The Arab Spring – will there ever be a successful popular revolution?

The Arab Spring is a good example of Gordon Tullock’s consideration of revolutions as palace coups that sometimes occur against the background of street protests. For Tullock, the puzzle is not that popular revolutions are so rare, but that they happen at all.

The role of street protests in the Arab Spring was to throw in the possibility of mutinies and desertions in the army and police. Previous alliances are thrown into doubt especially as the autocrat is old and sick, but had been for many years grooming his young son to inherit his power.

Ordinary citizens obey dictators because if they don’t, they are highly unlikely to make any difference in any revolt and could get killed during the uprising even if it succeeds. Worse awaits them if the revolt fails.

To stay in power, Tullock considers that an autocrat needs a moderately competent secret police willing to torture and kill, and a policy of rewarding generously those who betray coup plotters. Of course, the plotters must be shot.

Autocrats are fundamentally insecure. Wintrobe wrote of the “Dictator’s Dilemma” – the problem facing any ruler of knowing how much support he has among the general population, as well as among smaller groups with the power to depose him. Most dictators are overthrown by the higher officials of their own regime.

Most dictators do not anoint a formal successor while they are in office. Tullock argued that as soon as a likely successor emerges, loyal retainers start to form alliances with that person and may see private advantage in bringing his anointed day forward. Can’t have that.

More than a few autocrats were murdered in their sleep. To his very last day, Stalin locked his bedroom door because he did not trust the bodyguards who had been with him since the 1920s.

As for the populace, the autocrat must use both the carrot and the stick to buy loyalty. It is tricky to get the right mix of repression and co-optation due to lack of information. So dictators pay very high wages to select groups to secure their loyalty, especially the military and police. The communist party of the USSR started with 100,000 members in 1920. By the early 1980s, co-optation left it with 26 million members with the ensuing privileges.

Perfectly ordinary regular armed forces, with no counterinsurgency doctrine or training whatsoever, have in the past regularly defeated insurgents by using well-proven methods.

The simple starting point is that insurgents are not the only ones who can intimidate or terrorise civilians.

For instance, whenever insurgents are believed to be present in a village, small town, or city district, the local notables can be compelled to surrender them to the authorities, under the threat of escalating punishments, all the way to mass executions. That is how the Ottoman Empire controlled entire provinces with a few feared janissaries and a squadron or two of cavalry.

Terrible reprisals to deter any form of resistance were standard operating procedure for the German armed forces in the Second World War. Compare occupied France with the U.S. in Iraq:

  • German officers walked around occupied France with no more than side-arms because any mischief would be dealt with by savage reprisals.
  • American forces in Iraq bunker down and move in convoys because they do not launch reprisals.

On the side-lines, even better, watching it all on TV is the safest place for most to be in a popular revolution, uprising or insurgency.

Unless you control key military resources in the capital, what you do personally does not matter to the success of the revolution. Sticking your neck out can get you shot at or perhaps tortured. A classic ‘free rider’ dilemma.

If you must get involved, the best place to be in a mounting revolution is to be a ‘late switcher’. Switch sides when you are sure of joining the winning side. Back the winner just as he is about to win.

One reason for those post-revolution and post-coup purges is the small number of people actually involved in overthrowing the old autocrat and who actually stuck their necks out while plotting the coup do not trust their Johnny-come-lately new allies. They turn on these late-switchers before they change sides again to support a further coup of their own or a counter-coup.

People power in Manila in 1986 had a lot to do with late switching in a coup plot.

Originally, a military coup was planned by General Ramos and Defence Minister Enrile against the dying Marcos.

The coup plotters feared for their lives under Imelda. The plot was uncovered. Assassins were dispatched.

Ramos and Enrile gave up on forming a military junta and threw their lot with Cory Aquino and her popular movement in the hope that the army would split or hold off until the lay of the land was clearer, which the army did. That 1986 military coup and the coup attempts in succeeding years were staffed by different cabals of these late switchers.

Yeltsin on that tank in Moscow with a loud hailer was great TV, but remember he was calling for the army and security forces to switch sides or at least stay neutral. They did.

The mid-1980s Russian leaders were old and sick, so many ambitious younger army officers and nomenklatura saw their main chance if they boxed real clever and switched sides just at the right moment.

After every change of leadership in the USSR, there is a redistribution of patronage. Perestroika and Glasnost were, on closer inspection, another round of these reallocations of patronage. Patronage to their own entourages are routine for new autocrats throughout history.

Every Russian leader had his own reform initiatives after entering office and had periodic anti-corruption purges to redistribute the rents of high government offices and state-owned enterprise management positions to the up-and-comers he could trust more. Like Khrushchev, Gorbachev also wanted to transfer resources away from the military. Gorbachev went further and wanted to stop bleeding money and resources to the communist satellite states of Eastern Europe.

It also should be always remembered that Qadaffi got his main chance to take over when he was a mere Colonel Qadaffi leading a small group of junior officers. Colonels control strategic components of the military but are not as well paid as those in the autocrat’s inner circle.

Generals are often close to the leadership; their appointments are usually somewhat political and benefit from generous patronage from the autocrat. They have little to gain but their life to lose in a coup plot.

Enough military coups are led by more junior officers seizing their main chance. This make their generals nervous enough about their own survival in a colonels’ coup to strike first and displace the current autocrat before they are the next to be arrested and share his fate. There is then a post-coup realignment of patronage to buy off the junior officers.

Nasser did not believe that he, as a lieutenant-colonel, would be accepted by the Egyptian people and so he and the Free Officers Movement selected a general to be their nominal boss and lead the coup in 1952. Nasser did not become Prime Minister until 1954 after a spell as a minister and then as Deputy Prime Minister.

What appears to be a popular uprising is normally a split within the government. The Arab Spring, not by coincidence, occurred during a succession crisis in Egypt. President Mubarak has been very old and sick for a long time. Gamal Mubarak was old enough to covet the presidency but would have a large entourage of his own that would take many of the lucrative posts from his father’s retainers and courtiers.

A few autocrats call elections and retire abroad. The gratitude of the populace and the uncertain identity of his successors creates a big enough break in the traffic to allow the dictator to get to the airport alive.


1 thought on “The Arab Spring – will there ever be a successful popular revolution?

  1. Pingback: The Fall of the Berlin Wall and Rod Croome’s unanticipated revolution | Utopia – you are standing in it!

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