Protest is not enough to topple a dictator: the army must also turn


EXCERPT: . . . However solitary the power of an authoritarian leader might seem, dictators never rule alone. When enforcers shirk duty or rebel, the regime collapses. When they stay loyal, the regime stands. Mass protests alone are never enough. [...] But why military and police forces decide to follow one course of action over another is poorly understood. ... Prevailing explanations of military defection during revolutionary uprisings emphasise personal or corporate interests. ... The decision to rebel is a far cry from ... well-understood material interests. It is also easy to overlook how profound an ethical dilemma mass repression can pose to professional soldiers and policemen. ... being made to kill tens or hundreds of innocents is often a deeply unpleasant prospect.

[...] Rebellions that begin during uprisings often spread like wildfire throughout the military and security apparatus. The Russian revolution of 1917 began when the Volynsky Life-Guards Regiment ‘refused to serve as executioners any longer’, as the Soviet historian E N Burdzhalov put it in 1967; the mutiny then propagated rapidly to neighbouring regiments in Petrograd. Burdzhalov writes that, by the evening, ‘no tsarist general could have taken charge of the situation to save the autocracy’.

It would be a mistake, however, to read these dynamics primarily as symptoms of widespread, longstanding grievances within the armed and security forces. They owe more, instead, to officers’ attempts to align themselves with another leader. Once a mutiny begins, the threat of fratricidal violence between loyalists and rebels weighs heavily over officers’ calculations. Would-be loyalists will often go along with a mutiny to avoid infighting. In Tunisia, the head of the rebellion against Ben Ali rallied two additional units by pretending to act on orders; when his colleagues understood that he had lied, they remained on his side instead of turning their weapons against him. Minutes later, Ben Ali’s head of security, a loyalist, convinced the president to board a plane to Saudi Arabia, saying he feared ‘a bloodbath’.

In other cases, potential rebels will abstain from joining a mutiny that they think will fail. In China, troops fraternised with demonstrators on Tiananmen Square in 1989, while officers publicly condemned the government’s decision to declare martial law. Despite this vacillation, no officer took the initiative to mount an open rebellion. The government reasserted the initiative and decisively crushed the uprising.

In the language of game theory, such mutinies are coordination games: situations in which individuals seek to follow the same line of conduct at the expense of their own preferences because acting at cross purposes represents the worst possible outcome for everyone. Each must figure out what others will do, which is why expectations – mutual beliefs about what comes next – drive behaviour. Whether mutinies in revolutionary moments succeed or fail owes more to rebels’ ability to create the impression that they will ineluctably succeed than to the pre-existing grievances of their colleagues.

The point has deep epistemological implications for our understanding of revolutionary outcomes. Uprisings often begin in similar ways but take wildly different paths [...] But if armed forces make or break revolutions ... we need ... to develop better theories... (MORE - details)

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