ISO Revolution, Organized Opposition Not Req’d

In a recent piece for Think Africa Press, freelancer Peter Dörrie surveys politics in Burkina Faso and concludes that the authoritarian elites who’ve held power there for the past 25 years are unlikely to let their grip slip before or by way of elections due in 2015.

The reason for this pessimistic view is simple. There is no opposition movement in Burkina Faso capable of harnessing the disillusionment and frustration of the general population. Most opposition leaders have either been co-opted by Compaoré at some point in their career or have proven themselves unable to rally significant support. Moreover, large parts of Burkinabé society still follow the judgements of their ‘traditional’ rulers who have essentially been bought by Compaoré with political and economic incentives. What remains of the political opposition is fractured and unwilling to cooperate.

I don’t want to pick on Dörrie, whose analysis is always thoughtful and well researched, and whose conjectures about Burkinabé politics sound reasonable to me. I do, however, want to use his piece as the jumping-off point for some ideas that have been rattling around in my head for a while about the relationship between organized oppositions and prospects for political revolutions.

Dörrie’s essay is hardly the first piece of political analysis in which I’ve seen the idea that an opposition needs to get organized before a revolution can occur.  Recently, it’s also popped up a lot in analysis of post-election protests in Russia and of the potential for radical change in China.

This idea makes sense in a Newtonian model of politics, in which causes must clearly precede effects and change is thought to unfold in distinct sequences that repeat themselves across many cases. As someone who’s probably made this argument myself at one time or another, I’d say the mental narrative goes something like this: By definition, revolutions occur when challengers topple rulers by extra-legal means. For that to happen, a challenger has to exist and be strong enough either to defeat the ruler’s defenders or to dissuade them from fighting back. In all but the weakest states, that kind of strength requires sustained, large-scale organization. Ergo, the odds of a revolution occurring are substantially lower in societies with disorganized oppositions than they are in ones with well-organized challengers, and the organization of a formidable opposition movement is an early milestone past which all revolutions must travel.

But what if the world doesn’t really work like that? Having watched a bunch of these things unfold in real time, I am now convinced that it’s more useful to understand revolutionary situations as an emergent property of complex systems. One of the features of complex systems is the possibility of threshold effects, in which seemingly small perturbations in some of the system’s elements suddenly produce large changes in others. The fragility of the system as a whole may be evident (and therefore partially predictable) from some aspects of its structure, but the timing of the revolutionary moment’s emergence and the specific form it will take will be impossible to anticipate with any precision.

In this version of politics, the emergence of rival organizations is as likely to be a consequence of the system’s failure as a cause of it. In fact, that particular cause/effect distinction might not make sense at all. When surveying authoritarian regimes to contemplate which ones are most susceptible to revolutions, we may be better off thinking of the development of new political organizations and the breakdown of old authority patterns as two aspects of a single, many-faceted process in which the former doesn’t have to precede the latter and sometimes even may not occur at all.

Looking at some of the cases from the so-called Arab Spring, I think it’s clear that authoritarian regimes rarely collapse in the tidy sequence our Newtonian models lead us to expect. In Tunisia, where Ben Ali’s regime had successfully suppressed the organization of any independent opposition for many years, politics swung from the routine to the revolutionary in a matter of days, and upstarts had to scramble to organize for elections after Ben Ali was already gone. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood had built itself into a large and capable organization in spite of a steady diet of state repression, but the Brotherhood played only a modest role in the unrest that led directly to Mubarak’s ouster, which probably could have happened without it. In Libya, a loose assemblage of local militias managed to topple and kill longtime ruler Moammar Ghaddafi with a helpful shove from foreign countries, but many of those militias only sprung up and got organized as the conflict intensified, and to this day they remain disorganized and even combative at the national level.

From this quick survey, we can tell that a linear and sequential mental model of authoritarian breakdown isn’t very useful for predicting or explaining what actually happens in many real-world cases. The presence of an uncooperative opposition that can get and stay organized in spite of state repression probably is a useful marker of some near-term potential for regime breakdown, but that doesn’t mean that the inverse is also true. In the non-Newtonian politics of the real world, we should not mistake the absence of a formidable opposition for a sign of the regime’s resilience, and we should sometimes expect to see new political machines scrambling to organize as or only after regimes fall apart, too.

Leave a comment


  1. Rex Brynen

     /  September 7, 2012

    In general I think you are absolutely right about this. Certainly in Libya there was very little prerevolutionary organization—almost of the organization that did take place occurred as the revolution was underway. I was in Benghazi briefly during the civil war, and it was quite striking to see this process at work as well as the frankness of so many Libyans in acknowledging that they were “making it up as they go along.”

    To add one further element to your analysis, it is also important to recognize that in that threshold moment, preexisting non-opposition or even apolitical organizations—the local mosque, the dentists’ association, kindship-based groups—can rapidly reconfigure to support new types of (political) action. Moreover, elements of state organization can be appropriated by the opposition (for example, defecting military or police units, local government units, etc).

    Having said all that, Tunisia isn’t as strong an example of your argument as you suggest. There is considerable evidence that the revolution (which was actually quite slow to spread to the capital) only really gained traction when well-established actors (the UGTT/trade unions, the lawyers’ syndicate) threw their weight behind it and granted it both organizational resources and a degree of “respectability.” This helps to explain why the Sidi Bouzid protests became national and revolutionary, while previous similar protests had not.

    I very, very briefly flagged this issue in my contribution to this: However, also wait for an outstanding PhD thesis on this topic currently being written by one of our McGill students, Merouan Mekouar–it is very good stuff, based on some impressive qualitative field research in Tunisia.

    • Thanks, Rex. Great comments as always, and point taken about Tunisia.

    • Grant

       /  September 7, 2012

      Is there any information on Sudan? Looking at the recent break away of roughly half of the nation, the loss of oil revenue, the corruption of the government and the presence of an opposition party you would normally assume that the nation would either experience a coup or a revolution by now, but the protests seem limited to students. Is this the opposite example where even with an opposition the lack of involvement by respected groups kills any revolutionary chances?

      • Actually, the stuff I’ve read on Sudan has described the opposition there as relatively disorganized, so I think it still falls in territory that does not refute the conventional view. If anything, observers seem to be attributing the failure of the recent protests to topple the regime to that very disorganization.

        What that interpretation misses, though, is that a) most uprisings fail, even when they’re well organized; and b) we might still see a regime collapse in the near future without any significant change in the degree or quality of opposition organization.

        Certainly a useful case to consider.

  2. I agree with Rex. In December 2010, the gradual (bottom-up) involvement of the UGTT and the bar association helped the revolution spread from the centre of the country to the capital city. Union members and lawyers personally sought to export the revolution outside the Gasfa-Sidi-Bouzid-Kasserine triangle by contacting the media, helping organize daily protests, and providing formal and informal resources (legal advice, safe houses, logistical support…etc) to the young people involved in clashes against the police. It’s also interesting to note than in the Tunisian case, the UGTT and the bar association also helped limit state violence (at least in the first two weeks of the revolution). Both the head of the lawyers’ association, and the UGTT contacted the presidency and asked Benali to limit the severity of police response to the protests that were occurring in the centre of the country. The non-involvement (for various reasons) of those well-established actors in other cases of popular protests (notably Gafsa 2008, Benguerdane 2010 and Monastir 2010) explains why they did not spread to the rest of the country.

  3. Franklin

     /  June 7, 2015

    I share Jay’s skepticism of claims by P. Dörrie, A. Nathan, and others about “resilient authoritarianism.” If these authoritarian regimes were as resilient as claimed, why would they spend so much money on internal security forces, censorship, state-run media and various other types of propaganda? By definition, authoritarian regimes lack the sort of checks and balances on authority and other self-correcting features of pluralist democratic regimes that make the latter far more accountable to the populace and thus less likely to result in mass uprisings.

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