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

https://aeon.co/ What does it take to overthrow a dictator? Reflecting on this question in exile, Leon Trotsky wrote in History of the Russian Revolution (1930): There is no doubt that the fate of every revolution at a certain point

https://aeon.co/

What does it take to overthrow a dictator? Reflecting on this question in exile, Leon Trotsky wrote in History of the Russian Revolution (1930):

There is no doubt that the fate of every revolution at a certain point is decided by a break in the disposition of the army … Thus in the streets and squares, by the bridges, at the barrack gates, is waged a ceaseless struggle – now dramatic, now unnoticeable – but always a desperate struggle, for the heart of the soldier.

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.

During the Tunisian revolution, the mutiny that ultimately led to the president Zine el Abidine Ben Ali’s flight from power on 14 January 2011 started in an elite police unit exceptionally deployed to protect the Ministry of Interior against the biggest demonstration to date. When protesters marched on to the presidential palace, disobedience spread to the other security forces, and Ben Ali was forced to flee hours later. When police turned, the regime fell.

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. In this logic, grievances spur to action rebel officers, who hope for a better deal in a new political system. Loyalists, for their part, seek to preserve their material advantages.

Behind this hard-nosed Hobbesian realism, the argument rests on a simple, commonsense account: people do what is most advantageous to them. The claim is appealing when made from a distance and with the benefit of hindsight. But it struggles to explain why men who have dedicated their career to the service of a government and who have forged their professional identity on a bedrock of discipline would come to turn around and commit insubordination. The argument gives us no account of how members of the armed and security forces come to change their understanding of their interests when facing a mass unrest.

The decision to rebel is a far cry from the execution of obvious and well-understood material interests. It is also easy to overlook how profound an ethical dilemma mass repression can pose to professional soldiers and policemen. Consider a country in the midst of a full-scale uprising. Tens or hundreds of thousands of demonstrators fill the streets of its capital city. The authoritarian ruler can no longer rely on his secret police and riot-response units. He must mobilise reserve forces, who typically carry live ammunition and have no training or experience in dealing with crowds. These men face a stark choice. Defending the regime comes at the price of massive bloodshed. Shirking duty or rebelling carry the threat of court martial and death.

Even for those with experience in repression, being made to kill tens or hundreds of innocents is often a deeply unpleasant prospect. The dilemma is first ethical and individual: it betrays a stark choice between serving one’s government and serving one’s country. But it quickly becomes collective. When an officer becomes aware that he’s not alone in his conundrum, he begins to wonder whether his colleagues will follow orders. From this doubt emerges the possibility of his own disobedience.

Military and police mutinies rarely break out in the face of small demonstrations, but reliably occur when revolutionary uprisings reach a critical mass, making unconscionable largescale killing the government’s only survival option. This year, scattered protesters in Sudan defied security forces for more than three months without prompting largescale defections; but when the opposition converged in a sit-in in front of the military’s headquarters on 6 April, soldiers wavered. On the second day, they protected demonstrators against loyalist militias. And on 12 April, the military and security apparatus turned against the president Omar al-Bashir.

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, from political revolutions to authoritarian restoration, civil war and social revolutions. Social scientific analyses of revolutions typically seek to see past the turmoil of events to uncover subterranean patterns of causation linking slow-moving factors – the makeup of social classes, state structure, economic conditions – to different outcomes. But if armed forces make or break revolutions, and if their stance owes to events occurring on the temporal scale of hours or even minutes, then the explanatory value of such ‘structural’ accounts of revolutions loses much of its edge. To explain why countries diverge, we need, instead, to develop better theories regarding the impact of typical revolutionary events, such as mass protests, defections and mutinies.

Jean-Baptiste Gallopin

holds a PhD in sociology from Yale University, where he works in the field of comparative and historical sociology. He lives in Berlin.

 

yakobe@gmail.com

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10 COMMENTS
  • k.tewolde September 2, 2019

    A very well researched and written article,depicts concisely the anatomy and physiology of social upheaval and its eventual outcome, ‘Social scientific analyses of revolutions typically seek to see past the turmoil of events to uncover subterranean patterns of causation linking slow-moving factors….’JPG >>>>>> is there a smart Eritrean out there who can recognize and dissect our society specific variables and steer the current defiant stance to its intended goal ???

    • Hagherawi September 3, 2019

      Dear k. tewelde,

      The effect of personality cult was devastating … it will take long time before people realize that by being politically naive we created a monster..
      The worst part is that after so many crimes, he is still controlling the minds of many people who are in many ways are his victims.

      • k.tewolde September 4, 2019

        Indeed Hagherawi,that was his game from the very beginning,and he still continues to control the young mind by quarantining them as early as he can,imagine your son or your grandson commanding you to go on all fours and give him 20 push ups for coming late to the senior boot camp,can you imagine young conscripts bursting into your home and whisking away your 13 y/o little girl to be a pleasure toy for their commander….this ruling gang has broken societal norms beyond our wildest imagination and like you said Hagherawi it is the very victims of the regime victimizing their own.This little nation has to do something from this deadly choke hold.

    • Asmara Eritrea September 7, 2019

      Good article. It is perhaps abundantly clear by know that the Eritrean Army is spineless and made up of a bunch of riffraff who are good at nothing. They are meant to defend their country from external and internal enemy but they have done zero whilst the country is being obliterated by the latter (i.e. internal enemy – Isaias).

      Frankly, it is no point to pin any hope on the Eritrean army. What we need is one or two individuals with guts and the necessary tools to free Eritrea from tyranny.

      Eritrea forever, death to dictatorship.

  • k.tewolde September 4, 2019

    Indeed Hagherawi,that was his game from the very beginning,and he still continues to control the young mind by quarantining them as early as he can,imagine your son or your grandson commanding you to go on all fours and give him 20 push ups for coming late to the senior boot camp,can you imagine young conscripts bursting into your home and whisking away your 13 y/o little girl to be a pleasure toy for their commander….this ruling gang has broken societal norms beyond our wildest imagination and like you said Hagherawi it is the very victims of the regime victimizing their own.This little nation has to do something to rid itself from this deadly choke hold.

  • tewelde Gebremariam September 4, 2019

    Yes protest would have been enough to remove the impostor and his cabals. The question is Where? Only if the protest is held within Eritrea and a large chunk of the population participate with a determination to stay in course until all is over and the people are finally in control of their country. Let it be clear, the sacrifices that such action may entail should not be underestimated. But again, Nothing Big Is Easy! However, when compared to the exorbitant human and moral indignity you suffer in perpetuity under Genocidal master, the loss is exceedingly Cheaper when you take a Daring and Resolute Act for short duration. The fascist Benito Mussolini is quoted to have said, Better to live one day like a lion than live thousand years like a sheep.

    The next question is: Why our people have been putting up with these Genocidal impostors, isaias afewerk and his cabals when they have the power to get rid of him in a day or two?

    Obviously, religious, ethnic, linguistic etc. diversities have been not only not helpful but also have been accentuated by the impostors as a means to achieve their hidden agenda. The Impostors also deliberately not only kept our people at subsistence, peasantry, level by suppressing economic and education development but also pushed out of the country those who miraculously gained some education, the aim of which has been to stave off birth of politically conscious activists within the country.

    The one and only one who miserably failed to discharge its national duty and thus leveraged the Genocidal Impostors to commit Genocide on our people with impunity is the Diaspora population, which can be divided roughly into three groups: 1. the direct collaborators, who sold their country for material benefi. 2. the indirect collaborators … the woyane stooges, aka eritrean oppositions. who, during the liberation era, had renounced the quest for Eritrean independence and accepted autonomy under Ethiopian hegemony 3. the opportunists, who consciously gave deaf ears to their country’s call of help.

    Way forward in the wake of Y’akl: First and foremost, we must define who Isaias afewerk is and what his motive is, a crucial step we cannot dispense with. Once we defined him and exposed his motive, we must always use those terms to describe him. For instance, if we defined him as impostor, mole Genocidal, then we must never address him as wlqe melaki, president but as genocidal, Atsnati, mole etc. Obviously, a Genocidal person cannot establish people’s government. Therefore, we must never state there is a government in Eritrea. Please, please, clarity of language is decisive in winning a goal. Lack of clarity of our language has a lot to do with the stagnation of our struggle.

    • Michael Tesfamariam September 6, 2019

      Agree!!! The army must be taken out of the equation, there are a number of successful public uprisings that were achieved their goal without the participation of the army. Waiting for the army to do the job of the wider civilian population shows one’s unwillingness to act and sacrifice for once own beliefs and convictions. The maximum restraint the army should be expected to do during any revolution is to remain neutral in order to reduce any potential bloodshed or damage to goods without fully implementing instructions from those in power. No matter the scale and intensity of a protest, it must be conducted within the country in order to be able to achieve effective results and bring about significant change toward peace and democracy. Don’t ever believ those who are bluffing and builshiting now and then about being able to remove Issais from abroad, they are doing this to secure their own individual or perhaps regional agenda.

  • Okbay September 5, 2019

    Fake opportunists opposition will NEVER succeed in Eritrea
    because the genuine Eritrean people back home NEVER support it.
    What we see sadly is the fake websites and paper-tigers showing off their lousy/meaningless long writings/HALEWLOWS nonsense. These shameful losers rats/ANATSU Arab mercenaries should be stoned to death.

    • Tsaadaqalai September 5, 2019

      Jstudio has exposed that the impostor isaias afewerk’s bodyguards are exclusively dqalatat of former Ethiopian soldiers. The majority of ” Eritrean ambassadors” are of the same type as well. The so called Agaazian , Abai Tigrai, Habesha etc. are one and the same, brainchildren of the impostor. Isaias afewrk.

      Have you ever been wondered why the impostor isaias afewerk and his cabals remain healthy and strong despite their advanced chronological ages while the EPLF Generals in particular and the Eritrean people in general have been dying off at accelerated pace?

      This apparently puzzlesome paradoxical phenomenon exhibits itself where the people are divided between Masters and Slaves.,or between the colonizers and the colonized.. The former monopolizes every sector of the economy and utilizing the free labor of the downtrodden, saps the product and lives healthy , happy and for a long time. Conversely, the latter….. the colonized and Slave,….. forbidden from enjoying the fruits of his/her labor, perIshs early, overworked, starved ….

      . The above is the reality in Eritrea today. Anatsu Bereka have put our people and country under control and are sapping our labor and natural resources with impunity while we are bickering against each other over trivialities. But remember, this is not their endgame. It is only a means. Complete decimation of our people and country is their endgame. Do not be fooled by their flattery. Treachery is their eternal hallmark. Think Big……… be Proud Eritrean through and through . Avoid being a Muslim, Christian, highlander, lowlander, Akelguzetai, Serewetai, Hamasenai, Denkeletai, Saho etc. All these are manifestations of immaturity, shortsightedness, ignorance of what is important and what is not at a given time etc. Do not live in the past. Do not live in the past controversy of ELF and EPLF. Do not fight over rags of flags. Adopt the ratified Constitution with its flags etc. Your overriding mission must be the end of the impostors and the Buidling of our Nation where we live harmoniously and happily for ever !!!!

  • Haben September 5, 2019

    I really appreciate my fellow Eritreans for their considerate thoughtful comments
    (Excluding Okbay which his nationality is in doubt?).

    Please my fellow Eritreans continue denouncing the tyrant.

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