Notes on revolutions

In Uncategorized on 01/02/2011 at 9:47 am

Interesting this from a BBC blogger

An authoritarian regime depends on fear. A security machine can appear all-powerful, all-seeing, all-knowing. But, in the face of a popular revolt, can disintegrate swiftly. The sheer numbers on the streets of Cairo have given people a sense of their own power. Their fear of the regime has gone.

One of the best books on the Iranian revolution was written by Ryszard Kapuscinski. In Shah of Shahs he describes the moment when a regime becomes vulnerable.

“The policeman shouts, but the man doesn’t run. He just stands there, looking at the policeman…he doesn’t budge. He glances around and sees the same look on other faces. Nobody runs though the policeman has gone on shouting. At last he stops. There is a moment of silence. We don’t know whether the policeman and the man on the edge of the crowd already realises what has happened. The man has stopped being afraid – and this is precisely the beginning of the revolution.”

In Egypt that moment came when the police tried to disperse the crowds and failed. Shortly after they melted away; they had not the heart to face the people down. In such circumstances authoritarian regimes have a few choices. They can try making concessions or order troops to fire on unarmed demonstrators.

It has been said before that the most dangerous time for an authoritarian regime is when it begins to reform itself. When President Mubarak asked his cabinet to resign it solved nothing. It was seen as a sign of weakness. The crowd want his resignation and is unlikely to be satisfied with less because it has tasted its own strength.

Military force can succeed. It ended the protests in Tiananmen Square in China. A sudden, brutal use of violence can reinstate fear. But sometimes, as happened in Iran in 1979, the people continue to protest even though thousands have been killed. Gradually soldiers lose the will to fire on their own people and the revolution succeeds.

In 2009 in Iran, after the disputed elections, the protesters never lost their fear. And crucially the regime never blinked. The Basij militia and the Revolutionary Guards never showed uncertainty. And the so-called green revolution was crushed. If some units had refused to turn on the protesters the outcome could have been different.

In Egypt the protesters have tried to befriend the soldiers. They have ridden on some of the tanks, trying to enlist the men as protectors of the Egyptian people. In other revolutions the crowds have placed carnations in the barrels of the rifles.

Ultimately the military will decide the outcome of these events. If Egypt descends into anarchy then the soldiers could present a clamp-down as defending the people. But so far the army has seemed reluctant to confront the protesters. They will know that some of those on the streets are their brothers, sisters, family and friends.

If the military decides it can’t use force then it may fall to the generals to tell the leader his time has passed.

As a regime sees its authority crumbling it often tries to negotiate, to identify a “moderate” opposition leader it can talk to. The hope is that through such compromise some of the old order can be preserved. In Egypt Mohamed ElBaradei may emerge as the negotiator. But in revolutions such figures often only hold the ring for a short time

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: