Friday, March 11, 2011

Why Were We Surprised? Tunisia, Egypt, Libya

Let's see:

The Hungarian Revolution of 1956 (Hungarian: 1956-os forradalom) was a spontaneous nationwide revolt against the government of the People's Republic of Hungary and its Soviet-imposed policies, lasting from 23 October until 10 November 1956. . .
The revolt spread quickly across Hungary, and the government fell. Thousands organized into militias, battling the State Security Police (ÁVH) and Soviet troops. Pro-Soviet communists and ÁVH members were often executed or imprisoned, as former prisoners were released and armed. Impromptu councils wrested municipal control from the ruling Hungarian Working People's Party and demanded political changes. The new government formally disbanded the ÁVH, declared its intention to withdraw from the Warsaw Pact and pledged to re-establish free elections. By the end of October, fighting had almost stopped and a sense of normality began to return.
After announcing a willingness to negotiate a withdrawal of Soviet forces, the Politburo changed its mind and moved to crush the revolution. On 4 November, a large Soviet force invaded Budapest and other regions of the country. Hungarian resistance continued until 10 November. Over 2,500 Hungarians and 700 Soviet troops were killed in the conflict, and 200,000 Hungarians fled as refugees.[Wikipedia]
The Prague Spring (Czech: Pražské jaro, Slovak: Pražská jar) was a period of political liberalization in Czechoslovakia during the era of its domination by the Soviet Union after World War II. It began on 5 January 1968, when reformist Slovak Alexander Dubček came to power, and continued until 21 August when the Soviet Union and members of its Warsaw Pact allies invaded the country to halt the reforms. [Wikipedia]
The Iranian Revolution (also known as the Islamic Revolution or 1979 Revolution Persian: انقلاب اسلامی, Enghelābe Eslāmi or انقلاب بیست و دو بهمن) refers to events involving the overthrow of Iran's monarchy (Pahlavi dynasty) under Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and its replacement with an Islamic republic under Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of the revolution.
Demonstrations against the Shah are sometimes said to have begun in January 1978.   However, they actually commenced earlier, in October 1977, developing into a campaign of civil resistance that was partly secular and partly religious. Between August and December 1978 strikes and demonstrations paralyzed the country. The Shah left Iran for exile in mid-January 1979, and in the resulting power vacuum two weeks later Ayatollah Khomeini returned to Tehran to a greeting by several million Iranians. [Wikipedia]

Solidarity was the first non-communist party-controlled trade union in a Warsaw Pact country.  In the 1980s it constituted a broad anti-bureaucratic social movement. The government attempted to destroy the union during the period of martial law in the early 1980s and several years of political repression, but in the end it was forced to start negotiating with the union.
The Round Table Talks between the government and the Solidarity-led opposition led to semi-free elections in 1989. By the end of August a Solidarity-led coalition government was formed and in December 1990 Wałęsa was elected President of Poland. Since then it has become a more traditional, liberal trade union. [Wikipedia]
The Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, also known as the Tiananmen Square massacre and the June Fourth Incident (in part to avoid confusion with two prior Tiananmen Square protests), were a series of demonstrations in and near Tiananmen Square in Beijing in the People's Republic of China (PRC) beginning on 15 April 1989. The movement used mainly non-violent methods and can be considered a case of civil resistance. Led mainly by students and intellectuals, the protests occurred in the year that was to see the collapse of a number of communist governments in eastern Europe.The movement lasted seven weeks after Hu's death on 15 April. In early June, the People's Liberation Army moved into the streets of Beijing with troops and tanks and cleared the square with live fire. [Wikipedia]

I'm sure you are getting my drift.   And then the Berlin Wall fell, the Soviet Union dissolved, Romanians got rid of Ceauşescu.   The Ukraine had its Orange Revolution.  Just to name a few. 

Why are we surprised?

Popular demonstrations against dictatorships, whether ultimately successful or not, are not all that uncommon.  We've had a series of  'unimaginable' changes.

So, why are the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions seen as a surprise?

And then, why are we surprised when Libyan rebels get brutally attacked?

A few hypotheses come to mind: 

  1.   Our models of power don't handle sudden massive power shifts easily.
  2.   Our fear mongers want us to be afraid of Islam, want us to see all Muslims as radical anit-Western fanatics.  And many Americans (and Europeans) are only too glad to oblige them. Fear of outside evil, or foreigners amongst us, unifies a population behind its leaders and stifles opposition.  
  3.   Our ignorance of the world outside our borders means we have no clue about what is happening in other countries unless it's an international sporting event.   So we generalize to "the Iranians" or "the Egyptians" rather than recognize all countries have a wide range of political points of view, just as we have. 
These events are unimaginable only to those with less than robust imaginations.

Such change - popular demonstrations against seemingly entrenched powers, some of which succeed* and some of which fail - isn't all that unique.  The right set of conditions have to come together.  Some typical conditions might include:

  1. General unrest and unhappiness due to severe long-term restrictions, oppression, and usually widespread corruption in the ruling government.
  2. Some event that inflames that unrest and gets people into the streets
  3. Effective forms of communication with each other and with the Outside world
  4. Some charismatic leaders
Then there's the regime's reaction.  Will they just start shooting or will they show restraint?   I'm not sure what factors play a consistent role.  Perhaps:
  1. Support or opposition from outsiders. (Lots of possible combinations and outcomes here.  It could give the rebels courage, restrain the leader, or not.)
  2. General cultural norms of the current leaders.  (Does the culture promote dialogue and democratic principles?)
  3. Existence of face saving exit strategies for corrupt leaders.  
It's not be easy to predict exactly where and when the next world class revolution  will occur.  Even if we scan the countries with high levels of discontent, knowing when some event will be the catalyst to get people out into the streets is hard.  BUT, we should realize that it is going to happen somewhere and we shouldn't be surprised.

But I guess this calls for some knowledge of history, of other cultures, of world conditions, and a myriad of other things that we don't have time to learn while we keep track of celebrity breakups, what our friends are eating for dinner (as reported every few minutes on Facebook and Twitter),  buy ever bigger televisions and smaller computers.

*'Success' is a relative term. And it maybe be short-lived. Or it may just refer to the overthrow, but may not be a good term to describe the next permanent government.


  1. Well, in Hungary we have a joke which sounds something like that:
    - Why was an earthquake in Budapest in 1956?
    - ....
    - Because the metro collided with the living standards.

    Being precise it meant that in an agrarian country due to forced industrialisation people had "food tickets" because the supplies were so limited. It is like the Holomodor (1932-33) in Ukraine which was the bread basket of the CCCP/USSR.

    So if you have food and you live well, I don't think so you would care about the form of state. However it is just my opinion. So from the 1980s when opposition movements strenghtened in most of the 'Eastern' countries, it wasn't because people had nothing better to do.

    About Czechoslovakia I would rather have mentioned the Velvet Revolution, because it had greater influence I think, because the Prague Spring was put down before it could have any great influence.

    Hungary was always an interesting case in this bloc, because it had quite moderate relations with the 'West' as well. We joined the World Bank in the early 1980s and once it was even suggested that we should join the EU but it was a quite extreme idea.

    I also need to mention that the state form "republic" is not the source of all good. The Hungarian real GDP (the one which calculates with the inflation) was the highest in 1989, in the year when Hungary became a republic.

  2. Thanks for your long comments. "If you have food and live well . . " Sounds like the US political maxim, "It's the economy, stupid" (meaning the state of the economy will determine who wins.)

    I included Prague Spring and Hungary and Tiananmen to include popular uprisings that were put down by through violent show of strength as well as successful ones.

  3. Very thoughtful post. But there is no sufficient level of violent repression that can end a nonviolent uprising, just as there is no sufficient number of people participating in an uprising that assures its success -- for a very simple reason: these aren't material conflicts, they are political conflicts. Successful resistance movements raise the cost of holding oppressive control over time, shred the legitimacy of the old order, and successfully invite defections from repressive forces. Those are all political contingencies that flow from movement strategies. So beware of supposed "preconditions". The latter is a structuralist-institutionalist concept. Movements are free agencies, and their action can constrain institutions. This is a historically new process for producing and obtaining power.
    Here's a good site to learn more:

  4. Anon, I waited to respond until after I read the nonviolent conflict website. Then when I came here there was no comment (I'd been notified of it by email) and found that, for some reason, Blogspot put it in the spam comment file. Not sure why - not too many comments end up there.

    In any case, I very much appreciate the comment and the link. The nonviolent conflict page adds a lot to what I was trying to say. But I do have a couple of questions.

    1. "there is no sufficient level of violent repression that can end a nonviolent uprising, just as there is no sufficient number of people participating in an uprising that assures its success -- for a very simple reason: these aren't material conflicts, they are political conflicts."

    I don't know what I said that caused this reaction. And I don't get your point. I would guess that 'a sufficient level of violent repression" would be whatever it takes to make people go home and stop the non-violent confrontation. The Chinese had a sufficient level to end Tiananmen. The Russians did in Hungary and Prague. No, there isn't some abstract number or formula, but some governments find the right level and some movements find the right level of protest to overthrow the regime. But other factors - external players for example - would also affect what 'sufficient' means in any given case.

    I don't see how describing them as political conflicts instead of material conflicts makes 'sufficient' level or number irrelevant.

    2. "So beware of supposed "preconditions". The latter is a structuralist-institutionalist concept."

    Again, I don't see how labeling something free agency instead of structural-institutionalist eliminates pre-conditions. Will free agents come together against the regime if everyone is happy with the regime? If not, it would seem some level of discontent is a precondition.

    I'm not saying you are wrong, but what you've presented isn't sufficient for me to understand why you think I'm wrong.

    And thanks for the challenging comment.


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