Tag: revolutions

Guest Post: What way will the guns point in the Middle East?

Building on Dan’s observation this past week, Theo McLauchlin is a PhD student at McGill University offers us some insights on the role of the military in the various Arab revolutions we’re witnessing. He works in the area of military defections and civil wars.

Which Middle Eastern regimes seem liable to fall? That’s a popular question these days, and an important answer, as Dan Nexon points out, is that it depends on each country’s armed forces. But what they are likely to do is something most people don’t seem inclined to speculate about. That caution is warranted, as I’ll argue below. But what can we say? What ideas do we have at our disposal for thinking through what militaries will do?

One important factor might be professionalization. Lucan Way notes that in comparison with the rest of the Middle East, Tunisia and Egypt seemed to have relatively professional, depoliticized armed forces, able and willing therefore to act in concert to say “enough”. The regimes lacked the “coup-proofing” techniques that, according to a quite extensive literature, have helped prop up authoritarian regimes across the Middle East. You promote your friends, marginalize your adversaries, and don’t trust anyone too much. Multiple different internal security agencies, for example, keep an eye both on officers and on each other. If an officer is plotting a coup, he stands an awfully good chance of being reported by someone else eager to curry the dictator’s favour. These techniques really do seem effective at preventing coups.

Despite some confusion about how to think about Egypt–John Barry and Christopher Dickey argue that it was in spite of Mubarak’s coup-proofing that he fell, not because he didn’t do it enough–there’s a lot going for this approach. But it shouldn’t be taken too far. It is not as though heavily politicized armies have a great overall track record of defending regimes. For example, in comparing China in 1989 to Indonesia in 1998, Terrence Lee finds quite the opposite: China’s more professional army stood by its regime while Indonesia’s more heavily politicized armed forces fell apart.

Lee makes the point that coup-proofing isn’t necessarily meant to deal with massive popular uprisings. The threat of punishment for defection depends on the willingness of others to inflict it. It’s rational for an officer do the regime’s bidding as long as, but only as long as, he expects the regime to survive. When officers have good reason to believe that the regime will fall, they have heavy incentives to make sure they’re not backing a losing horse. And popular uprisings can throw a previously stable expectation out the window. As I argued in a paper last year, an external rebellion can provoke a cascade effect within the military. Timur Kuran’s insights about the tipping point in Eastern Europe in 1989 can apply to armed forces too. This is how it’s possible for officers and soldiers to defect from a dictator despite fearsome coup-proofing systems.

The trouble for the analyst is, as Kuran argued, that this implies that prediction is extremely difficult if not impossible. Everyone has a strong incentive to keep their preferences and their likely actions a secret–from the dictator and, necessarily, from us.

But in my paper I also tried to develop some limits to these revolutionary cascades. In particular, some regimes are governed by minority groups that are given heavy preference–especially within the military. Jordan, Syria and Bahrain are important examples. This means that opposition tends to rally among out-groups–and, in consequence, the loyalty of the in-group gets reinforced. Essentially, over time, a stable expectation can develop, associating some groups with the regime and others with the opposition. In rebellions, they have little other choice than to stick with the regime. An East Bank officer in Jordan in 1970 was not likely to do well out of a PLO victory, nor an Alawi officer in Syria in 1982 from a Muslim Brotherhood victory. Palestinian and Sunni officers, respectively, were more likely to defect. While this makes regimes vulnerable to out-group opposition, it can be a perverse strength, because it gives regimes a relatively stable core of support to count on. You get a core of strong support at the cost of encouraging continuous, low-level unrest. It’s loyalty on the cheap.

One interesting consequence of this approach is that the regimes that look the least stable–Jordan in 1970, Syria in the late 1970s–can have a better chance of surviving a rebellion than regimes that look lots more solid, like Iran’s before 1978.

Is all this any help in understanding the Middle East today? It suggests attention not so much to professionalism vs. non-professionalism, but rather to how much of the army is closely identified with the regime. The answer in Egypt, by all accounts, is: not much. This helps explain why basically none of its army was willing to defend Mubarak to the hilt, unlike in Libya. It also helps explain why the army’s command had the flexibility to declare, early on, that they would not fire on unarmed protesters. They were able thereby to keep their own credibility with the opposition. And, given that many soldiers looked likely to disobey such an order, it’s unclear that the regime would have lasted anyway, even if the top brass had tried to crack down.

In Libya, more of the armed forces seems closely identified with the regime. More have therefore stayed with Gaddafi, with bloody consequences. Part of this has to do with Libya’s now-famous tribal divides. According to Hanspeter Mattes , Gaddafi’s own Gadhadhfa tribe, along with the Warfalla and Maqarha, have dominated the armed forces. However, both the Warfalla and the Maqarha have had a chequered history with the regime; Warfalla officers rebelled against Gaddafi in 1993 and picked up the support of some Maqarha officers (see this free but gated article). The Warfalla and Maqarha tribes have defected. I suspect, as do others, that the Gadhadhfa tribe will stick with the regime out of fear of what happens if they don’t. In this context I note that Gaddafi’s resort to bombing civilians might not just be because he is horrible and callous (though of course it has a lot to do with that, too). It may also have something to do with his tribe’s dominance in the air force. It reminds me that Hafez al-Assad used the Alawi-dominated air force and artillery at Hama in 1982 to awful effect. That is not a pleasant thought.

I could well be wrong, and I hope I am: one of the pilots who deliberately crashed his plane rather than bomb civilians was a Gadhadhfa tribe member.

More broadly, communal politics should provide a bulwark to the regimes in Syria, Jordan, and Bahrain. It’s in the latter where the protests are strongest at the moment. And there, the opposition has attempted to cut across the Sunni/Shi’ite divide, but the regime seems to know where its strengths are: it’s been specifically targeting Sunni protest leaders. (I’m not sure this applies to Yemen’s north/south divide; the fact that the south seems to aim at secession rather than a government takeover suggests it’s not so easy to blame for protests in Sana’a.) Every regime tries to delegitimize its opposition, with Gaddafi’s Bin Laden conspiracy theory only the most absurd attempt so far. In Bahrain, the regime has more to work with.

My approach fully accepts the extreme difficulty of making predictions where there aren’t communal divides. I don’t think either Tunisia or Egypt (or Algeria, or Morocco, or Saudi Arabia) was really a foregone conclusion. We can try to understand both in retrospect, but I don’t claim that we could have predicted the fall of either regime terribly easily. It is still just as amazing as it ever was.

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Middle Eastern Dictator Speech Bingo: Threatened by Revolution Edition

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Egyptian “People Power,” Civil Society, and the U.S.

 The prospect of a new government in Egypt opens huge uncertainties for the U.S., Europe, and the Middle East.  At this point, no one can predict what that new government will be.  But it is clear that there will be substantial change, even if Mubarak hangs on.  A military regime is possible.  A transition government, perhaps led by Mohamed ElBaradei, leading to democratic elections also seems possible–and would be the best outcome.

Notwithstanding the uncertainties, it is worthwhile to think more about the implications.  In the long term, the events of last week would seem to mean more democracy or at least more democratic input into government in Egypt.   Regardless, any new government will likely mean leaders less willing to do the bidding of the U.S., whether because of their own beliefs or because of the force of popular sentiment.  (Certainly an important undercurrent in the journalistic reporting has been strong anti-American sentiments expressed by many of the protesters.)  It is good that American policymakers seem to realize this.  President Obama is quoted as stating several times at a high level meeting yesterday that “the outcome has to be decided by the Egyptian people, and the U.S. cannot be in a position of dictating events”–or, in my view, much influencing them.

In the longer term, the U.S. needs to accept the likelihood that a new Egyptian government might be  “anti-American” and anti-Israeli.  Certainly this is likely if elected democracy eventually ensues.  Given huge, decades-long U.S. support for the unpopular and illegitimate government, it would be surprising if Egyptians felt differently.  The result is likely to be an Egyptian government which–surprise, surprise–does not share American foreign policy preferences.  Whether or not this is a more Islamically-influenced government matters less than the fact that it could better reflect popular sentiment in Egypt.

The U.S. has had a difficult time accepting the possibility that “Islamist” or even radical governments might actually be put in office by free and fair elections–by thinking people who see no better alternative in their societies.  U.S. opposition to the duly elected, Hamas government in the Palestinian Authority in 2006 is an obvious case in point.  But it is not necessarily the case that Islamist governments are so hostile to democratic values that after winning election they would destroy democracy.  Nor is it the case that, faced with the reality of governance, they would be unwilling to compromise.  Leaving aside the irony of such views when the U.S. has long supported our own set of Arab autocrats like Mubarak, experience in other parts of the world suggests that governments influenced or run by Islamically influenced political parties are not necessarily hostile to democracy and can be pragmatic.  Turkey is an obvious case in point.

Overall, the fact that soon we may no longer have pliable, autocratic clients in Egypt, Tunisia, and possibly other North African and Middle Eastern countries is, on balance, a good thing notwithstanding risks of short-term violence.  First, a more autonomous Egypt–or even simply a more unstable one–could exert greater pressure on Israel, expressly or tacitly, to reach a settlement with the Palestinians.  Added to American presidents’ ineffective “good cop” pressure on Israel will be another neighborhood “bad cop” that might help change the calculus of negotiation even among the Israeli right.  It is of course unclear how that might play itself out.  But a more democratic or more Islamically-influenced government will not necessarily mean war in the Middle East—and might even add pressure on Israel that would help promote peace.

Second, this and the Tunisian revolt once again demonstrate the force of “people power” seemingly untied to strong civil society associations.  Although the power of “spontaneous” nationwide popular revolts, whether made possible by new or old media, is ephemeral, it can of course have great effect—as centuries of revolution attest.

But the lesson for students of civil society—and for the American and other governments that seek to foster civil society–is broader.  When revolutionary moments end, civil society organizations probably will play an important role.  But in Egypt and other Islamic countries, a freer civil society is unlikely to look much like America’s.  

This seems to trouble U.S. policymakers. Consider this recent remark of Stephen J. Hadley, President Bush’s national security advisor:  “We should not press for early elections.  We should give the Egyptian people time to develop non-Islamic parties. The point is to gain time so that civil societies can develop, so when they have an election, they can have real choices.”  Hadley tacitly acknowledges that there are civil society groups in Egypt already—only, problematically in his view, they and opposition political parties are often tied to Islam.  That is in part a reflection of real sentiments on the ground, although in Egypt the Muslim Brotherhood seems to have been caught flat-footed by the popular revolt.  It also reflects the kind of regime the U.S. has helped maintain in power with billions in aid for decades—one that has repressed much of Egyptian civil society, notwithstanding American lip-service favoring democracy.  

A revived Egyptian civil society will not be wholly or perhaps even predominantly secular.   Islamic organizations are likely to hold considerable sway.  But there is no reason to fear or denigrate religiously-based civil society organizations.  American civil society is of course replete with religious groups, and they exert great influence in politics.  The fact that in the Middle East and North Africa these will inevitably by Muslim organizations is not necessarily problematic either.  As long as they are willing to play by democratic rules, their presence should be welcomed.  And many Islamic movements are willing to do so.  

Finally and most broadly, an Egyptian transition unexpected by American officials would reinforce the need to curb American hubris about its role in the world.  Too much of the U.S. foreign policy and military establishment believes and acts as if the U.S. has the right and the ability to manipulate other countries’ political systems, “in our favor.”  This has created vast distortions in our own political system, starting with grossly outsized defense budgets completely disproportionate to the threats we face.  For all that, we have never been able to “control” events overseas, as the Iranian revolution against America’s good friend the Shah demonstrated decades ago.

Leaving aside moral issues of America’s acting as if we are the world’s “indispensable nation,” the events in North Africa should again emphasize that we see no further into the future, and stand no taller than other nations–notwithstanding Madeline Albright’s delusions of grandeur.  And because we cannot control events in other countries, we should curb our penchant for trying to do so.  

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Tunisia… Egypt… Yemen…

We haven’t had much to say about these topics at the Duck. Which is fine, as there are much better academic bloggers to go to for informed commentary (e.g. Marc Lynch, Juan Cole, etc.). But I am struck by this AP story, which suggests Egypt is taking additional efforts to shut down internet communications (more here and here [note: holy &*!!, the whole country appears to be cut off]) as it ramps up its crackdown.

On a more abstract plane, Josh Tucker wrote an interesting post on revolution and revolutionary contagion that approvingly cites Timur Kuran’s influential work on the inevitability of revolutionary surprises.

2) One of the most interesting theoretical pieces I ever read about the collapse of communism was a 1991 World Politics article by Timur Kuran (gated, ungated). In this article, Kuran posits that even people living within a regime that is perched on the edge of collapse may not realize it. The mechanism here is to assume that different people have different thresholds for when they will be willing to publicly oppose the existing regime. Imagine a country with 10 people, one person who will protest if there is at least 1 other protesting, 1 if there are 2 other protesting, 1 if there are 3, etc. It is a stable equilibrium for no one to protest. However, if something happens to put just one person out on the streets (say, a particularly difficult interaction with the authorities, or, hypothetically speaking, an emotional response to someone setting themselves on fire), then suddenly everyone ends up protesting. Person 1 comes out because now there is 1 person on the streets. Once person one comes out, then person 2 comes out because there are 2 people on the street, and onward up the chain. The lesson of the story – in my opinion – is that as long as regimes are repressive and we can assume that citizens have accumulated grievances against the regime, then there is always the possibility that the regime could tumble precipitously.

Kuran published a variation of this argument in a symposium in the American Journal of Sociology on the why-did-we-miss-the-collapse-of-the-USSR issue , which also included a piece by Charles Tilly called “To Explain Political Processes”. In it, Tilly argues that:

This seems to me a very important thing to remember when we turn our analytic vision to unfolding events. For now, however, I find the personal accounts coming over listservs and across the web moving and inspiring. I hope the people of Egypt claim their democratic rights.

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Revisiting Skocpol on Iran’s Revolution

I happened to be consulting the triangle on page 83 of Skocpol’s Social Revolutions in the Modern World for an article I’m drafting, and came across her chapter “Rentier State and Shi’a Islam in the Iranian Revolution.” I decided to take a closer look to see if there were any insights that might help put recent events into a broader context. Indeed there were.

Now, Skocpol, a leading scholar of social revolutions before she was a scholar of health care reform, was commenting on the 1979 Iranian Revolution in 1981. It is striking how many of her insights could be useful today. On the context necessary for a revolution:

I have stressed, following Charles Tilly, that mass, lower-class participants in revolution cannot turn discontent into effective political action without autonomous collective organization and resources to sustain their efforts. Moreover, the repressive state organizations of the prerevolutionary regime have to be weakened before mass revolutionary action can succeed, or even emerge. Indeed, historically, mass rebellious action has not be able, in itself, to overcome state repression. Instead, military pressures from abroad , often accompanied by political splits between dominant classes and the state, have been necessary to undermine repression and open the way for social-revolutionary upheavals from below. In my view, social revolutions have not been caused by avowedly revolutionary movements in which an ideological leadership mobilizes mass support to overthrow an existing system in the name of a new alternative…

Currently missing in the current Iranian politics: open fracturing of the state security forces. Recent reports indicate that they are stacked (intentionally so) with Ahmadinejad loyalists. There is rampant speculation that there are rifts among the ruling elite, but no confirmation that any political splits between dominant classes and the state have actually emerged in a public fashion around which revolutionaries could mobilize.

Skocpol believed that

Revolutions are not made. They come.

The 1979 revolution challenged this wisdom, in that it was “made” to a certain degree. However, today, her original insight seems again prescient. Moussavi did not run as a revolutionary candidate, rather, his initial platform seemed much more of a modest reformer, and he has only radicalized post-election. Reflecting on the making of the 1979 revolution, Skocpol observed:

it was made through a set of cultural and organizational forms thoroughly socially embedded in the urban communal enclaves that became the centers of popular resistance to the Shah. Even when a revolution is to a significant degree ‘made,’ that is because a culture conducive to challenges to authority, as well as politically relevant networks of popular communication , are already historically woven into the fabric of social life. In an of themselves, the culture and networks of communication do not dictate mass revolutionary action. But if a historical conjuncture arises in which a vulnerable state faces oppositionally inclined social groups possessing solidarity, autonomy, and independent economic resources, then the sorts of moral symbols and forms of social communication offered by Shi’a Islam in Iran can sustain the self-conscious making of a revolution. No innovative revolutionary propaganda retailed to ‘the masses’ overnight, in the midst of a societal crisis, can serve this purpose. But a world-view and a set of social practices long in place can sustain a deliberate revolutionary movement.

In 1981, she was talking about the cultural resources of Shi’a Islam. Superimposing “the Internet” as the social network already woven into public life (as Iran has a rather high penetration of the internet and Farsi is one of the fastest growing languages in use on the web and blogosphere), and perhaps the infrastructure exists to sustain a deliberate revolutionary movement. As Gary Sick reminds us, don’t expect instant resolution to Iran’s political crisis. The 1979 revolution unfolded over the course of a year, with fits and starts, ebbs and flows, before the old regime collapsed.

Skocpol offers a useful reminder to temper our bold assertions made in the heat of the moment that any one particular event is necessarily a ‘game changer’ but at the same time, provides a framework for assessing how profound Iran’s political challenge are.

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Do you hear the people sing?

Three important steps in Iran over the past few days. Much of this is distilling the obvious, I think. Nevertheless…

1. The State has decided to confront the People directly, with violent force. In 1979, the Shah fled rather than order the security forces of the state to turn on the people as they revolted. Revolutions can fail and repressive often states survive uprisings through the use of repressive force. This raises the stakes considerably, as people will and have died to advance the cause of revolution.

It is at this point where the numbers really matter. Armed thugs can turn back a crowd of thousands, but not hundreds of thousands. Police can control large groups, but not hundreds of thousands of people determined to resist. If there are millions of people marching, it will take the military / revolutionary guards to repress them.

Regardless of how this ends up, the very act of the state ordering its security forces to suppress popular demonstrators in such a public fashion does rob it of its legitimacy. It is a tipping point–either tipping the regime to ultimate failure or tipping the regime to a true garrison state.

2. Based on the reporting in the Western press, there seem to be splits among the elites. This matters because these fractions within the regime rob it of its full power and ability to present a coherent counter to the resistance. As clerics and perhaps certain members of the military defect, it lends legitimacy to those countering the state. Most importantly, it impacts the calculus of the soldiers who may be asked to fire on the protesters–as they defect, the regime crumbles.

3. The position of the resistance’s leadership has “evolved” to give voice to the broad grievances the people are lodging against the government, providing a manifesto for revolution. In a sense, the leaders have finally figured out where their supporters are going and rushed to the front of the crowd. This is important, though, because revolutions need a voice, a theme, a message, a way to instill social purpose in a movement such that people are willing to put their lives on the line for the cause. With the state cracking down violently, it will be very important for the resistance to rally faith in the cause and move people to step up and stand in harms way–who will give all they can give so that a banner may advance?

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Elite cohesion faltering in Iran.. or just kubuki theater?

Today Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, ordered an investigation into allegations of vote fraud in the presidential election as “tens of thousands” of pro-Mousavi protesters took to the streets in a so-far peaceful march. The march suggests that despite the government’s extensive attempts to disrupt counter-regime mobilization, opposition leaders and ordinary people are making headway in coordinating their activities.

I still believe that events in Iran throw cold-water on network-mobilization optimism, insofar as they demonstrate that governments still enjoy, ceteris paribus, fundamental advantages over social movements, and that these advantages will often carry the day if the government chooses to put them into practice.

But the latter is the key issue. If Khamenei’s decision reflects an growing increasingly intense rupture among various power-holders and power-centers in the Iranian regime, then the opposition has real cause for optimism. But if this is just kabuki theater, designed to de-mobilize the opposition and reinforce the legitimacy of the election among those loyal to Ahmadinejad, then it is far from clear whether that will ultimately take the wind out of the oppositions sails, or embolden them by showing the they’ve managed to scare the regime. It’s also far from clear whether a certification of the election results by the Guardian Council will help push any fence-sitters away from the opposition or, instead, further undermine the legitimacy of another part of the establishment. And this decision is sure to play into speculation that Ahmadinejad and his allies are attempting to carry out a shadow coup against the old guard, including Khamenei.

Unfortunately, I’m not an Iran expert, so I really have no idea. But that also reflects the underlying unpredictability of revolutionary processes. More on that theme, if time permits, later.

UPDATE/CLARIFICATION: I think the way I wrote this may be a bit misleading. In many respects, what’s happening in Iran is an inter-elite squabble; the issue is whether the various power-centers in the regime completely fracture or enough of them hold the line to, among other things, ensure Ahmadinejad holds onto the Presidency.

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Update on Burma

The government crackdown on democracy protesters continues in Burma. The official death toll is nine, including a Japanese photo-journalist, but opposition sources claim that the true number is many times higher. One report I heard claimed that there are over 100 bodies in hospital morgues, and more bodies in the streets. It is also becoming increasingly difficult to get good information about what is going on. The junta has realized the effect of the dramatic photos being electronically sent out of the country and has been actively working to sever internet and telephone connections to the outside world. Internet cafes have been closed, and the main internet service provided has been raided by government troops. There are also reports that troops are actively targeting anyone carrying a camera. Hundreds, maybe thousands of monks have been arrested, and those protesters who remain in the streets are now overwhelmingly civilians.

There are unconfirmed reports of “unusual” troop movements in Yangon. A caller to this morning’s Diane Rehm Show, who claimed to have sources on the Thai-Burmese border, asserted that the wife of one of the junta leaders has been spirited out of the country (to a hotel in Dubai) and that the army has split into two factions, pro and anti-regime. There are also reports that there is disagreement among the leadership over the crackdown. The Irrawady News Magazine has a running account on its homepage; the site is very slow, probably due to heavy traffic.

Much seems to rest on where China chooses to put its weight. Few expect that China would support the democracy movement, but given the importance of economic ties to the west, they may be reluctant to support the regime if it engages in a Tiananmen-style massacre–both because of the bad publicity associated with its support for the junta and for the inevitable comparisons (like the one I just made).

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Crackdown


After nine days of mass, peaceful protests in Myanmar, the crackdown has begun. Government troops have beaten demonstrators and fired tear gas and live bullets. The government currently claims that there has been one death and three injuries; independent accounts confirm the death of at least one monk. There are unconfirmed reports of as many as six protesters killed. There are also reports that hundreds of monks have been arrested around the country.

Nevertheless, the demonstrations continued on Wednesday, despite the imposition of a curfew and a ban on gatherings of more than five people. The BBC reports that at least 10,000 protesters took to the streets today, including a large contingent of civilians.

There are numerous photos are available here, at a blog titled Ko Htike’s Prosaic Collection; the author seems to be a medical worker in a Yangon hospital, though most of the blog is written in Burmese.

The Washington Post’s story on the crisis contains some interesting details about attitudes within the Burmese military:

The soldiers who put down [the 1988] uprising had been transferred to Rangoon from outlying areas because of fears that the city’s regular garrison would not move against civilians. According to Maung, there were signs that similar hesitations are arising in the Burmese military this time.

A declaration from a group calling itself the People’s Patriotic Armed Forces Alliance was circulated among exile groups. In it, the authors depicted themselves as military officers and called on fellow officers to disobey if ordered to fire against protesting monks, students or democracy activists.

“On behalf of soldiers, we the People’s Patriotic Armed Forces Alliance seriously and categorically warn the SPDC’s top brass that if they solve the present situation with violence rather than seek peace, divergences would emerge inside the armed forces and defiance or mutiny would break out,” the statement said.

Maung said there was no way to judge the authenticity of the statement or how many officers it represented. But he added that someone identifying himself as a Burmese intelligence officer had posted comments on an exile blog Wednesday morning saying similar sentiments have emerged in Burma’s internal security services.

Seeking to play on the doubts, protesters sat in front of soldiers in the street and chanted, “People’s soldiers, our soldiers,” according to reports received by exiles.

Whither goest the military, goest the revolution. Bringing in soldiers from outside to suppress unrest is a well-used tactic. The soldiers who put down the Tiananmen Square protests were brought in from the provinces; during the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, troops were brought into Kiev from Crimea.

If the protesters can turn the military, then there perhaps there really will be a revolution. They don’t have to participate–just choose to sit it out. But if the military is willing to follow the orders to shoot, there is little chance that the protests will successfully oust the regime.

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Photos from Myanmar

Source: Mandalay Gazette

The revolution may not be televised, but you can rest assured that it will be blogged. The large scale protests continue, despite yesterday’s threats. The ruling military junta has banned foreign journalists, but the locals are snapping photos and emailing them to the western press. There is a great collection at Mandalay Gazette, a Burmese language paper based in California. Photos continue below the fold.






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A revolution in Myanmar?

I’ve been trying to follow what’s going on right now in Myanmar. I know pretty much next to nothing about Myanmar, other than it used to be Burma, but it certainly looks like a people-power revolution is in progress. Thousands of Buddhist monks have taken to the streets and the government has been reluctant to crack down, perhaps hoping that if they just ignore them, the demonstrations will lose steam. Instead, the opposite seems to be happening: momentum appears to be gathering and the crowds are growing larger by the day. The protests are also spreading to cities besides Yangon (Rangoon).

A couple months ago, I wrote that one of the things that can produce a crisis in an otherwise stable authoritarian regime is an exogenous economic shock. That seems to have been the trigger here: unrest first surfaced after the government was forced to sharply raise fuel prices in mid-August: diesel prices doubled, while the cost of compressed natural gas quintupled. Consumer prices, naturally, also jumped, and public transit was disrupted.

The first wave of protests against the fuel price hike were organized by dissidents who were promptly arrested. However, beginning in late August, the protests were joined by Buddhist monks, who generally enjoy a high level of social deference in Burmese society. Although there have been some repressive moves made towards the monks, the government seems reluctant to engage in a crackdown against a group with such high social capital. Monks were even permitted to march to the home of democracy activist (and Nobel Peace Prize winner) Aun San Suu Kyi and engage in prayer with her; it was her first public appearance in over four years. Nevertheless, today the regime has started to talk tough, threatening to take action if senior clerics don’t put a stop to the actions of their followers.

A violent crackdown, sadly, remains the most likely outcome of the current crisis. Nonetheless, many are hoping that if the student activists and the monks can maintain a united front, the protests will reach the sort of critical mass where ordinary people start to join in, and the regime will no longer be able to hold on.

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Quick! Fetch the comfy chair!

The other day, we were discussing Monty Python references, and I volunteered that I had recently started a short piece on the prospects for democracy in Belarus and Ukraine with “Revolutions are like the Spanish Inquisition–no one ever expects them.”

“Surely that’s not true!” our friends protested. “There must be something to predict them.”

“Well, most revolutions seem to be highly contingent phenomena. You can go back and and pick out the primary factors in hindsight, but it’s hard to see them coming in advance or even, at times, to recognize a successful revolution in active progress.”

I then trotted out my favorite parlor game (answer below the fold–no peeking!):

In 1989, in which Communist country did the largest pro-democracy demonstrations take place?

Despite the difficulty of accurately predicting revolutions, there are some factors that show up repeatedly in cases of major regime change. For example, authoritarian regimes are highly vulnerable at the moment of succession–there may be a squabble over succession or the successor may fail to placate the necessary social and political actors to sufficiently shore up his position or the very process of placating those social and political actors may weaken the regime. And of course, no revolution succeeds without support (or, at the very least, indifference) from (a significant portion of) the military. During the Orange Revolution, one of the key questions hinged on what direction the military and the interior ministry police would go. If ordered to attack the protesters, would they comply?

In a similar vein, Mark Lynch wonders which Arab regime will be the first to fall, and offers his own assessment of the most likely candidates.

But I’ll expand the question to authoritarian regimes in general: what authoritarian (or semi-authoritarian) regime do you think is next to go and why? What factors do you think drive regime change?

Oh, and the answer to the parlor game question is: China–it is often estimated that there were more than one million pro-democracy demonstrators in Tiananmen Square. In Eastern Europe, the largest protests were in Czechoslovakia (about 500,000) and East Germany (about 300,000). But “China” doesn’t occur to most people because the Tiananmen Square demonstrations failed to bring about a successful regime change. Of course, one million Chinese democracy supporters represent a much smaller percentage of the total population than 500,000 Czechs or 300,000 East Germans. But that’s not the reason we don’t think of it.

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