Hard-liners and soft-liners in the construction of post-authoritarian regimes.

Recent discussions here at KP have revealed some misunderstandings of what constitutes a “revolution” and what the prospects for democracy are after an authoritarian regime collapse or withdrawal. Specifically, there appears to be some confusion in the minds of some readers as to the difference between revolutions and revolts, uprisings, coups d’etat and other forms of regime change. Most worrisome, there appears to be a belief, apparently shared by many in the Western Press, that revolutions are intrinsically good things and lead to democracy. Although I have tried to dispel some of these notions in the commentary about other posts, let me address the issue directly and explain some dynamics of regime change that impact on the direction of said change and the prospects of democracy after the collapse or withdrawal of an authoritarian regime.

First of all, let it be clear: Revolutions are not just a transfer of political power. They are a form of mass collective violence mobilized against a political regime and its repressive apparatus that results in the overthrow of that regime and  its replacement with a new political, social and economic order. Second, no revolution in the 20th century led to democracy as a direct result. Ever. What revolutions do is replace one authoritarian regime with another. This is due in part to the fact that what it takes to be a successful revolutionary leader is ruthless determination, ideological zealotry, supreme organizational, strategic and tactical skills in both the armed and propaganda fields, and an unwillingness to compromise in pursuit of victory. That is not the stuff that genuine democrats are made of. In fact, the very traits that make for good democratic leadership are anathema to revolutionary leaders. Hence, if one has a preferential bias in favour of democracy, then revolutions are not the best way to achieve it. If one is less interested in democratic outcomes and more interested in imposing a preferred social construct, then revolutions are the best way to achieve that end.

The other major reason why revolutions lead to authoritarian outcomes is because the defeated authoritarian regime has allies and supporters inside and outside the country that will continue to attempt to block revolutionary reforms after the change in power. These counter-revolutionary forces include former opposition factions that do not share the militant revolutionary goals even though they participated in a tactical alliance with hard-liners against the ancien regime. Confronted by a more radical agenda for change than they anticipated or are prepared to accept, such moderate opposition factions tend to switch sides and propose a moderate counter-revolutionary platform that only serves to strengthen the resolve of the revolutionary hard-liners.

Needless to say, for a revolution to be successful the opposition must be organised and have mass support, while the old regime must suffer decisive internal fractures, especially within its security forces and in the relationship between the repressive apparatuses and the regime elite. So long as there is ideological unity and corporate discipline within the armed forces and other security agencies and the regime elite retain the loyalty of those specialised in the management of organised violence, then no amount of external pressure will topple it. This is true even if some regime leaders are sacrificed to appease public discontent and cooptive reforms or concessions are offered to mollify specific grievances and induce opposition acceptance of the “new” regime (which itself is a divide-and-conquer tactic used on the opposition that allows to the regime to more clearly target intransigent factions within the former). As part of this, a leadership coup or putsch may occur in which despised individuals are replaced by more nondescript or less tainted people who are nevertheless committed members of the ruling elite.

Thus, revolutions are neither always progressive or democratic, as the Iranian Revolution demonstrates. For those interested in seeing a democratic outcome to situations of authoritarian regime crisis amid popular unrest, there is actually a baseline formula that needs to obtain, and it falls far short of revolution. Let me explain.

Authoritarian regimes and their oppositions can be broadly divided into hard-line and soft-line (militant  and moderate) factions. Hard-liners in the regime are usually the political leadership and those directly engaged in acts of repression during its tenure (which can extend down to street level police, paramilitary thugs, intelligence agents and, if complicit, elements of the military itself). Soft-line elements of the authoritarian regime are those who benefited from it but who did not have visible decision-making roles and those uninvolved in repression, as well as the minority few who genuinely worked from the inside to promote reform.

Hard-liners in the opposition are ideological militants and those who suffered directly at the hands of the authoritarian regime. Their suffering can be physical or economic and their numbers depend on how repressive and criminal the regime was in its dealings with political opponents and non-allied economic and social agents. For the hard-line opposition, the thirst is for revenge, not reconciliation. On the other hand, soft-liners in the opposition are all those who, while having a dislike for the authoritarian elite, did not suffer directly at its hands. For them, the issue is not so much revenge as it is change.

The formula for a democratic transition stemming from authoritarian collapse or withdrawal is simple. If hard-liners dominate both the authoritarian elite and the opposition, the prospects for a democratic outcome are negligible and civil war is probable. If hard-liners dominate the regime and soft-liners dominate the opposition, then regime continuity with minor reforms is the likely outcome. If soft-liners dominate the regime and hard-liners dominate the opposition, the reforms will be more significant but regime continuity will most likely occur simply because of the fear of retribution amongst the regime elite and its supporters when confronted with a hard-line opposition victory.

The only situation is which a transition to democracy is a potential outcome is one where soft-liners dominate in both the regime and opposition. The trouble for these actors is that they must fend off and eventually subordinate their hard-line counterparts while at the same time negotiating the terms and conditions for a transfer of power to openly elected authority. That is a very delicate matter that involves, among other things, an “ethical compromise” whereby both sides agree not to prosecute most of those responsible for state atrocities or insurrectionary violence (in other words, although some notorious figures may be offered up as sacrificial lambs by both sides, the bulk of those involved in human rights abuses and non-state terrorism will walk free). The examples of the Southern Cone of Latin America, Central America and South Africa are illustrative in this regard. If anything, prosecution of human rights violators must wait until the new regime is more or less consolidated in its institutional structure and in the transparent application of universal law. That can take decades.

Hard-liners on both sides will see the soft-liner negotiations for what they are and move to denounce them as sell-outs and lackeys. The more secret the negotiations between the soft-liners on each side the more the minority hard-liners will resort to obstructionist and provocative tactics to thwart any agreement. This can involve internecine as well as partisan bloodshed. The more the hard-liners can thwart soft-liner agreement, the less likely it will be that a peaceful transition of power to a democratically-elected authority will occur.

The strategic position of the country in question will impact on the influence of external actors. In strategically inconsequential countries, external actors will be less inclined to involve themselves in domestic crises and will prefer to observe an internal resolution so long as it does not impact on their national or material interests. Conversely, in countries that have strategic import or geopolitical significance, the more likely it is that external actors, acting individually or in consort, will involve themselves in efforts to shape the outcome. For them, expending diplomatic capital is necessary because of the stakes involved, especially when a transition outcome could have deleterious repercussive effects on regional or international stability.

And that, in sum, is why democratic outcomes of popular revolts against authoritarian regimes are less probable than many hope for. Besides the non-democratic outcome of genuine revolutions involving the overthrow of an authoritarian elite, the dynamics of regime extrication and replacement are such that the more likely outcome of a transition short of revolutionary overthrow is authoritarian regime restoration under different guise, limited democratisation with ongoing authoritarian elite veto power, authoritarian reaffirmation or high-or low-level civil war.

Best to keep that in mind when observing recent events in the Middle East.

44 thoughts on “Hard-liners and soft-liners in the construction of post-authoritarian regimes.

  1. Not only the Middle East. Zimbabwe springs to mind as well particularly with today’s lifting of the embargo on diamonds something that will quite probably rejuvenate that regime. It would seem my hopes that Mugabe would do a runner were deluded.

  2. Hamish:

    That is the beauty of having analytic and conceptual tools–they can be applied in a variety of circumstances. The hard versus soft-liner model is derived from analyses of Southern European and Latin American authoritarian transitions in the 1970s and 1980s, and has been successfully applied to Eastern Europe and East Asian transitions in the 1990s. Although the specifics of the how/how/what will vary from case to case, the overall processes and range of outcomes are generalizable and thereby testable on, if not applicable to, new case studies.

  3. And we should just delete the wikipedia page on non-violent revolution?(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nonviolent_revolution)

    Even if you disagree with Pablo and argue that a non-violent “revolution” is possible, the other broadly understood part of our definition of a revolution, as opposed to other modes and mechanisms of regime change, is a fundamental change in the economic and social orientation of the country in question (as did all our classic cases of revolution e.g. China, France, Russia, Cuba and Iran). Thus, you could to some extent argue that the Central and Eastern European upheavals of 1989/90 were “revolutions” in the sense that they facilitated a change not only of political leadership but also a shift from state socialism to capitalism. By the same token, I’m not sure that the same could be said of the 2004 Ukrainian Orange Revolution, since it largely constituted a change in political leadership, and not a fundamental change in economic and social organization. (And the political regime did not even change as a result, since the country was and still a semi-democracy at best.)

    My point being that many of Wikipedia’s socalled peaceful revolutions are not revolutions when this further defining feature is taken into account.

  4. My point being that many of Wikipedia’s socalled peaceful revolutions are not revolutions when this further defining feature is taken into account.

    And my point isn’t that I disagree with Pablo in any respect, merely that I’m interested to find out what the scholarly definitions are.

  5. Graeme:

    You should know better than to use wikipedia as a scholarly source. In spite of that lapse I do agree that the Eastern European regime changes present a challenge to the revolutionary model I have outlined because they were largely non-violent (Rumanians would disagree with that assessment, but then again that was more of an armed inter-elite coup than anything else).

    The issue is whether there was socio-economic and institutional parametric change along with the transfer of political power. That is where things get fuzzy. Moving from state capitalist to market capitalist economic control is only parametric change when the elites who control and benefit from the economic shift change as well. Moreover, in revolutions the old political elites are purged virtually in their entirety and social mores and the collective ethos changes dramatically as well.

    In the Eastern European cases none of this occurred. Old elites rebranded themselves, adopted electoral modes of political contestation and if anything harked to “traditional” social values and institutions rather than new ones (the role of the Catholic Church in Poland is instructive in this regard). There was no new version or even recast approximation of the “socialist man” promoted by Leninists or people like Fidel Castro in the aftermath of victory. To wit, there was no new or fundamentally recast version of Czech, Slovakian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Hungarian, Albanian, Croatian, Serb, Montenegran, German, Ukrainian, Georgian or any of the “Stan’s” collective identities. What was before, is now (the exception might be Estonia, which does appear to have undergone a major transformation at a societal level as well as in its political-economic forms). In fact, many of the old elites under the Stalinist regimes parlayed their positions of authority into brokerage positions once the privatisation of state assets began, and many of them now constitute the new oligarchies that maintain economic control (and indirectly, political control) in many of these states.

    Moreover, it can be argued that the Eastern European regime changes were more instances of national liberation than revolutions because they threw off the yoke of a forcibly imposed foreign ideology maintained by puppet client regimes that had little or no legitimacy in the eyes of their own people and which were secured by repression rather than mass consent. Stalinism may have originated and therefore seemed “natural” to the USSR, but it certainly was not for its client states.

    Since the regimes in question were not autonomous or indigenous, the mass demonstrations against them (there were no real sustained uprisings to speak of beyond street clashes, protests and strikes, and in each instance the repressive apparatuses–seeing that the USSR was imploding–refused to forcibly extinguish expressions of discontent because they saw that the old benefactor was gone) can be seen more as demands for independence rather than for revolutionary change.

    But I concede that the Eastern European cases represent a challenge to the model and have spent some time thinking through the issue, as of yet without definitive resolution. Ironically, I used to teach a course at Auckland University titled “Comparative Regime Transitions” and another titled “Between Anarchy and Chaos: Revolutions, Insurgencies and Counter-hegemonic Movements” in which all of these issues were covered at great length and depth. Alas, when I left so did those course offerings and as far as I know there is not a single political science course in NZ that comes anywhere close to authoritatively covering those two subjects.

  6. Pablo, you mentioned earlier that Theda Skopcol’s model was one of those that informed your definition of revolutions. Skopcol not only doesn’t explicitly say revolutions must be violent, she explicitly states they don’t have to be, even if they usually are. So you are at least partly disagreeing with Skopcol when you say that revolutions must be violent.

    You say that no revolution in the 20th century has resulted in a democracy, but many revolutions in the 18th and 19th century did, mostly in Europe but also in the Americas. Why do you think what was once possible is no longer possible now? The revolutionaries of France and Italy had all the traits you say are incompatible with democracy, and yet somehow democracy appeared. What’s your explanation for this? Was the 19th century just different, and if so, how?

    Furthermore, you said:

    Moreover, in revolutions the old political elites are purged virtually in their entirety and social mores and the collective ethos changes dramatically as well.

    Unless your “virtually” is quite broad I would think that this qualification would actually imply that there has never been a revolution in human history. Certainly in the “classic” revolutions of France, Russia and China there was strong continuity between the pre and post revolution elites, particularly at the regional levels.

    Re: Political Science courses that cover these subjects, Paul Brooker used to teach a very good course on authoritarian governments at Victoria, but I think now that he’s retired it’s no longer offered.

  7. You should know better than to use wikipedia as a scholarly source.

    I added the wikipedia bit as an afterthought :-)

    My thinking basically went:

    1. revolutions need violence?
    2. But surely there are things that have been called revolutions that weren’t violent?
    3. Industrial revolution? No that’s just some sort of analogy, surely there is a better example?
    4. The Velvet revolution … what was that? Something in Eastern Europe, I think? Let’s check wikipedia so I don’t make an idiot of myself. Yep.

    Write comment. Read more about velvet revolution. Get to bottom of wikipedia page and see a link to the nonviolent revolution page. Add not entirely necessary, but still humorous remark to comment.

    Revolutions are not just a transfer of political power. They are a form of mass collective violence … that results in the overthrow of that regime and its replacement with a new political, social and economic order.

    [Possibly making a fool of myself again]

    So, because the American Revolution didn’t create a new economic order (except for the abolition of some taxes) it doesn’t count as a revolution? Did it even change the social order much (there was the removal of influence by aristocracy, but that could be seen as mostly a political change, rather than a social one, given the distance from the actual elites)?

  8. To be honest Hugh, I cannot think of a single instance of 19th century “revolutions” in Latin America, and certainly none that resulted in democracy. There were wars of national liberation and elite coups, but what revolutions occurred did so in the 20th century. Democracy, as a political construct in Latin America, only came into being in the 20th century. Everything before that was variants of oligarchical regimes.

    More broadly, unless I am missing something I do not see where revolutions in the 18th and 19th centuries directly led to democracy. They might have set in motion the processes by which democracy eventually obtained, but democracy as a direct outcome of the armed overthrow of the state is not evident in the historical record.

    I used Skocpol as a reading reference (along with Tilly) for “readingthe maps,” who has his own definition of revolution that I disagree with. She informs but does not determine my definition, and in any event her cases, both in her seminal book and subsequent work, have focused on cases in which an armed overthrow of the state was involved. So there is no issue there.

    As for pre-and post-revolutionary elite continuity. I believe that you greatly exaggerate the degree of continuity even if looking at the regional level in very large states like the PRC. It may take time in larger states, but the objective of revolution, and hence part of its definition, is the replacement of old elites with new, supposedly more responsive and “democratic” or “popular” elites. Some old elites may be co-opted but the usual process involves purges. When you add into the mix structural and social changes that remove the basis for old elite authority, their end is in sight.

    Mind you, some revolutions such as the Sandinista Revolution in Nicaragua never were able to complete their revolutionary project due to the combination of external and internal pressure exerted, in the Nicaraguan case, by oppositions linked in their distaste for a Leninist take-over of what had originally been a Socialist, Social Democratic and Christian Democratic-majority revolutionary coalition. In such cases the purgative phase never reaches full completion and back-tracking begins to occur in the measure that the revolutionary elite fracture over the issue of preserving what gains have been made at the expense of pushing through the entire project in the face of popular discontent (and the need to ratchet up repression to quell it. That brings up the hard versus soft-liner issue mentioned in the post).

    The issue of whether revolutions can be non-violent, or whether there is a new 21st century model of revolution now developing, remain open questions that remain unanswered. Whatever the case, it is doubtful whether there is anyone, much less any course, in NZ political science that addresses the issue as a matter of priority (or even marginal) concern.

  9. Phil:

    Are you taking the piss? Have you been drinking some of Adolf’s home brewed bug juice? Romania a revolution that resulted in democracy? I do not know what to say because if you cannot see that it was no more than an internal coup occasioned by popular protests that resulted in the re-entrenchment of most of the old elite under new name and electoral aegis (i.e. a limited democratic or better yet, electoral authoritarian regime), then I simply cannot say anything further. Sure, there have been some political and economic reforms and some new blood has entered the elite–but that a revolution does not make.

    You also seem to have missed my broader point about violence entirely in the rush to throw Romania in as an outlier (which is to say, even if you are right–and you are not by a far stretch–that would not invalidate my general observations). Killing off a despised leader is one thing, but as I said in the post the definition of revolution hinges on the use of mass collective violence with a focus and purpose. Random street violence and the killing of selective individuals does not cut it. And then there is the issue of parametric change which you seem to have completely overlooked.


    Your remark about the Industrial Revolution brings to mind the post I wrote about conceptual transfer versus conceptual stretching. In this day and age revolution has come to mean virtually anything involving significant, perhaps rapid change. Just like the way people throw around the term “fascist” or “socialist,” such use renders the term meaningless.

    I realise, though, that you are aware of this problem and are actually looking for more precision in defining what a revolution is. I certainly think that the American “Revolution” was nothing of the sort. It was a war of national liberation by which colonial overlords were defeated militarily and independence was declared. No property relations changed, no slaves were freed, no women got the vote, no indigenous people were treated as equals–it was shift in power from a foreign born white male elite to a local born white make elite under different political rules.

    The big issues are whether revolutions can be a) the result of spontaneous outpourings of popular discontent without focused leadership or organisation; b) whether they can occur non-violently; and c) do they immediately lead to democracy. I would argue against a and c and that b is as much a function of the attitude and disposition of state repressive apparatuses as it is of any penchant for pacifism or violence on the part of the “revolutionary” opposition.

  10. Skocpol’s defintion of revolution, citing Sam Huntington: “A revolution is a rapid, fundamental, and violent domestic change in the dominant values and myths of a society, in its political institutions, social structure, leadership, and government activities and policies”. She then goes on to clarify in her own words: “social revolutions are rapid, basic transformations of socio-economic and political institutions… It is this combination of thoroughgoing structural transformation and massive class upheavals that sets social revolutions apart from coups, rebellions, and even political revolutions and national independence movements”.

    So indeed, Skocpol’s definition does seem to include violence.

    This also opens up the possibility of distinguishing between a political and a social revolution…

  11. Pablo – Romania is now part of the EU. It was ruled as a socialist autocracy by Ceaucescu from 1965 to 1989.

    That is a little bit of movement.

    Personally I think that falls well within the definition social scientist offers from Skocpol. I suggest it also includes a number of other transitions. Your definition of revolution is too tightly bound to me. Unfortunately I do not have time to debate this or explain properly.

  12. Phil:

    Entry into the EU is a good step but not a full sign of democratisation, and certainly no proof that a revolution occurred. EU membership rests more on agreement with certain integration rules and principles given the geopolitical and strategic dynamics at play in Europe rather than a genuine commitment to or the substantive democratisation of the country in question. It is a sign of progress, but not sign of a democratic revolution.

    I agree that there has been much change in Romania and elsewhere in the former Warsaw Pact. But these changes have been incremental and reformist rather than substantial and revolutionary.

    Social Scientist: I did not want to engage with Hugh on the Skocpol issue simply because it is clear he had not given her a full reading and it was not central to my point anyway. Hugh likes to argue for the sake of arguing, which in this case means that we are now, thanks to Phil joining in, well off track of what the post was mainly about.

  13. To remove a regime from power requires overpowering it, or forcing it to the conclusion that it lacks either the capacity or the will to overpower resistance to its continuance. Given the latter applies in Egypt – there are the precendents of the Kremlin not mobilising force and blinking before Yeltsin, or the successful clearing of a public area of protesters – such as at Tianamen Square.

    In the end what is the difference – only that there is no capacity to impose a new order, and there needs to be another path found to end the impasse. Thus the path of non-violence is more likely to result in a democratic outcome. Because the means of change involves the same practicalities that will occur within the democratic process.

    So then, if violence defines revolution, revolution will not normally result in democracy. However if challenging the ability of an authoritarian regime to continue to rule is done by non violence, it’s more likely that the intent is democratic.

    Which leads to the example of the Australia’s republican referendum, that was lost because the proponents of the status quo divided the reformers over what they intended to put in the place of the Crown. In Egypt it appears the plan was for those organising the non violent challenge to retain a low profile – lest the secular opposition and brotherhood lose their sense of unity because of different apirations for the future of the country.

  14. The problem with your model of revolution Pablo is that it deals only with power relations and not social relations. By definition a revolution must involve a transfer of power. But from what to what? If it’s a matter of circulation of elites then you can’t explain historical transitions from hunter-gatherer society to capitalist society.

    Revolutions strictly mean transfers of power which allow one class to replace another class as the ruling class. These may be protracted and wax and wane as revolutionary advances meet counter-revolutionary reactions, but in the end we have to have a point at which we say a revolution was completed or defeated. What decides this point is the historic weight of the respective contesting classes.

    The great revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries were therefore bourgeois revolutions in which that class came to supplant a declining feudal ruling class which was being displaced by the rise of capitalist production. Bourgeoise democracy was the product of that revolution. Individual citizens won rights of representation, legal equality etc etc if they were capitalist property owners. This was extended to workers eventually as sellers of the commodity labour power. Women eventually got the suffrage as they became economically more independent. Therefore it is clearly true that the bourgeois revolution produced bourgeois democracy.

    As I pointed out on a different thread the bourgeois revolution was denied to the colonies by the already imperialist capitalist countries because bourgeois democracy is incompatible with colonial or neo-colonial exploitation and denial of basic bourgeois rights. That is why the national democratic revolutions such as we are witnessing being reactivated in North Africa are still bourgeois revolutions that need to be finished. Since the semi-colonial bourgeoisie do not have the economic power to break from imperialism, independence and bourgeois democracy can only we won by the masses of workers and poor farmers in a socialist revolution.

    At this point I hear you say, this is exactly what is impossible, no attempt to win national independence by means of a socialist revolution has succeeded without sacrificing bourgeois democracy. Yes but I would say that that is exactly what a socialist revolution is intended to do, to replace bourgeois democracy with workers democracy. Insofar as this does not happen it is not the fault of the revolution as claimed by bourgeois apologists, but of the bourgeois counter-revolution.

    If we take the Russian revolution as a single case of a socialist revolution that ended up as a Stalinist counter-revolution, we can show that this was not the necessary outcome of the revolution, but of the counter-revolution. The Russian masses were isolated from the global working class and while they made a socialist revolution and were victorious over the invading white armies, they succumbed to the same fate as many colonial revolutions, though in this case the bureaucracy rather than the national bourgeoisie became a Bonapartist caste balancing between imperialism and the Soviet working class. In other words the bourgeois revolution succeeded as a socialist revolution in Russia in overthrowing an imperialist Tsarist regime and a weak cowardly bourgeoisie, but failed ultimately because it did not succeed outside Russia. The same happened in China, Vietnam etc. Cuba is well on the way to restoring capitalism. The DPRK is an stagnant autarky.

    So far then, socialist revolutions in the 20th century have failed to survive because the revolutionary class was met by overwhelming counter-revolutionary force so that the advances of the socialist revolutions are now forgotten and the counter-revolutionary outcomes attributed to the socialist revolution itself. So speaking about 20th century revolutions Pablo should say, revolutions defeated by counter-revolutionary violence never lead back to bourgeois democracy or post-authoritarian regimes, but to neo-colonies of imperialism.

    The question then of future revolutions, specifically those of North Africa at the moment, is a matter of the strength and international unity of the workers and poor farmers as a revolutionary force against the total class strength of the imperialist powers. The more the working class is united and able to exercise its power to halt production (as we see happening in Egypt) the weaker will the capitalist power be adn the more it must resort to open reaction to stay in power. Add to this the fact that in the semi-colonies, state power is based on state forces made up of workers and the peasants in uniform who are open to siding with the working masses.

    We are at another point in history like 1917 when the balance of class forces is being put to the test. In these historic crisis situations, it is the socialist revolution that represents the democracy class rule of the vast majority in the future, and the bourgeois counter-revolutionary forces that represent the tiny privileged democracy of the past i.e. the right to vote as a citizen in a bourgeois state.

  15. Pablo – In 1993 there was an attempted coup in Russia. Boris Yeltsin stood on a tank, parliament was shelled.

    That revolution ended with Yeltsin leading a weak democracy but a democracy none the less.

    Your definition of revolution requires there be protracted armed struggle. Too tight imho.

    I can only shake my head in bewilderment if membership of the EU is not sufficient “democratisation” for you.

  16. Phil:

    Russia is a democracy?? This is starting to become an Alice in Wonderland discussion. And as I said before, admission into the EU is a good start but is not proof of a full commitment to democracy by young post-authoritarian states. In fact, admission is offered in part as a means of hastening the consolidation of democracy in such states. I would argue that in the case of Rumania, that effort has a loooong way to go.

    And here I thought we might get into a game-theoretic or rational choice-inspired discussion of the hard- and soft-liner interplay in circumstances of authoritarian crisis….

  17. Recent discussions here at KP have revealed some misunderstandings of what constitutes a “revolution” and what the prospects for democracy are after an authoritarian regime collapse or withdrawal. Specifically, there appears to be some confusion in the minds of some readers as to the difference between revolutions and revolts, uprisings, coups d’etat and other forms of regime change.

    My guess is that you must classify Romania and Russia as uprisings or revolts but not revolution. Fair enough. You and I normally try to avoid getting stuck in pedantic rat holes.

    I would classify both Russia and Romania as meeting your “Firstly…” which therefore invalidates your second major point.

    My definition is wider than yours which also seems to require the presence of a hardline revolutionary leader. I would argue that presence means the mass uprising is more likely to be a manipulation of the masses being more akin to a coup d’etat.

    You have over simplified the description of the actors in a revolution imho. I would agree to the descriptions of hardline and soft opposition on both sides but there is also, as with every nation, the silent majority. Through serendipity they may well arise. That happened in Russia and Romania and Tunisia and is happening now in Egypt. That does not predetermine that any of them will turn into democracies, but it allows the scenario where a university qualified vegetable seller brings about regime change through self immolation. His act of sacrifice empowered others to rise up above the parapet and be counted.

    The real hardliners like Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Saddam and the North Korean Kims had no problem with the brutality necessary to quash that snowballing dissent before it reached dangerous levels that could not be contained. The weaker leaders were simply unwilling or fearful of the level of violence to maintain their positions. Either that or they did not carry the loyalty of the security forces who sensed that the mood of the people was right.

    Yeltsin took a chance and stood on a tank. He risked a great deal by doing that and becoming such an obvious target for the security forces but his leadership turned the people

    I guess that you prefer a more scripted outcome whereas I believe that so much of regime change will simply be the intervention of fate.

    I understood this post to be about the times of change, not about the subsequent failures of the leaders of revolution to follow up and build peaceful democratic states, but instead to enrich themselves. That is the far more likely path after an unscripted regime change. Leaders who decide the fortunes they can gain by pillaging the country outweigh the possible good they can achieve in the face of such opposition.

  18. Awesome discussion, I’ve learnt a lot. Maybe the Pacific doesn’t do “revolutions” to your formula, but I vaguely recall from school that Hawaii had a civil disobedience revolution in 1954 that apparently resulted in a more democratic outcome.

    I wonder whether effective civil disobedience campaigns are just slow-acting revolutions.

  19. Egypt Army has announced the protestors demands are legitimate and they will not use force against them.

    which surely means Mubarak must begone.
    authoritarian elite swapped for authoritarian elite Pablo?

  20. Phil:

    The silent majority you mention is referred to in the literature as “fence straddlers” and “bandwagonners.” The majority of people wait until the outcome is apparent before joining the bandwagon. You are right in noting that they matter, but you exaggerate their importance. The masses add momentum to a revolutionary movement, but they do not make the revolution. In a country of 80 million it will take more than a few 10s of thousands to provide that mass base (it will be interesting to see if the called for million man march gathers that number, which will be an indication of the potential of the protests to become something more significant in terms of mobilizational potential).

    Things like people setting themselves on fire are known as precipitating events. They can be human or naturally caused (e.g. the earthquake in Nicaragua), but either way they are a spark, not the fuel or the hand that pours it in the streets.

    We will have to agree to disagree about Russia and Romania. Russia is a case of one party authoritarian regime collapse that led to a decade of weak democratisation, economic liberalisation (and pillage), abortive coups and the gradual imposition of multiparty electoral authoritarianism. Romania, as I said before, was an inter-elite putsch amid mass protests that substituted a one party autocracy with a multi-party electoral autocracy. And that is the nub: just because elections are held does not mean that democracy has obtained. In fact, they are a great mystification device that helps conceal the real nature of the regime. Just ask the Russians or Romanians.

    As for Egyptian military’s attitude. That was a foregone conclusion. Mass anger is focused on Mubarak and he must be sacrificed for the regime to continue. The appointment of a new VP and heir-designate Omar Suleiman, an Air Force office who is chief of intelligence, signals the intent to maintain continuity. Given that the regime was already undergoing a succession crisis in the build up to the Sept 2011 elections because of Mubarak’s insistence that his son be named president in the face of opposition from the military command, the protests actually strengthen the hand of the military hardliners who can now easily argue that it is the name “Mubarak,” rather than a military-led regime, that must go. And so it will be, and with a few reforms and a bit more transparency and accountability, the military will retain its central place in the regime. That is not a revolution.

    With regard to El-Baradei leading the opposition, that suits the military as well. As an individual from a privileged background, educated in the US and living in voluntary exile for 30 years while holding UN and IAEA jobs with no connection to the people outside of intellectual and some liberal elite circles, no mass support base and no strong political networks at home, El-Baradei is exactly the sort of co-optable soft-liner that the military would prefer to deal with. He may rail against the West now that he is on the Cairo streets but he has been made by the West and will play according to its rules, particularly with regard to Israel. The issue is whether he will survive long enough to cut a deal with the military to form a “coalition” government, since hard-liners in the opposition who have spent years sacrificing blood and energy will not take kindly to his johnny-come-lately upstaging of all their hard work by selling them short.

    Dave: I have already mentioned at great length, and social scientist reiterated, that revolutions “properly” conceived are social as well as political in nature. This is where much confusion exists and why so much discussion gets bogged down in discussing the semantics of the political dimension of change. That is a necessary but not sufficient condition for revolutions to occur.

  21. More broadly, unless I am missing something I do not see where revolutions in the 18th and 19th centuries directly led to democracy. They might have set in motion the processes by which democracy eventually obtained, but democracy as a direct outcome of the armed overthrow of the state is not evident in the historical record.

    Depends what you mean by “directly”. In France there was certainly a very lengthy transition period where there were points where the post-revolutionary government seemed just as bad as the ancien regime. But the ultimate transition was from sacredotal tyranny to popular democracy. I’m aware of the flaws in 19th century (and for that matter 20th century) French democracy but if a revolution has to establish a flawless democracy then we are once again setting the bar far too high, possibly impossibly high, to the point where the “revolutions” we are discussing are a theoretical concept which has never occurred, a sort of Political Science dark matter.

    As for pre-and post-revolutionary elite continuity. I believe that you greatly exaggerate the degree of continuity even if looking at the regional level in very large states like the PRC.

    I admit that the PRC is the one of the three “classical” revolutions I’m unfamiliar with. But the other two I am familiar with, and the current scholarly consensus is that the degree of continuity in Russia and France, while not total, was also not entirely neglible.

    Ultimately I agree with you that what is happening in Egypt, even in a best case scenario, will not be a revolution, although that isn’t to say democracy is inconcievable in the future. But I think in your desire to narrow the definition of revolutions you’ve gone too far and are actually narrowing it to the point of non-existence.

    The problem, as is so often the case where people whose training and perspective is academic seek to counter arguments made in the popular media, is that the word “revolution” has two meanings, one academic and narrow, one popular and broad. The popular use of the word is basically synonymous with revolt, uprising, or indeed any political change outside of a managed succession or a democratic election. The scholarly use is more stringent. So we have events like “The American Revolution” which is almost universally accepted by historians as not a revolution in any meaningful sense, but is almost universally referred to as one by the popular media.

    I don’t mean to condescend. The academic use is the one I, and I think Pablo, personally prefer in conversation when we’re more comfortable with it, but it’s not better in and of itself. Demanding popular use conform to the scholarly use by default isn’t any more productive than demanding academics classify the American revolution as revolutionary simply because most popular culture does so. That being said in the context of this thread, and moreover this blog, I think an academic use is more appropriate, since the question is to what extent changes in Egypt are deep and thorough or shallow and superficial, so the terms “revolutionary” and “non-revolutionary” (or perhaps more charitably, sub-revolutionary) are useful.

    Oh and re: the Romanian example, another case study I have some familiarity with, I actually think both Phil and Pablo are right. Pablo is right in that the 1989 uprising was more of a palace coup than a genuine popular uprising, but Phil is right that Romania has actually become a democracy (if not the most admirable one in Eastern Europe, let alone Europe). I think the crucial change happened, not in 1989, but in the late 90s/early 00s as the last of the generation of post-communist politicians exited power. So while the events of 1989 may not have ensured the exit of the autocrats straight away, they were probably a prerequisite. This might be the best scenario for Egypt too, although ultimately it is of course too early to tell.

  22. The circuit breaker in Egypt is possibly Mubarak exiting the scene, if parties based on religious or racial identity were to be excluded from (at least the first contestable election) elections. That would require the brotherhood particularly to make a concession to ensure Mubarak is replaced and contestable elections can occur.

    That takes care of the bottom lines of both the existing authoritarian regime and those seeking its overthrow. With both hardliner camps satisfied the soft-liners could negotiate terms – a new constitution to go to the people with in a referendum and then contestable elections.

  23. SPC:

    Thanks for taking up the gauntlet and phrasing things along the lines of the post. My speculative interpretation is a bit different than yours.

    I think that Mubarak’s exit is a foregone conclusion (I understand that the sticking point is negotiating the country to which he will fly into exile and the amount of money held in his foreign bank accounts that will not be frozen), with Suleiman coming in to run an interim government. The real questions are who is going to front on the opposition side and what is the nature of any coalition or transitional government after the September elections. The military will remain the centrepiece of the regime no matter what.

    There is evidence to support the view that the Brotherhood has splintered enough so that it has viable moderate factions. If so, these can be brought in, as soft-liners, under an El Baradei umbrella, giving legitimacy to the latter that he currently does not have but which also means that he will be heavily dependent on the moderate Brotherhood for the success of his moderate secularist liberalising project. Needless to say, hard-liners may take exception to what they see as a sell-out.

    Also remember that the military is not monolithic. As a conscript military there are factions, including Islamicist factions, within it, especially between flag rank officers, junior officers and rank-and-file. A “colonels coup” (or even a lieutenants or NCO’s coup) is a possibility should the generals discount the sentiment within the ranks regarding political liberalisation (not so much regime change), because after all the generals are not the ones actually driving the tanks, airplanes or wielding the guns.

    Needless to say, if the military suffers internal factionalisation and shows signs of shifting in a more radical anti-Western and/or anti-Israel direction, the Israelis have (in their own minds if nothing else) justification to militarily pre-empt any potential Egyptian withdrawal from the 1978 peace treaty and the corresponding security guarantees along Israel’s southern border. Israel has a track record in this regard, since degrading an opponent’s ability to engage in offensive thrusts is a good way of ensuring the physical integrity of the Jewish state.

    Obviously, such factionalisation and radicalisation would have to become fairly apparent for the Israelis to act pre-emptively. But I am sure that Israeli military planners are already dusting off the old contour maps with that in mind, as any prudent command authority would do. That gives more incentive for the Egyptian military leaders and soft-line opposition to unify around some common reform programme that will reward their investment in the joint project while allowing them to isolate the hard-liners on either side. And that is why I believe that El-Baradei may be at risk from people within his own supposed support base.

  24. Given the brotherhood group say they want to be part of an interim national unity government that excludes the current governing party, I’m not sure if there is any way to separate moderates and hard-liners – except by providing moderates with places in other parties contesting elections and excluding the brotherhood group from contesting the first one.

    It would however be an interesting test of the organisation behind the protests to stipulate a required exclusion of the brotherhood group, to realise the professed aims of the “democratisation”.

    As you note, opinion within the military ranks as to support of the brotherhood party being part of democratic reform is possibly decisive. This is of course something Turkey has had to deal with, a secularist military living with a Moslem Party in governnment.

  25. Pablo/Hugh.

    At the risk of twisting Pablos tail to the point of grumpiness by quoting wiki (His excellence Graeme Edgeler provides the strength of precedence ) ;^)

    Can someone please explain/provide a link to this innocent who until now believed that normal Romanian people finally had enough and rose up. Pablo/Hugh have excluded it from revolution without a satisfactory explanation of why it is a palace coup.

    With regard to Egypt I would have thought the example of Turkey would be at the front of Egyptian military minds. The Turks are taken much more seriously internationally and their economy is thriving. Religion, military and democracy have a stable balance.

    The obvious alternative is that Sulieman succeeds in simply replacing Mubarak

  26. Indeed Phil, you have twisted my tail.

    Using wikipedia as a source for a serious debate is an insult to anyone involved in serious scholarship, and to his credit Graeme realised that fact and settled for asking for a better explanation of what I considered to be a glossary of revolution. He was sincere, but you appear to be stirring. Again, I must ask: are you channeling that loathsome Adolf?

    The wikinonsense cite you link to also includes the Philippines “revolution,” to which I can only rest my case because idiocy has now been involved. You see it your way and I see it my way–let the readers sort the truth out.

  27. Pablo – I was partly tongue in cheek because I know how much you love wiki. No offence intended.

    I was mildly astonished at how readily it got into the EU. The revolution started in a genuine way and was hijacked by the nomenclatura but has ended in a democracy. I am under no illusion that it has had a succession of elites who have ruled for their own pocket. In that respect I would probably agree with Hugh that we are both right.

    With regard to democracy I have always thought Romania similar to Hungary where the voters keep throwing the bums out but an elite continues to hold power, taking turns to pillage the treasury. To the extent that the bums are thrown out in a free and fair vote it is and was a democracy.

    I thought Iliescu won a free vote in 92 but perhaps I am wrong.

    If you require a higher standard for democracy then you must exclude the likes of France and Japan from the list of democratic nations, having been ruled by technocrats for decades.

    put that to one side. I am far more interested in your views on the parallels between Egypt and Turkey.

  28. Stephen Hadley in the WSJ has an interesting perspective http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703833204576114252976824050.html?mod=WSJ_Opinion_LEADTop

    The issue will be whether he seeks to transfer power to another authoritarian strongman backed by the army or dramatically changes course and uses the upcoming presidential election to create a democratic transition for his country.

    The precedents for this latter outcome are few but not nonexistent. It is essentially the role that the Bush administration urged on Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, which he played successfully in 2008. The resulting government is admittedly a weak one that continues to cause the U.S. real problems in Afghanistan. But it is a democratic government, and by its coming to power we avoided the kind of Islamist regime that followed the fall of the Shah of Iran and that has provoked three decades of serious confrontation with the U.S. and totalitarian oppression of the Iranian people.

  29. As interesting as the whole “whats a revolution” debate is I find the more interesting parts of this thread to be the “whats going to happen now?” section.

    Could Egypt be the new Pakistain? what will the Israelis do? What will the US do? What do the ppl on the street in Egypt really want?

    The TV news coverage is treating this for the most part with pretty basic analysis (AJ being the exception) and all we get mostly is shots of mobs, shouting individuals and people burning things.

    Having studied revolutions/insurgency etc I have my own opinions but I think most of the salient points have been covered.

    My only real thoughts on this which might be new to this discussion is that how the much of the arab world is run along lines similar to egypt (long term strong men, ruling elites etc, no real democracy) and that the potential for change (as oppose to revolution) seems to be just below the surface.

    That interesting nexus of corruption, entrenched power, poverty, national and international pressures, racial and social issues, technology and the very human want for change or to improve ones circumstance is a potent mix and not one that can be easily untangeled.

    Im interested to see just how far this will go and how many dominos might fall.

  30. Is game theory testable and useful in real world situations? Dunno yet, just started finding out about it (not on wiki either) read a couple of papers. I have dealt with the ‘negation of the negation’ in marxist theory so the ‘Nash equilibrium’ doesn’t daunt me despite not being an academic. I can’t help but think that so many methods of investigation and attempted prediction are re-hashed dialectical materialism-being partly an all sided consideration of the facts and the interaction between observable phenomena. ‘Action Research’ in the education sector for example, used by the Cognition company, with various proponents such as Eileen Piggot-Irvine, is a feedback loop that can be useful as a reminder and button pusher for school BOTs and educators.

    Hard-liners, soft-liners, complex possible alternate combinations of interaction and outcome. All very interesting except for the maximum preferred (and even that unlikely) product seemingly being bourgeois democracy. Reforms are certainly worth fighting for, but dying for? I guess it depends on your baseline. Many in this country are scathing of the very public institutions that certain 70s south americans were fighting for and got dropped from airplanes into the sea for their troubles.

    I like Dave Browns reference to counter revolution. Action and reaction. Lew has always discounted this factor, proposing that all political forms and ideas can be put in the ‘market place’ and accepted or rejected accordingly. Well it is a little difficult for “customers” having chosen, then being confronted with death and torture as a consequence-one example being Chile in 1973, another East Timor when people had to shelter in UN enclaves.
    Political landscapes are often the least level of playing fields.
    I purposely chose those two examples to better fit with Pablos exposition rather than the failed East European degenerate worker states.

  31. Pablo,

    Thanks for your previous comment and also this entry, which partially reads as an expansion of it. I think the hardline-softline distinction is useful in helping observers try to understand how events may unfold when the legitimacy of a regime is challenged in such a way as we are witnessing in Tunisia (& elsewhere).

    I would argue that distinction be based more on mentality/attitude than life experience under the challenged regime (although that does inform said mentality), but that may be splitting hairs a bit. I’m happy to use your framework to continue my argument that a democratic transition may occur in Tunisia.

    I believe the regime in its current state is behaving moderately (suggesting the ‘softline’ voices have primacy). After the police were unable to preserve Ben Ali’s rule, the military basically refused to do so. There was no firing on the protestors on their part, which suggests the military leaders were happy to cut Ben Ali loose and reduce the tension in this way.

    The military may still be going for the ‘restoration under a different guise’ scenario (what will eventually occur in Egypt), but even this may not be an easy or ideal option for them. I have some ideas, but basically the choices the military will make in the coming months/years are open to speculation at this stage.

    Ghannouchi’s behaviour suggests he has softline voices in his ear. He has bowed to demands to remove all figures considered to be tainted, and some have made quite conciliatory remarks as they have exited the scene. He continues restating his commitment to organising elections and managed to convince the Labour Unions to call the people off the streets (which, interestingly, they had the power to do), so he must at least have their leaders convinced.

    The current nature of the opposition is more difficult to determine. As I said before, I’m leaning towards viewing their leadership as moderate due to their reliance on mass-mobilisation (rather than violence) as a means of trying to topple the regime. There were some deaths, but this was due to Ben Ali’s attempts to repress the protests and cling to power. On the oppositions part, they have not been bombing things or conducting hit and run attacks. Essentially they have enough popular support (and the regime shows enough weakness) that they do not need to resort to violence.

    So based on your framework, if my above assessment is correct, a democratic transition is at least a possibility for Tunisia in the medium term. I would be very interested to hear your own thoughts on how the framework can be applied to the specific case of Tunisia, because I am genuinely hopeful of a democratic transition myself (concerns about possible military behaviour and the interference of foreign actors notwithstanding).

  32. “According to a Pew opinion survey of Egyptians from June 2010, 59 percent said they back Islamists. Only 27% said they back modernizers. Half of Egyptians support Hamas. Thirty percent support Hezbollah and 20% support al Qaida. Moreover, 95% of them would welcome Islamic influence over their politics… Eighty two percent of Egyptians support executing adulterers by stoning, 77% support whipping and cutting the hands off thieves. 84% support executing any Muslim who changes his religion.” Egyptian values, in other words, are far from liberal—even if some of the protesters currently out in the streets might be. This, of course, runs counter to the idea that has taken hold in many quarters: that the end of the Mubarak era will inexorably lead to democracy in the heart of the Arab world. But numbers don’t lie; Egyptian society as a whole is both religious and deeply conservative.


  33. Phil:

    Is your point that most of Egypt are hard line Islamcists? If so, are you saying that democracy should not obtain there?

    Besides the fragmentation of the opposition, including within the MB, has it not occurred to you that many Egyptians understand that the peace treaty with Israel has materially benefitted them as a whole, and the problem–not uniquely Arab but definitely at its most refined in the Arab world–is the kleptocratic ways of the autocrats

    Take the anti-Muslim blinders off and keep the substance of the post in mind as you watch events unfold.

  34. Pablo – Actually I found it a really interesting commentary on what Egyptians actually want. I am certainly not anti Muslim but certainly am anti Islamist. I posted that without comment more for your info as being the most closely related recent post.

    I trust Pew and thus find those stats plausible. I now believe that so many people seem to believe (including myself before I saw those stats) an election will magically turn Egypt into a democracy. The Palestine example is far more likely to be the case. A democratic election which will bring an Islamic government to power.

    The question you have to ask yourself is whether you are a genuine democrat. Bush was and is. He knew the risks in Gaza and went ahead regardless.

    Would it be better for some compromise between the military and the western sympathetic democrats to “educate” Egyptians before they are “allowed” democracy or should we support the choice of Egyptians in the knowledge it will result in Sharia rather than a Western democracy. Turkey at best, Iran at worst.

    Just some prelim thoughts, as I am digesting that and doing some more reading. My instinct is for a democratic vote now but would that mean more stability and prosperity for Eygptians or less?

  35. I just read your post again and take a wider appreciation of it. My initial reaction was adversely coloured by the emphatic statement of revolution not leading to democracy. It can and has even if that democracy is weak.
    You may as well make the point of the post specifically with regard to Egypt. The Muslim brotherhood will take over in Egypt unless a more honest military autocracy continues. The kleptocracy is over.

  36. Through that last one you can read a translation of an Erdogan speech where he nails his values very firmly to a public mast.

    Perhaps there is hope for Egypt to follow that Turkish path. There is certainly very little or no chance of a liberal Western democracy. A Turkish Islamic democracy for the benefit of the people is the best that can be hoped for.

    I read the speech above with some scepticism given that Erdogan is also reported to have said that democracy is a train to a destination that will be stepped off when the destination is reached.

  37. Hello,

    I’m facing a little problem at the moment – who were the softliners and who the hardliners in the Polish transition (I mean the time period from 1980 until 1989)? It seems to me now that there actually weren’t any hardliners in the regime.
    I’d be very grateful when someone could help me understand the “Polish case”.

  38. gele:

    Thanks for the inquiry. Although I am not an expert on Eastern European transitions, I would suggest that if you have not already, you read O’Donell, Schmitter and Whitehead, eds., Transitions from Authoritarian Rule: Prospects for Democracy, especially volumes 3-4 for the conceptual and analytic frameworks developed. You should also look up the Linz and Stepan series on Eastern European transitions (published in the late 1990s), as well as the small article by Adam Przeworksi (a Polish-American) in the journal PS from the late 1980s (google searches will locate all of these). There is plenty out there, although the focus on hard and soft-liners might require some digging through the literature.

    From what I understand the Polish CP leadership were hard line and the Polish military elite were soft-line (in fact, a decisive moment occurred when the military informed the CP that it would not repress demonstrators). On the other side Lech Waleska and other Solidarity leaders were soft-line while younger unionists and pro-democracy advocates were the hard-line in the opposition. The union between Waleska and General Jaruzelski (sp?) was critical in forging the moderate-moderate compromise that allowed for a peaceful transition.

    Good luck with your studies.

  39. Pablo, it’s a bit more complicated than that, and while I think I know what you’re talking about, the idea of a union between Jaruzelski and Waleska is massively over-stating the collaboration between these two men – I think ‘grudging agreement’ describes it better than ‘union’.

    Gele in addition to what Pablo’s suggested there have been some very good works that are specific to the Polish case. I really enjoyed Joachim Gauk’s “Poland after 1945 and after 1989” in a compilation on authoritarianism by Ziemer and Borejsza. Taras and Castle’s “Democracy in Poland” is probably the best start-off point though.

    Walesa’s autobiographies, “Way of Hope” and “The Struggle/The Triumph” are also pretty useful but of course biased – treat them as primary sources, not analysis. I believe Jaruzelski wrote an autobiography too, but I don’t think it’s been translated into English.

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