Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The "Revolution" In Iran: The Role Of The Military And Communication Technology

I don't have any particular thoughts on what's going on Iran right now. But what I do have is a short response paper -- just about a thousand words -- for a class titled "Democratic and Nationalist Revolutions" that I took in my first year at grad school. I think it's sort of relevant to the issues at hand. Without further ado...

The literature on 21st century revolutions is understandably sparse. Uprisings in places like Serbia, Kyrgyzstan, Lebanon and Ukraine have taken place so recently that it easy to grant academics time to come to a consensus –- or not –- about what happened, why it happened and how it happened. What is slightly more difficult to accept, however, is the lack of theoretical grounding in studies of these “color revolutions”. Specifically, there are two important variables in explaining both cross-sectional and longitudinal variance in outcomes that are missing in these analyses: the roles of militaries and digital technology. I tackle each of these in step.

Of the works I read this week, the most theoretical was Mark Thompson and Philipp Kuntz’s Stolen Elections: The Case of the Serbian October. Thompson and Kuntz do well to explain why semi-authoritarian regimes such as that of Slobodan Milosevic are at risk of revolutions. They argue that semi-authoritarian regimes seek to impose a fa├žade of representative government by holding elections, and that these elections –- when they do not go to plan, and are consequently rigged or stolen –- present oppositions with the opportunity to rise up against them.

Thompson and Kuntz write that stolen elections cause mass outrage at the regime and vividly illustrate its unpopularity. Stolen elections also test the loyalty of regime personnel and cause “splits between those are willing to ignore and the voters' will in order to stay in power and those who favor accepting the opposition victory or at least calculate that the opposition is likely to take power anyway.” While this is a sound analysis of semi-authoritarian regimes’ and their vulnerability to revolutions in times of electoral crisis, Thompson and Kuntz do not account for the all-important role of the military.

One of the constitutive aspects of semi-authoritarian regimes, as opposed to fully authoritarian regimes, is the fact that militaries will not unquestioningly act on the orders of leaders. In addition, militaries in semi-authoritarian states are less likely to brutally assault their own populations on a widespread scale, especially if (a) the cause of the opposition is viewed as “just” by the wider world, and (b) violence against the citizenry is likely to be broadcast by local or international media. The role of the military in semi-authoritarian states, then, is likely to be more permissive than those in fully authoritarian states during times of political instability for two reasons: a lack of complete control of the military by the political leadership, and a disinclination by the military to commit violence against their fellow citizens.

We see one or both of these mechanisms in all of the cases under study. In Serbia, for instance, Thompson and Kuntz write that “Army chief of staff Nebojsa Pavkovic…publicly declared that the armed forces would take a neutral stance and respect the electorate’s decision. Even Milosevic’s special paramilitary units cooperated with the opposition to avoid bloodshed.” In a description of civil unrest in the important Kyrgyz city of Bishkek, Scott Radnitz writes that “at some point, people broke through the line of defenders and flooded into the main government building, sealing the fate of Akayev, who had already given orders not to use force.” Oussama Safa, writing on the Cedar revolution in Lebanon, notes that “the Lebanese Army, though under orders to prevent demonstrations, looked the other way.” When authorities in Ukraine were considering violently clamping down on protesters, Andrew Wilson tells us that “the regular army contacted the interior ministry, to say they were unwilling to do the regime’s dirty work.” These cases – and the contrasting case of Uzbekistan in 2005 – demonstrate the central importance of a military that does not stand in the way of political oppositions, an importance that remains under-theorized in the extant literature.

Similarly under-theorized is the role played by distinctly 21st century technology. Certainly e-mail, cell phones and pagers were not available to those congregating on a tennis court outside the Palace of Versailles in 1789. New technologies shorten the distance between citizens -– stop me if I sound like Tom Friedman –- and enable them to obviate their reliance on traditional middlemen like television news (which can be censored) and newspapers and pamphlets (likewise). This means that word can travel exceptionally quickly amongst opposition movements, and that rallies and protests can be organized at a shorter notice than we have seen in 18th, 19th and 20th century revolutions.

During the Tulip revolution in Kyrgyzstan, Radnitz notes that news of a fracas in which some protestors were injured in limited clashes with soldiers “worked its way around the region by mobile phone, radio and taxicab…[and as a result] many previously passive people began converging on Jalalabad, where crowd numbers may have swelled as high as twenty thousand.” Safa writes that after the funeral of assassinated Syrian politician Rafiq Hariri, “backed by various elements of civil society and using mobile phones, e-mail, and public announcements to spread the word, opposition groups organized daily vigils and marches at various spots around Beirut.”

Wilson too notes the importance of technology in the Orange revolution in Ukraine, writing that “the rival opposition network…won the battle for hearts and minds, including most ‘opinion-formers’ in Kiev. Opposition [web]sites were groovier, funnier, more informative, and, in the last analysis, simply more honest. Internet access rose by 39.6 per cent throughout November, and continued to rocket up thereafter. Vladislav Kasiv of Pora claimed this aspect of their work was more important than their physical contribution to blocking buildings and helping with the demonstration.” Wilson further writes that “the opposition also texted campaign slogans to mobiles, and used them to give times and places for demonstrations.”

These examples illustrate one of the central differences between the revolutions of yesterday and those of today (and tomorrow, no doubt): the widespread availability and access to digital technology, which circumvents the need to employ traditional modes of communication that can be controlled by governing authorities, and thus allow opposition movements to organize rallies and protests easier and quicker than previously possible.


Further reading:

Foran, John. 2005. Taking Power: On the Origins of Third World Revolutions (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

Radnitz, Scott. 2006. "What Really Happened in Kyrgyzstan?" Journal of Democracy 17:2, pp. 132-146.

Safa, Oussama. 2006. "Lebanon Springs Forward" Journal of Democracy 17:1, pp. 22-37.

Thompson, Mark R. and Philipp Kuntz. 2004. "Stolen Elections: The Case of the Serbian October," Journal of Democracy 15:4, pp. 159-172.

Wilson, Andrew. 2005. Ukraine's Orange Revolution (New Haven: Yale University Press).


karachi khatmal said...

what is truly amazing is that 99% of the time, something like twitter is an amazing indictment of how strange humans have become - the constant need for attention, yet not having the ability to remain attentive for more than 160 characters.

but when these things become political, the old guard comes crashing down, powerless to defend itself against such inventions.

i'm tempted to make a t20 analogy, but i will refrain.

Rohith said...

Insightful to say the least, though I am sure there would be more factors that are at play.Revolutions like humans will always evolve :)

But then whats the situation like in Iran for the 2 factors mentioned? ( I apologise but i am blissfully unaware :( )

Secondly,to look at another incident, what was the course of events during the agitation in Pak started by Nawaz Sharif. To be sure, it was well short of a revolution and we cant even call the govt semi-authoritarian on all issues (but surely for the particular issue of Sharif's case). But still it was an event that attracted enough people onto the roads. Interestingly, at the time, there was enough news about Kiyani and Gilani meeting and the role that army did play. How relevant is the above piece wrt that event?

Tan said...

For those interested in the role of twitter & 'revolutions' (via Moldova's Twitter Revolution and Moldova's Twitter revolution is NOT a myth

Rohith said...

Also, the point regarding being able to circumvent censorship via technology is not all encompassing i think. We all know about China, don't we :)

Ahsan said...


I think on the military variable, Iran has shown itself to be a fully authoritarian state rather than a semi-authoritarian one. The scenes of violence have been pretty gruesome and as yet, they have shown no disinclination to beat and kill protesters.

With regard to the technology variable, my only point in the short paper was that you don't need as much organization and coordination amongst protesters because now technology can organize and coordinate for you. So this could perhaps explain the speed with which the protests began -- normally it would take a couple of days for these things to get going, but this was almost immediate.

Also, in relation to the technology point, it seems to me (again, from a distance) that this is overwhelmingly a young movement, which would also explain the reliance on Twitter and Facebook.

Rohith said...

Thanks Ahsan :)

And the point relating to sharif's agitation/lawyers movement (leading to reinstatement of CJ)seems to have been a tangential one, as i had anticipated :)