The biggest social revolution ever to fail? by mattsteinglass
June 19, 2009, 1:29 am
Filed under: China, democracy, Iran

Numerous comparisons have been made recently (see Matthew Yglesias here) between the ongoing protests in Iran and the Tiananmen protests in 1989, by way of pointing out that even large, popular, peaceful protest movements will fail if government security forces remain loyal and are willing to deploy the violence necessary to restore order. And that is true. But it elides the fact that the demonstrations in Iran are much, much bigger than those in Tiananmen were. They’re taking place throughout the country — though, to be fair, there were demonstrations in cities across China in 1989 — and while the protests in China were mainly limited to students and the urban elite, the mass election protests in Iran transcend all boundaries of class, age, and even to a large extent ideology and religious orientation.

What we’re looking at in Iran is really on a different scale. It’s certainly as large and sweeping as the revolutions that overturned the Milosevic government in Serbia or the Orange Revolution in Ukraine — both also touched off by botched elections. In fact, in every other case I can think of similar to this one, by the time the regime has arrived at this point, the game has been over. I don’t think any regime has put down a mass nonviolent revolt of this size, not in recent history anyway. It seems hard to imagine the regime using the kind of force it would take to get hundreds of thousands of people off the streets of several major Iranian cities. That’s not to say it’s not possible. Or perhaps the regime can wait out the protests until the crowd sizes shrink, and then targeted violence may work. But I have a hunch that’s not what’s going to happen. It hasn’t worked that way anywhere in the world in the past 23 years, since the People Power revolution in the Philippines. Instead, what has happened is that once huge masses of the populace lose the fear that has kept them atomized and prevented them from engaging in politics, that fear is gone for good, and the security forces ultimately wilt.

Maybe I’m wrong, and certainly the ideology of theocratic Islam could provide the kind of motivation one would need to discipline security forces into killing large numbers of their own countrymen. But if I had to bet, right now, I’d bet Ahmadinejad is going to be forced to resign.


4 Comments so far
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There was the 1934 uprising in Spain, that involved hundreds of thousands, but it also did involve an element of armed revolt. I suppose there was also the 1968 movements in France and Czechoslovakia, both of which were peaceful, and both of which were seen to ‘fail’.

The Czech uprising saw protests throughout the country, and were only repressed with Warsaw Pact help. As far as anyone could see they involved the entire nation.

The French general strike in ’68 involved 11 million workers over two weeks, but in the end seemed to evaporate. All De Gaulle had to do in the end was simply threaten to institute a state of emergency – although had made sure of the support of key military units just in case. De Gaulle actually emerged stronger as a result of it. Could Ahmadinejad finesse the protests in a similar way? I don’t think so, but then I can’t really say that I know all that much about the man.

Comment by FOARP

I think the ’68 comparison probably is the best example one could find of a protest movement of this size that failed. But the protests in France evaporated because they weren’t really about anything, apart from the crucial issue of programming at repertory cinemas. And the protests in Czechoslovakia were put down by foreign, overwhelmingly Russian, troops — after the decision to suppress them was made in Moscow. The decision to suppress the protests in Tehran will be made in Tehran, and the troops will have to be Iranians. I think it would be unique in modern times if they manage to do it.

Comment by mattsteinglass

I think the catch here is the government’s alleged use of hezbollah fighters and zealot Basij militias to do the dirty work. Military has an element of discipline that might give them pause in fighting against their own people, fanatics do not.

The real question, now, is the protesters’ ability to withstand several days of violent attack from these groups.

Comment by Brian Bucher

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