To Crush Or Not To Crush: The State and Protest Movements


Growing numbers of people are on the streets of the capital city, rallying to demand some kind of political change. The head of state says they are criminals and insurrectionists who defy the political process. Various politicians claim to be the leaders of the angry crowds. Occasionally they clash with security forces and their political opponents; people have been killed. The loyalty of some state officials and military officers is unclear and in play. Different foreign governments loudly denounce or support the actions of the government and its challengers. Everyone claims to respect the “will of the people”, and everyone claims that the “will of the people” lines up pretty closely with what they want.

What are we to call a situation like this? A protest? A revolution? A rebellion? A coup in progress?

Just in the last year, Ukraine, the Arab Spring nations, Thailand, Venezuela, Brazil, Turkey, and Bosnia have all experienced crises that, to a greater or lesser degree, match the above scenario. Going back to 2011, the list becomes almost too long to count.

Clausewitz famously taught us that “War is politics by other means.” These situations of street violence and political crisis bridge the gap between violent and non-violent politics. Strategic thinkers today must have a solid understanding of this grey area; it’s now, perhaps more than ever, an important part of the battlespace. It is a struggle for power with its own rules and strategies.

When large numbers of people come out and face the security forces of the state in violent political protest, one political faction is presenting a formalized challenge to military conflict.

This formalized challenge to conflict presents a choice of strategy to the faction controlling the state. When large numbers of people come out in the streets and protest, the state has a number of tactical options, involving both political and paramilitary measures. The choice of strategy is fundamentally determined by an analysis of the balance of power between the state and the opposition. How popular and determined is the opposition? How popular is the state, and how loyal are its security forces? The relative strength of the two factions determines the cost of escalation, and thus the relative attractiveness of the various strategies.

The opposition seeks to either force the faction currently controlling state authority to offer concessions, surrender power entirely or force that faction to face the prospect of a politically-damaging escalation of the conflict. This can mean crossing the threshold to the level of actual war. While the implicit challenge to war is often a bluff, it is always present. Gathering thousands or even millions of people on the streets for days on end and engaging in clashes with the police is a way of demonstrating a faction’s size and resolve, and thus incentivising concessions rather than escalation.

The protest can be ignored and allowed to naturally dissolve if the numbers involved are not sufficiently large or if the state calculates that they do not have sufficient resolve. Security forces can harass and contain the dissenting faction until the tipping point has passed, where numbers and determination dwindle. This tactic was used effectively to deal with the Occupy Wall Street movement in the United States and the protests after the re-election of President Vladimir Putin in 2012. The state can choose to grant concessions to the protesters by changing policies or officials. The monarchies of Jordan, Kuwait and Morocco successfully weathered the Arab Spring by following this path. When concessions are offered and accepted, it is often because the balance of power between the state and its opposition is at stalemate; the state does not feel it can afford to ignore or repress the protests, and the opposition does not feel secure enough to press its luck and mount a challenge for full control of the state.

Finally, the state can choose to use force to repress the opposition. This strategy can impose heavy political costs because it is likely that at dozens of people will be killed. But it has a proven track record of success: use of force allowed the conservative government in Iran to survive the post-election protests in 2009, put an end to the 2010 Red Shirt protests in Thailand, and the Raba’a Square Muslim Brotherhood sit-in in 2013, among many other instances. It is a very effective strategy against an opposition faction that is strong enough to act aggressively and pose a real risk to state power, but not popular and resolute enough to galvanize a true national uprising with defection from security forces. However it carries obvious risks. If the state has miscalculated, and the opposition is more resilient than it believed, or if the security forces are less loyal than it believed, it could be facing a further escalation to civil war or forcible deposition like Hosni Mubarak or Nicolae Ceaușescu. The loyalties of the security forces in particular become a key component of the balance of power at this point.

Similarly, the opposition faction making the formalized challenge is confronted with its own options. It can negotiate with the faction controlling the state, or if it perceives that the balance of power has majorly shifted in its favor, it can press on to “overthrow the regime” and seize control of the reins of power in a “popular uprising”.

There is one more, very risky option. The state can choose to use overwhelming, military force to comprehensively crush the opposition faction with great speed and violence. This strategy requires tight control over the loyalties of the security forces and is characterized by use of military firepower, arrest of opposition members wherever possible and deliberate attempts to inflict heavy casualties on the opposition. The 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre and Hafez Al-Assad’s successful extermination of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood after the 1982 Hama uprising were demonstrations of the proper execution of this strategy. It works best against an opposition faction that, like the student protesters in Tiananmen Square or the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria, is threatening to the state but does not have extremely broad sympathy or support across society. Otherwise the state risks triggering resilient guerrilla resistance and defection in the security forces, as happened to Colonel Muammar Qaddafi when the Arab Spring hit Libya in February 2011.

When choosing between overwhelmingly forceful repression and a more standard crackdown, it is extremely important not to vacillate or misjudge. Violent repression that falls short of full organizational annihiliation may send a less resilient opposition faction packing, but can galvanize support and outrage for an opposition faction that can take hits and keep coming back. Harsh but half-baked crackdowns were a fatal mistake for the Shah of Iran. Bashar Al-Assad might have done well to listen to the ghost of his father in March 2011, and let the Mukhabarat and Republican Guard off the leash completely at the first sign of Arab Spring protests.

This decision-tree applies to essentially every modern situation of violent mass political protest. At every moment both sides face a choice between three options: hold, negotiate or escalate force. The specific political and paramilitary strategies that both sides craft are composed of these options. These crises are pseudo-military in nature; both sides are manipulating the balance of power in the society by demonstrating their power, resolve and ability to impose costs on their enemies. The opposition imposes costs on the state by undermining its political legitimacy with open defiance and disruption, while the state imposes costs on the opposition by making participation in protests legally and physically hazardous. Crises like the one that gripped Ukraine over the last few months are contests of attrition. If the opposition can bear the costs imposed on it by the state longer, the state will concede policies or even hand over power. If the state can bear the costs imposed on it by the opposition longer, the protests will die down. If both sides are evenly matched, it is very possible that the contest of attrition between these different factions in the society will be carried over into armed conflict.

By watching the development of events carefully, and judging the balance of power accurately, observers can predict where a crisis of this sort is headed and make informed foreign policy choices. When two resolute factions with firm bases of popularity meet, and both think they can gain the upper hand by escalation, the transition to full armed conflict may not be far off. An accurate analysis of the balance of power between political factions in a country can present methodological difficulties, but it is far superior to a superficial analysis based only on the stated actions and intentions of both sides. The large number of countries with tumultuous democracies ensures that violent mass political crises will continue to be prevalent. A solid understanding of them is necessary for any strategist.

Jack Mulcaire is a contributor to War on the Rocks. During the 2011 Libyan Civil War, he helped lead a group of international volunteers that aided and consulted with local rebel councils and units. 

Image: Muhammad Ghafari