Middle East Studies | Uprisings in the Middle East: Cathy Schneider

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My presentation will discuss the Middle East uprisings from the perspective of the movements in Latin America, particularly the southern cone, and will address the following questions:

  1. What do the Latin American transitions suggest to us about the Middle East – and more specifically, what does Chile tells us about Egypt?
  2. What light does traditional social movement theory shed on the “Arab Spring?"
  3. What light does the protest movement in the Southern Cone of Latin America, and Chile in particular, shed on these movements, and in particular on Egypt?
  4. What are the weaknesses in current social movement theorizing, of which a study of these movements sheds light?  In particularly, how do we explain the emergence and success of protests in authoritarian regimes, regimes in which the actions and reactions of the security forces is critical?

Although the Latin American protest movements were far less concentrated in time, and both the national movements and the diffusion took place over many years, not days or months, there are a number of important similarities.  In some ways, Argentina resembles Tunisia – the first movement to defeat an authoritarian regime, the one where a sudden explosion of protests sparked a relatively rapid withdrawal.  Similarly, Libya, Syria, Yemen vaguely resemble the Central American regimes, that held on despite wide spread protest, leading in to defections of sectors of the armed forces and armed struggle (as in Libya).  The most noteworthy parallels, however, are those between Egypt and Chile.  They are the following:

  • Personalistic dictators (both of whom had been army generals, both ruled alone)
  • The dependence of those dictators on personal security forces, the secret police (DINA), whose head was a close personal friend, and Mubarak and son’s use of former criminal street thugs  – thus in both cases circumventing the armed forces
  • The extensive use of terror, torture and mass executions by these forces
  • Care taken by the dictators to prevent potential rivals in the armed forces from developing an base of power within the government, by excluding them from rule
  • Close ties between these militaries and the United States, fostered through training programs and military aid
  • The willingness of the activists in both countries to brave torture and risk of death during years of painstaking underground work in the popular culture
  • Years of building and sustaining extensive underground networks and organizations of resistance
  • An economic crisis creating divisions among elites
  • The exit of brutal dictatorships in neighboring countries, inspiring and encouraging them to believe their own dictators could be toppled (Argentina for Chile, Tunisia for Egypt)
  • The sudden explosion of what appears to be a spontaneous burst of protest (what I have previously compared to the bursting of a damn giving way to a floods of demonstrators) but is in fact the outcome of years of organizing efforts
  • The end of the dictatorship, neither toppled by the mass movement nor overthrown in a violent revolution, but rather because at least one or two military generals came to believe that using conscripts to repress wide spread popular protests would threaten the structure of command and foster dangerous divisions within the armed forces.

In Chile it was the air force that first moved away from Pinochet, claiming he could not ask his troops to continue to fire against civilians.  In Egypt it was the military that removed Mubarak.  That Egyptians have felt a strong kinship with Chile is evident in the invitation extended to Sergio Bitar, a key figure in the Chilean transition, to give Egyptians strategic advise.

How does social movement theory stand up to the evidence provide by these movements against authoritarian regimes?

The classical political process model argued that the following three features were key to both movement emergence and social movement success, although the original theory did not sufficiently distinguish between the two:

  • Prior organizations, skilled grassroots activists, networks of resistance
  • Political Opportunities created by divisions among elites and defections of key allies – as “signaling” of vulnerability
  • Cognitive shifts – new confidence in collective capacity, overcoming of fear, new sense empowerment


We, in fact, do see all three things operating in both Chile and Egypt.  But, classical social movement theory was derived from studies of movements in civilian democratic governments in the United States and Europe.  Even where democratic spaces were closed to some, as in the American South, civilian governments controlled the Federal government and the Federal security apparatus.  Those governments responded to popular pressures for reform.  

In dictatorships, in contrast, we are talking about movements that want to topple the government. Thus, the expectations by some theorists, that movements expressing moderate goals are more likely to succeed than those with maximal demand is useless in these cases.  So how then does one explain the success of movements in autocratic settings?  These cases show that social movement theory needs to:

  • Pay more attention to underground organizing efforts and work in the popular culture
  • Pay more attention to the perverse consequences of violent repression – particularly police violence (key in Tunisian case) – a robust finding of research – Barkan, Opp, Koopmans,
  • Most importantly, pay more attention to the reaction of military and security forces, and explaining variance in that reaction.


I call the third “thinking like a military.”   Studies of militaries in politics have pointed out that militaries are never monolithic, and that serious schisms within the military instill great fear among generals.  Such divisions, either vertical or horizontal, among men with guns can result in mutiny, civil war or revolution.

A successful protest movement builds on this fear.  The strategic use of non-violent protest, in the face of strong armed force, is most likely to be successful when:

  • the military is professional and dependent on conscripts
  • has some degree of autonomy from the dictator
  • is already somewhat divided, or at odds with other sectors of the security apparatus
  • are fighting (and most so when losing) a war and/or
  • and most crucially for protesters, when the demonstrations are extremely large and seem include all sectors society.


Mass cross class demonstrations are far more threatening to a military than armed groups.  Armed groups shift the struggle on to a familiar terrain.  Militaries are trained for armed conflict.  It is much harder to order troops to fire against what appears to be the entire society -- especially when the troops are conscripts.  One or more of these conditions were in place in Chile, Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Egypt.  In Libya, as in El Salvador and Guatemala, massive repression of unarmed demonstrators led to defections from the military, which then shifted the terrain of struggle to one of civil war.    

The situation is much more difficult when soldiers are paid mercenaries, especially if they are foreign, when military commanders have close family, clan, or other personal relationships with a dictator (who does not want to leave), when the security forces are not a professional body but a group of thugs or when the country is divided by class, race, ethnicity and clan.  But these are also situations that make armed struggle less likely to be successful.  Non-violence can overcome some of the divisions in civil society, violence exacerbates them.  Third party outside support is often critical, and is more likely when the opposition is largely unarmed. 
 
What about today? 

In Egypt it is not surprising that after assuming control the military is willing to use violence to reestablish order, particularly when the demonstrations are smaller and appear less representative of the society at large.  That does not, however, mean that the military will prevent the transition to democracy.  There are high costs to a military in staying in power -- not least of which is the creation of divisions within the armed forces.  They also risk losing honor and prestige.  The Egyptian military has a lot to gain from withdrawing form power -- it can maintain its business interests and US monetary support.  The question is how to a) put pressure on the regime to respect basic human rights while in power and b) ensure that it has an interest in withdrawing from power.  This is likely the case in Tunisia as well.

In Libya, the use of extreme repression did cause major defections within the armed forces by the time NATO became involved.  NATO now faces a full-fledged civil war.   The outcome in Bahrain, Yemen, and Syria are clearly influenced by the fate of Mubarak and Ben-Ali.  The first two have used Saudi forces to buttress their own, but the extreme brutality used by these regimes gives pause to the idea that they may in face act against the dictator they are backing.   One would need a more complete analysis than mine to explain why. 

About Cathy Schneider

Professor Cathy Schneider is an associate professor in the School of International Service at American University.  She writes and teaches on social movements, urban politics, violence, conflict and war, criminal justice and race, ethnicity and immigration in Europe, the United States, and Latin America.

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