Making Revolution…Or Repression…Or Reform

When revolution occurs, who is really responsible – revolutionary activists or arrogant officials – and how does healthy public protest against official arrogance or error get transformed from a desire for policy reforms into a demand for regime change? Suddenly, across the globe, these questions lie at the heart of the political dilemma in numerous countries.

Revolution may be achieved or pre-empted via numerous paths, including the path of revolutionary success preparing the way for worse repression and the path of revolutionary pre-emption preparing the way for genuine reform, and neither supporters nor opponents are likely to know which path they are on. If one cannot recognize in real time which path an unfolding revolutionary situation is following, the explanation may lie more in the absence of a path to be followed than in the confusion of the participants, and if the path only comes into existence as the participants create it, then it follows logically that at any moment the action of any participant could theoretically alter the outcome.

Worse, officials are likely to misunderstand the significance of tempo differentials between official actions, which can occur in hours, and crowd dynamics. Certainly, an incident (typically either police brutality or the action of a provocateur that is perceived as police brutality) can provoke almost instantaneous change in crowd behavior, but the more important crowd tempo is often the normal underlying shift in mood that occurs over days as many peaceful demonstrators–normally somnolent citizens now turned activist–slowly becomes accustomed to their new role and achieve a group consensus. This slow shift is hard for officials to understand in anything like real time, but even were they to understand in real time, that would not suffice because once crowd momentum builds, like a wave, it becomes very hard to stop (at least without a Tian An Men-style massacre). Admittedly, attempting to react in real time may be admirable as far as it goes: Morsi’s offer of a constitutional concession on Muslim Brotherhood attempts to deny Egyptians the right of freedom of religion, cuts in bus fares in some Brazilian cities, Rousseff’s statement of support for protesters; these efforts suggest a quality of governance much better than that demonstrated by Obama’s five-year-long policy of protecting corrupt Wall St. financial magnates from prosecution. Nevertheless, reactive behavior is unlikely to dampen a cresting wave of popular anger.  

To react both reasonably and effectively, officials need to predict and react before events occur…behavior that requires consistent dedication to good governance. Typical official behavior, however, more nearly resembles the current behavior of Brazilian, Turkish, and Egyptian officials, who appear to be reacting very rapidly in virtual real time to events after they occur. Thus, as soon as a crowd gathers, police surround them or the president responds (whether with condemnation or a concession), and then the crowd, which is being propelled by a dynamic of rising frustration and consequent rising ambition, has already moved on and inevitably finds the official response either provocative or, as has been repeatedly heard in recent days, “too little too late.”

Real-time official response is both dangerous because of the high risk of inappropriate and frequently emotional response and most likely superficial…a band aid. In response to a million demonstrators in the main square, both police murders of peaceful demonstrators and such concessions as the discounting of bus fares are inappropriate. The appropriate response to a protest over bus fares might be to call out the troops…as emergency drivers of free buses. Better yet, a truly sympathetic leader might seize the moment to state publicly that bus fares are simply the tip of an iceberg of social injustice. The appropriate response to anger about government corruption might be to launch a high-publicity campaign of investigating and trying officials suspected of corruption–announced before the situation degenerates into large-scale demonstrations (instead of looking the other way for years and then initially responding by turning the issue into a contest of strength between arrogant officialdom and an indignant citizenry).

In his study of the Russian February Revolution (the first, unplanned, unfocused, initially peaceful outpouring of popular protest that brought down the Tsar in 1917), Solzhenitsyn portrays Tsarist officials as practicing self-restraint to avoid provocations but failing to follow up with positive actions to demonstrate sympathy for popular frustrations and thus allowing the masses time to realize their power, gain courage, focus their thoughts, get organized, and make up their minds that revolution rather than reform really was the only acceptable outcome. The key message here for contemporary policy-makers is “make up their minds:” not realize some “truth” but reach a conclusion that was unnecessary and entirely avoidable had officials thought less deeply about their careers and more deeply about what was good for society.

Why did the social upheaval of the Great Depression not lead to revolution in the U.S.? Why did the Occupy Movement’s protest against the criminal outrages of the  2008 Recession not lead to revolution? Why are the Greek and Spanish regimes still standing? Why did democratic protests lead to revolution in Egypt but fail in Iran, and if indeed revolution occurred in Egypt, why have mass protests returned to Egypt? Of the current protests in Brazil, Turkey, Chile, and Bulgaria, which is on a path to revolution, which to repression, which to peaceful reform? In truth, it depends on actions yet to be taken: a sincere and risk-taking leadership can share power with reformist citizens or order the police to massacre them. Protest leaders can organize and publicize a short list of key issues and delegate representatives to meet with authorities for negotiations or compete among themselves for street power, each further radicalizing the rest until violence becomes the victor.

Contemporary state leaders need to pay attention to Solzhenitsyn’s lessons. Mass demonstrations protesting against government failures today very much resemble the political situation in Petrograd in 1917, with self-satisfied government officials viewing protesters as enemies rather than as the articulation of legitimate popular opinion which officials are morally required to accommodate.



6/30/13 – Egypt: Egyptian people vote with their feet in stunning display of peaceful democratic activism. [ABC  6/30/13.]

6/30/13 – Turkey: Protesters have moved to a new level–protesting against police brutality employed to prevent the protesters from peacefully criticizing government policies, and–true to form–police used force to prevent the protests against the use of force. [UPI 6/30/13.]

7/1/13 – Egypt: Legitimate and laudable democratic activism is being subverted on all sides, with Morsi unconditionally refusing to step down, the protesters unconditionally demanding Morsi’s resignation within 24 hours, and the army threatening to interfere within 48 hours if political forces do not reach a compromise.

7/1/13 – Bulgaria: Despite cancellation of the appointment of a media mogul as head of security, a series of peaceful protests targetting officials continues. [Novinite 7/1/13.]

7/2/13 – Egypt: A day after the tough talk, both sides appear to be seeing reason, with the prime minister authorized to search for a solution [Ahram 7/2/13] and the now organized protesters selecting ElBaradei to negotiate on their behalf. The Army’s deadline and the protesters’ demand for Morsi’s resignation remain as thunderclouds on the horizon. [Ahram 7/2/13.]

7/2/13 – Egypt: The military reiterates its Monday ultimatum as anti-Morsi demonstrators give an impressive demonstration of “one man, one vote” and the Muslim Brotherhood edges toward provoking civil war to retain power.  [Guardian 7/2/13/]

7/3/13 – Egypt: With the return of tough talk by Morsi rejecting the Army ultimatum and rising violence throughout the country, the likelihood of either repression or revolution appears to be increasing while the likelihood of reform declines. [Guardian 7/3/13.]

7/3/13 – Egypt: Delaying its response after its deadline passes with no civilian resolution of the conflict, the Army is meeting with civil society (including El Baradei), but the Muslim Brotherhood refuses to participate. Demonstrating a level of incomprehension of the spirit of democracy reminiscent of the U.S. Neo-Con policy of rejecting negotiations with Iran without Iranian concessions in advance, the Muslim Brotherhood spokesman announced, “We do not go to invitations (meetings) with anyone.”  [al Jazeera 7/3/13.]

7/5/13 – Egypt: Massive arrests of Muslim Brotherhood leadership plus the bizarre arrest of Mursi, as though the elected president were a criminal, expose dictatorship intent of Egyptian military coup leaders and predict the further radicalization of Muslim political activists in response to their marginalization by military force from peaceful democratic participation. [Guardian 7/5/13.]

7/7/13 – Turkey: In a display of force signaling a preference for repression over toleration of any group dissent on even the most mundane issues (in this case, preservation of a small park), Turkish police attack a small group of peaceful demonstrators. [NBC News 7/7/13.]


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