The regime (almost) always wins
Germany 1953, Hungary 1956, Czechslovakia 1968, South Africa 1976, Poland 1980, Algeria 2010, Thailand 2010, Bahrain 2011, Venezuela 2017. Iran 2018? There is a long list of popular protests and uprisings that have failed over the last century. They mostly begin the same way, with some spark or even spontaneous protests and rioting. They also tend to end the same way. Media blackouts. Police, army and security services flooding the streets. And then they are put down, sometimes after battles and killing, and sometimes with beatings and arrests. Then they fizzle out as the people await their next chance.
The protests that began in Iran in late December swept across a dozen major cities and into towns and villages. They included minority groups, such as Kurds and Arabs, as well as the majority Persian population. They included Sunnis and Shi’ites. It was not a narrow sectarian or political uprising, but one underpinned by a variety of grievances from living under decades of authoritarian theocratic rule. Many protests were angry about economic problems, accusing the regime of sending men to die in foreign wars while neglecting people at home. In early January the government moved towards a harsh crackdown both online and using the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. They accused the protesters of being supported by foreign agents, pointing fingers at the US and Israel, and they accused the people of sedition, even while regime mouthpieces such as foreign minister Javad Zarif claimed the people had a right to protest.
This has happened before. A survey of similar types of protests against authoritarian regimes illustrates that they almost always fail. Until 1989 there were a series of unsuccessful mass protests against Soviet-style rule in eastern Europe. On June 16, 1953 East German construction workers began a protest over a pay cut. Within a day it had spread to an estimated 700 places throughout the country. The Soviet Union and local police responded with violence, crushing the protests and killed at least 55 people. The Hungarian Revolution of 1956 began among students and intellectuals supporting democracy. The uprising spread after 20,000 protested on October 23. The Soviets vacillated on what to do, but eventually sent tanks and the army to crush the Hungarian revolution a week and a half after it had begun. Thousands were killed and more than 20,000 put on trial. As in Hungary, although with a much smaller death toll, attempts at liberalizing Czechslovakia were crushed by a military invasion in 1968. In Poland the shipyard strikes in 1980 led by Lech Walesa led to a massive warning strike in 1981 that involved around 12 million people. Protests and resistance continued through 1982. Yet it would take another seven years to replace the government.
Similarly in South Africa under Apartheid numerous mass protests were met with violence that resulted in their dispersion. The Sharpeville pass law protests in1960 ended when police killed 69 of the thousands who turned out. In June 1976 more than 20,000 joined protests in Soweto. Police responded by killing 176.
In the Middle East not only Iran has seen mass protests over the years. In Algeria in 2010 protests erupted spontaneously around the country over the cost of living. Facebook and Twitter access was suspended by the government to stop information from spreading and police were sent in to quell the disturbances, arresting 1,000. Several were killed. In Bahrain in February 2011 thousands came out to protest hoping to emulate the Arab spring protests in Tunisia. Eventually more than 100,000 participated. To stop their spread the government instituted a curfew and invited neighboring allies to intervene. Eventually around 100 people were killed and 1,000 arrested. Bahrain hasn’t seen a major protest since. Similarly in 1982 in Hama and 1991 in Iraq the Ba’athist governments crushed uprisings, killing thousands.
Protests can topple governments, but they rarely do. In China in 1989 protesters took to Tiananmen square in 1989, calling for democracy. After a month and a half the army went in and cleared the square. Two hundred people were killed. In Thailand during the massive protests by the “red shirts” between March and May 2010 resulted in a massive crackdown that led to the deaths of 91 people. At the “Mother of all Marches” in Venezuela in April 2017 several million turned out to protest a shattered economy and authoritarian government. Several protesters were killed and 500 arrested. The government is still in power.
When do protests succeed? They tend to succeed when power structures within the government decide that it is worthwhile to side with the protesters for their own reasons. Sometimes this is due to fear, often it is due to a pragmatic decision to remove one head of state and replace him with another. In 2011 in Tunisia and Egypt the military helped to usher the dictators from office. In 2017 Robert Mugabe, one of the longest reigning dictators in Africa, was removed by his own army. In contrast Zimbabwe’s Morgan Tsvangirai who came from the trade unions was never able to unseat the government using democratic means. There are exceptions. Ukraine’s pro-Russian government of Viktor Yanukovych fled office in 2014 after months facing a massive uprising. However his leaving office precipitated civil conflict which still rages. In many cases mass protests that are successful have led to civil unrest. This was the case in the 1990s conflict in Algeria as well as the Syrian civil war.
There is rarely a path to power for protesters when a regime is willing to use violence to suppress them. If the protesters are not willing to use violence in return, if they do not have a centralized structure with a leader and are not armed, they have no way to seize power. If they can continue unrest, especially if they can do so by striking at industry by mobilizing workers, they may encourage the army or other politicians to replace the government. But that only results in a change of the faces in power and not a change in the nature of the state. History has shown that although states can change and revolutions do take place, their chances at success are rare. Nevertheless, most regimes of the type that Iran embodies fall eventually.