In December I published an article in Comparative Political Studies entitled Cities on Fire: Social Mobilization, State Policy, and Urban Insurgency (ungated pdf) that explores when and how prolonged urban insurgencies arise. Henry has very kindly asked me to consider what it might imply for the contemporary Middle East. The article is a first cut at thinking through why cities, viewed for various reasons as inhospitable to irregular warfare, sometimes become sites of intense conflict, as in Karachi and Algiers in the 1990s, the Palestinian territories since the first Intifada, Belfast during the Troubles, and urban Iraq after 2003.
The argument I made is that urban social networks can be powerful underpinnings for mobilization, and that the onset of insurgency hinges in crucial ways on how states react to this urban mobilization. State strategies and policies, driven by the interests of regimes and security forces, are more important in shaping what happens to urban uprisings than the raw stock of government capacity and material power. The fate of rebellions, given surging social mobilization, rests on fundamentally political decisions about whether to unleash extreme violence on urban protesters and insurgents.
There are two basic strategies states use to combat urban uprisings: urban annihilation and coercive governance. Urban annihilation is what the Syrian regime did in Hama in 1982, the Nazis did to Warsaw in 1944, the Russians did to Grozny in the mid-1990s, the Chinese regime did in Tiananmen in 1989, and the Burmese regime has done on numerous occasions: unrestrained application of firepower and coercion against urban populations. Undefended cities are easy prey for conventional militaries; a city block full of poorly-armed insurgents or protesting civilians can be destroyed or violently cleared quickly. Insurgency is unlikely under these circumstances.
By contrast, states that are constrained in their use of overwhelming force – particularly by internal coalitional incentives, international pressures, and political-military strategies that create restraints on violence – attempt to maintain normal processes of daily governance alongside crackdowns and counterinsurgency. This coercive governance strategy opens space for strong rebel networks to maintain organization and fighting power even in the difficult war-fighting environment of cities. For instance, in Karachi the socially-embedded insurgent group MQM was also a political party with a key role in Pakistan’s coalitional politics and the conflict occurred in a major economic and population hub, dramatically reducing the incentives of ruling parties and the Pakistan Army to lay waste to swathes of the city.
My article is not focused on regime change or non-violent uprisings. But there are at least two implications for how we analyze what is happening right now. Leaving aside the important question of the origins, cohesion, and organization of the opposition, it pays to focus on the political interests of state elites, not just their capacity, and in particular the interests of militaries.
First, the crucial question may be what regimes are willing to do, not what they are physically able to do. It’s in vogue both in academic and policy circles to talk about strong vs. weak states, state capacity, state-building, governance capability, infrastructural power, etc. These are undoubtedly broadly important. However, in situations like those in the Middle East, it’s not necessarily how much state capacity you have, but instead what you do with it. The creation and deployment of state power are often endogenous to political interests and strategies.
In Egypt and Tunisia, the armies certainly had the raw organizational capacity to kill thousands – but for their own strategic reasons they refrained from backing the regime leadership. In Libya we have seen no such restraint, and in Syria if the past is prologue we may be about to see urban annihilation again. This is the key question about Syria in the coming days; by contrast, largely static structural variables like per capita GDP, army size, or regime type may not tell us much about whether a crackdown is coming. Identifying these interests and strategies can only be done with deep knowledge of the inner workings of the ruling coalition, the security forces’ social background and organizational worldview, and previous patterns of contention and repression. Regionally-focused scholars can help to provide this information and thus offer more fully political explanations of these dynamics.
Second, militaries are especially crucial because they are best able to carry out full-bore urban annihilation strategies. When the police falter, the internal paramilitaries break, and the party workers go home, regimes look to serried ranks of tanks and bayonets. If the army is unwilling to carry out an urban annihilation crackdown, all bets are off. This is part of the story in Egypt: Mubarak tried coercive governance, was overwhelmed by mass protest, and then looked to the army, which decided it had no desire for urban annihilation. Recent research on authoritarian durability has productively emphasized political parties, economic inequality, international linkages, and class coalitions, but militaries have their own distinct interests and abilities that can make them pivotal players. As we have seen, there are many ways that armies can influence politics other than coups and these maneuverings deserve careful and sustained attention (as in Egypt right now army muslim brotherhood&st=cse).
For those looking for more reading, there is a voluminous literature on civil-military relations (an overview is in the lit. review of a piece I did on Indian and Pakistani military politics here (pdf)). On military politics and regime security in the Middle East in particular, see, among others, Steven Cook, Gregory Gause, and James Quinlivan. The region that I think is most comparatively useful for understanding when armies crack down on protesters is Southeast Asia, where Indonesia, Thailand, Burma, and the Philippines have seen military-population confrontations with dramatically varying results. As a starting point, check out work by Mary Callahan, Alfred McCoy, Vincent Boudreau, Dan Slater (here and here), and Terence Lee. Some interesting new research on military politics in Latin America comes from my future colleague Michael Albertus (pdf). And Theda Skocpol wrote the classic, controversial, work on state breakdown and revolutionary upheavals. Research on the politics of crackdowns and military politics can help us make some sense of the daily headlines.