Violence and State Repression


It was the blood that was spilt here over a weekend in January that transformed what had been a regional uprising into a genuinely nationwide movement. It was the massacring of protesters in the centre of the country that pushed the middle classes of Tunis into the streets.

Yasmine Ryan, Al Jazeera1

The events began innocuously enough, on December 17, 2010, when a Tunisian police officer slapped and spat on a street peddler who had begged her not to confiscate his cart and produce. When Mohamed Bouazzi went to the police precinct to file a complaint he was ignored. Bouazzi returned an hour later, doused himself with gasoline and set himself aflame. In the days that followed, protesters stormed through towns throughout Tunisia. When peaceful protests were met with police batons and tear gas, they morphed into full-scale riots. On December 25th, human rights activists, trade unionists and students marched through Tunis. On December 27, one thousand people gathered outside the offices of the General Union of Tunisian Workers.

On January 3, an anti-riot police known as the BOP (Brigades de l’ordre public) was called in to subdue the demonstrations. In Kasserine, not far from Bouazzi’s hometown, they arrived with unidentified gunmen, who opened fire on the crowd, killing two. The following day the agents shot several tear gas canisters into a woman’s sauna and attacked the women as they tried to escape. When a 23-year-old man tried to protect one of the women, he was fatally shot in the stomach. The following day was even bloodier, when snipers shot at the 200 people attending the funeral for one of those killed. Twenty-one died from bullet wounds. Protests now spread throughout Tunisia. The army refused to take action against the demonstrators. On January 14, Ben Ali stepped down.

Egyptian youth followed Tunisian events closely. Many Egyptian students, labor leaders and underground organizers had ties to labor and underground groups in Tunisia. And police violence, directed even against upper class youth, had been on the rise. On June 6, 2010, Khaled Said, a 28-year-old upper class youth, had been dragged from a cyber café, and died in police custody. Angry demonstrations had followed, and several youth created a Facebook page “We are all Khaled Said.” On November 7, 2010, two 19-year-olds were arrested, and the disfigured body of one, Ahmed Shaaba, was later found in a canal near Alexandria. New rallies to protest police violence were held.

On January 11, the young Egyptian labor activist Asmaa Mahfouz distributed thousands of leaflets in Cairo’s slums, and posted the now famous Youtube video exhorting Egyptians to join young women protesting “National Police Day,” in Tahrir Square on January 25. Then, three days later the Tunisian dictatorship fell to popular revolt. When January 25 arrived, tens of thousands of young Egyptians flooded Tahrir Square, spilling out onto Cairo’s streets. In dozens of towns throughout Egypt protestors defied police. “It was the happiest moment of our lives. It was the first time we felt it was our country, we were taking it back,” recalls the Egyptian blogger Mahmoud Salem aka ‘Sandmonkey.’2 When the armed forces were called, many soldiers defended the young protesters against both the police and Mubarak’s hired thugs. On February 7, 1.5 million Egyptians took to the streets. Mubarak’s promise to hold elections was not enough to convince young people to leave Tahir Square. On February 11, the armed forces pushed Mubarak out of power.

How do we explain the sudden surge of protest against two of the most brutal authoritarian regimes in the world? Why did impoverished, seemingly defenseless people, risk torture and death to fight a regime they had so little chance of defeating? Why did the military, after decades of defending the dictatorships, refuse to repress the popular demonstrations and instead force the dictators, one a commanding general, to resign? What do these movements tell social movement scholars about the nature of mobilization in authoritarian regimes?

Social movement theory has been amply criticized for its focus on the trajectory of protest movements in western democracies, but shifting our attention to protest in authoritarian regimes also improves our ability to explain protest under democratic rule. First, the paradoxical impact of state violence, particularly police violence, on the mobilization of protest has been one of the most robust findings of a wide array of social movement research, but has been insufficiently theorized in most current models (Morris 1981, Barkan 1984; Lichbach 1987; Mason 1989; Mason and Krane 1989; Opp and Roehl 1990; Olivier 1991; Koopmans 1992; Schneider 1995, 2000, 2008, 2011; Goodwin 2001; McAdam et al. 2001, Tilly 2003, Wood 2003). Studies have shown that police violence provokes protest by offending a community’s moral values, increasing solidarity and intensifying the commitment of core activists (Mason, 1989; Koopmans, 1992; Opp and Roehl, 1990). It can win activists’ outside support, and revive flagging movements, particularly when the violence is public and exposed (Barkan 1984)3. Police violence may increase the growth of armed insurgencies and terrorism, as “radical wings which disproportionately confront repression are likely to be further radicalized and develop anti-systemic identities that may escalate violence on both sides” (Koopmans 1993:643). One study found that the single strongest factor in predicting whether local demonstrations in Germany remained organized and non-violent or turned violent and unruly was the level of police violence, or provocation (Karapin 2009).

Similarly, students of revolution, and revolutionaries themselves, have noted the impact of state violence on the development of and support for armed insurrections (Harnecker 1987; Mason 1989; Mason and Krane 1989; Goodwin 2001; Almeida 2003). Indiscriminate state violence raises the cost for those who refrain from violence (Goodwin 2001; Mason 1989) and diminishes the legitimacy of the regime (Opp and Roehl 1990). In democracies, police violence has been linked to riots in poor urban neighbourhoods (Lieberson and Silverman, 1965; Fogelson 1968; Kerner Commission 1968; Muchielli, 2001, 2009; Esterle-Hedibel 2002; Schneider, 2008, 2011). No feature of a racially divided society is a more potent symbol of racial domination or instills the message of subjugation, more forcefully than police. Charles Tilly’s work on boundary activation suggests a useful direction for theorizing (Tilly 2003). I have used his concept to explain riots in racially divided democracies, but in authoritarian regimes the activated boundary may be that between the dictator and his cronies and the public at large.

Second, we need to develop a more dynamic understanding of the relationship between violence and opportunity.4 When state violence unintentionally mobilizes normally passive members of the population, it opens opportunities for more marginal and severely repressed groups. Even during the most brutal dictatorships, some groups will continue to organize underground. In the absence of allies, however, these groups will suffer the worst of the regime’s wrath. When throngs of protestors from all walks of life fill the streets, however, opportunities are opened up even for stigmatized groups. Middle and upper class protesters, especially if they belong to centrist, conservative or apolitical groups, typically have far more opportunities available to protest. They will act only when state actions convince them that the regime lacks all legitimacy, or in Goodwin’s words there is “no other way out.” Opportunities and threats do not affect all groups in the same way.

Similarly, we need to better conceptualize the relationship between riots and organized protest. Riots are sometimes a weapon of the weak, the unorganized and unruly. Other times they are sparked by the violent repression of organized peaceful protests. But, riots also create opportunities for underground organizers to mobilize open protest. In both Tunisia and Egypt state violence against non-violent gatherings led to riots. The riots then opened spaces for organized underground groups to issue nation-wide calls for action: they gave radical actors increased legitimacy and helped underground groups engage in above ground actions.

Finally, we need to pay more attention to the literature on the military in politics. In authoritarian regimes the behavior of the armed forces determines the success of opposition movements. Militaries are never monolithic, but serious schisms within the military instill great fear among generals. Conflict between men with guns can end in civil war or revolution. Fear of division or disunity in the ranks may affect a military’s conduct towards political authority. One senior general in the Brazilian armed forces told Alfred Stepan, that the reason the Brazilian military waited until 1964 to proceed with the coup was their fear of dissension within their ranks: “Military unity is extremely important. Only if the military is split will there be a civil war. The optimum is if we have unity and are on the right course. But the most fundamental thing is to stay unified” (Stepan 1971: 97). General Golberry do Couto e Silva, a key actor in several coups, and the author of Brazil’s National Security Doctrine told Alfred Stepan: “Activists do not wish to risk bloodshed or military splits, so they wait until a consensus has developed. Thus movements to overthrow a president need public opinion to help convince the military itself” (Stepan 1971: 97).

Stepan studied the dynamics leading to military coups in Brazil, but the same fears led the Chilean Air Force, Navy and even the Caribineros to usher Pinochet out of power, forcing a reluctant general to hold an albeit constitutionally-mandated plebiscite and honor its results. Air Force general Gustavo Leigh warned as early as 1983 that the dictator’s response to the burgeoning protest movement was doing more damage to the prestige and unity of the armed forces than Marxism. When in 1986 General Pinochet announced that he would not hold the plebiscite as planned unless opposition leaders renounced the protest movement, Generals Fernando Matthei and Rodolfo Stange (of the Air Force and Carabineros) and Admiral José Merino of the Navy, let it be known the same day that they would leave power in 1989 (Cavallo, 1986; Schneider, 1995). They then invited centrist opposition leaders to negotiate the terms of a transition to democracy. In January 1988, General Matthei asked Stepan for advice on how the Chilean military might avoid accusations of fraud during the plebiscite. He said he feared the appearance of deceit more than the government’s defeat, as it would fall on the armed forces to defend a delegitimized government for another ten years. The military would be unable to maintain command of their troops if they tried, he warned.5 The night of the plebiscite, Matthei preempted Pinochet and told a radio reporter who had stopped him on the way to an “emergency” meeting in the presidential palace that the government had lost.

Mass cross-class demonstrations, especially those that appear to represent the nation at large, drive wedges between military commanders and between military commanders and their troops. They are thus usually more effective than armed struggle, which moves the battle onto the military’s familiar terrain. It is also easier to convince the military to oppose the dictatorship when the secret police conducts the brunt of the repression, and the military is relatively insulated from direct involvement. The military may then act to protect its honor and prestige, as in Tunisia and Egypt.

The situation is much more difficult when the military is not professional, or where instead of conscripts, soldiers are paid mercenaries. When military commanders have close family, clan, or other personal relationships with a dictator, or the ruling elite comes from a different ethnic group than the demonstrators, the situation is further complicated. Under such conditions the military may divide, resulting in civil war, as in Libya, or continue to defend the dictatorship, as in Bahrain, Syria, and Yemen. How the military behaves in any given situation depends on the structure of that military and its place within a given political system.

Finally, it is not surprising that after assuming control in Egypt, the military has been willing to use violence to reestablish order, particularly as the demonstrations have been smaller and appear less representative of the society at large. But, there are high costs to a military in staying in power -- not least of which is the creation of divisions within the armed forces. The Egyptian military has a lot to gain from withdrawing from power.


  • 1

     Yasmine Ryan, The Massacre Behind the Revolution, AlJazeera, February 16 2011.

  • 2

     Mahmoud Salem aka “Sandmonkey,” talk given at American University, April 14, 2011, Bender library, 5:30–7:00.

  • 3

     Barkan claims that Martin Luther King deliberately courted police violence in Selma, to breathe new life into a movement nearly destroyed by the ability of Albany’s mayor to keep police under control.

  • 4

     Paul Almeida (2003) has looked at alternating cycles of threat and opportunity and argues that organizations emerge during periods of opportunity and act during periods of threat. My argument is quite different in that I see violence itself as both creating opportunity and spurring underground organizing.

  • 5

     Personal conversation with Alfred Stepan, in Santiago, at the Commission of Human Rights, January 1988.