as well as the fact that many militaries having unsuccessfully ruled many nations are now inclined not to become involved in political disputes. Furthermore, the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union made it more difficult for military regimes to use communism as justification for their actions, or to gain support from foreign sources.
In Latin America the regimes were replaced by democracies. In the Middle East regimes such as those of Syria and Egypt that were once clearly military dictatorships have switched to other forms of despotism.