“The Game’s Afoot”: Protest in Repressive States and Its Field of Play

by Hank Johnston

In Egypt, Tunisia, and Ukraine, political regimes were brought down by mass movements of political protest. In contrast, peaceful Syrian protests against the al-Assad regime took a different course and spiraled into violence and civil war. One need only recall the unsuccessful Iranian protests against the fraudulent election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or the unrealized Chinese “jasmine revolution” in 2011 to ponder the contingencies of the repression-mobilization relationship. In the Iranian and Chinese cases, the state effectively quashed protests. In the Syrian case, state violence led to escalation that al-Assad’s piecemeal reforms were unable to stop. In the Ukrainian case, police violence against waning protests caused public outrage and reinvigorated mobilization.

My own particular view of these variable outcomes is that a lot of the action occurs on the ground—the street level—and not necessarily during the mass events that capture the popular imagination, but beforehand, which sets the stage for how events unfold. Having interviewed in-depth almost 200 oppositional activists in several projects, my gaze on the mobilzation-repression-nexus, as it is sometimes labeled, naturally falls on the micolevel. I would like to suggest three basic principles derived from this focus that can inform future analysis of these events, and perhaps offer a better understanding of their variable outcomes.

First, following decades of research in Western democracies, and despite superficial appearances, mass protests in repressive states do not burst forth fully formed from the head of Zeus. Even in Tiananmen Square, where there was a strong dose of spontaneous mobilization, official student and worker organizations were key platforms of action (Calhoun 1996). The same can be said of the January revolution in Egypt, with its roots in labor, democratic, and student groups (Clarke 2011; see also, regarding the Arab Spring, Charlie Kurzman’s [2012] special issue of Mobilization). In repressive situations, a common error is to underemphasize the role prior organization, especially small, loosely networked, and often-invisible groups, as precursors to mass mobilization phases.

Mass actions are compelling performances that occur within the contemporary movement repertoire—marches, rallies, and especially the mass occupations of central squares—but it is fair to say that less apparent manifestations of discontent always prepare the way for them. These less recognizable forms of claim making follow what I call the repressive repertoire: high-risk symbolic actions—such as planting flags, creating graffiti, and seizing public events—by small dissident groups and networks. They exhibit creativity, the heavy use of symbolism, a hit-and-run quality (to mitigate risk), and a reliance on subtly and double-entendre. In research projects of several authoritarian settings (Johnston and Mueller 2001; Johnston 2005, 2011), people I spoke to had no trouble identifying groups and organizations known for their veiled oppositional milieu. In Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, Russia, and going back further Latin American and Eastern European democratic movements, numerous small actions broke the veil of silence many years before more recognizable protest forms appeared.

These groups and their actions make up the underlying organizational structure by which oppositional voices carve out unobtrusive free spaces in repressive states. They forge collective identities in the heat of repression, and typically sing in different keys and harmonies that get lost in protesting antiregime chorus of the Maidan or Tahrir Square. This diversity is starkly seen in the divisions between various Islamist groups and secular opposition groups in the Arab Spring. We see it now in the role played by the ultranationalist Svoboda Party in Ukraine, whose activists pushed violent confrontational tactics. In all cases, outcomes and trajectories of the mass mobilizations are shaped by the strategic actions of numerous component groups.

The other side of the coin also holds true. State repression and social control are often operationalized in the aggregate, perhaps measured by expenditures on state security or numbers of police deployed. My on-the-ground observations, and those of others, indicate that that the administration of repression and control is a complex function in modern, high-capacity states. This creates interstices where control can break down and free spaces open. Zhao (2001) notes that among the organizations of the Chinese state, some supported the Tiananmen students’ claims, and others, aspects of the movement. Comparative analysis often focuses on this elite level (Boudreau 2004; Slater 2010), but conflicting interests filter down within agencies charged with enforcement. In Eastern Europe, activists recounted to me the covert support of regime bureaucrats, small acts of grace by state censors, warnings prior to police raids, and officials turning a blind eye when legal groups took up forbidden topics.

The point is that the state is far from a monolith of coordinated social control. One report prior to the Syrian civil war mentions that there were no less that eighteen separate police and security agencies in major cities—multiple state, provincial, military, internal, and local levels of organization. This probably does not count local thugs and enforcers. Activists sometimes reported to me the keystone-cop ineptitude of police and security agents. Moreover, in the heady days of mounting protests, some police, military, and security agents have second thoughts. Defectors from the Syrian army swelled the membership of insurgents in late spring and summer 2011. The result is that, overall, authoritarian repression is better analyzed in a more fine-grained perspective, conceived as complex and permeable, which goes a long way in creating the free spaces where the dissident groups I mentioned earlier can exist. This facilitating role of the repressive state, I suggest, is understudied—and often unrecognized. Its absence in models of protest in repressive regimes may partly account for their lack of cross-national generalizability.

My third observation points to a fruitful focus for future research. It brings the first and second together into a dynamic and strategic relationship. Researchers have long recognized the interaction between the state and its challengers, but a more fine-grained approach captured by the notion of a strategic field of play has been trending in movement research circles. Building on Pierre Bourdieu’s ideas, Fligstein and McAdam (2012; also see David Hess’s review on this blog) emphasize how actors compete and strategically interact to each other’s moves. The fields they analyze are located in open polities, where the unfolding of the game is more easily discerned. In repressive contexts too, parties play similar games, seeking to influence each other—through protest actions by multiple challengers and by coercive actions by multiple layers of the security apparatus. Ongoing, manifold, and mutual monitoring of openings, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats comprise the strategic turf. These multiple levels bring into the analysis different strategies and locales by which security agents come into contact with opposition activists—sometimes arresting them, sometimes beating them, sometimes turning their backs, sometimes being diverted by other matters, sometimes facilitating them. They also introduce an additional dynamism by recognizing the diversity and creativity that activists employ in avoiding social control and in taking advantage of interstices and free spaces created by its lapses in its administration. Research on social movements in authoritarian regimes would be well served to recognize the multifaceted and dynamic field of strategic interaction in this high-stakes arena—oppositional protest in repressive states.

Boudreau, Vincent. 2004. Resisting Dictatorship: Repression and Protest in Southeast Asia. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Clahoun, Craig. Neither Gods nor Emperors: Students and the Struggle for Democracy in China. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Clarke, Killian. 2011. “‘Saying Enough’: Authoritarianism and Egypt’s Kefaya Movement.” Mobilization: An International Quarterly 16: 397-416

Fligstein, Neil, and Doug McAdam. 2012. A Theory of Fields. New York: Oxford University Press.

Johnston, Hank, 2011. States and Social Movements. Cambridge, UK: Polity

Johnston, Hank. 2005. “Talking the Walk: Speech Acts and Resistance in Authoritarian Regimes.” Pp. 108-137 in Repression and Mobilization, Christian Davenport, Hank Johnston, and Carol Mueller, eds. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Johnston, Hank, and Carol Mueller. 2001. “Unobtrusive Practices of Contention in Leninist Regimes” Sociological Perspectives 44: 351-376.

Kurzman, Charles, editor. 2012. “Special Issue on Understanding the Middle East Uprisings.” Mobilization 17(4).

Slater, Daniel. 2010. Ordering Power: Contentious Politics and Authoritarian Leviathans in Southeast Asia. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Zhao, Dingzin. 2001. The Power of Tiananmen. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

1 Comment

Filed under Essay Dialogues, Violent State Repression

One response to ““The Game’s Afoot”: Protest in Repressive States and Its Field of Play

  1. Pingback: Beyond the Repression-Dissent Nexus: Putting Violence in Its Place | Mobilizing Ideas

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