The Continued Importance of Broad Popular Support in Political Violence

Arab Spring Revolutions
By Marno de Boer

In the decade since 9/11, much has been written about the alleged changes in the nature of insurgent and revolutionary movements. Many of these studies in fact base their arguments on an interpretation of the functioning of the global Jihadist movement. They boil down to a technical analysis of principles of insurgency and counterinsurgency, devoid of politics and ideology. The presently successful Arab Spring movements, which have eclipsed the Jihadist appeal in most of the Middle East, indeed do display some of these trends. Nevertheless, they also bear witness to the continued importance of politics and ideology. Their success is ultimately based on the mobilisation of widespread popular support through an appealing cause that taps into widespread grievances. 

The self-proclaimed visionaries on revolutionary movements, such as Marc Sageman, John Mackinlay, T. X. Hammes and John Robb, argue that globalisation and the advance of the Internet (and especially social media such as Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and chat programmes) have a twofold effect. Firstly, hierarchical organisational structures are replaced by loosely connected networks. Secondly, since it has become much easier to recruit and network with disparate but like-minded people, groups can thrive on a constituency that would previously have been too narrow to sustain a movement. Hammes and Robb even foresee that in our increasingly complex and interconnected global economic system, malicious individuals can create so much disruption that they will have a strategic influence. 

The Arab Spring revolutionary movements indeed display the first trend. Neither in Egypt, Yemen, Tunisia nor Syria has a clearly identifiable leader or organisation emerged. In networks of informally connected protesters all participants can organise rallies, persuade others to join and spread the revolutionary ideology. In this, social media as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are invaluable tools as they offer easy access to millions of people. This assists the activists in countering the government’s formal propaganda machinery, especially monopolised state television. 

The lack of a hierarchical structure also helps to explain why the Syrian movement can withstand months of brutal crackdowns. A hierarchical urban organisation is extremely vulnerable against security forces that are willing to arrest, interrogate and torture in order to disrupt it. This fate befell for example all Latin American urban revolutionaries and the FLN in Algiers during the Algerian War. It is indeed most tellingly illustrated in the film The Battle of Algiers. In one scene Colonel Mathieu sketches out the organigram of the urban FLN on a blackboard and explains his officers how it can be destroyed through torture and meticulous police work. Such a method is less successful against a loosely connected network. While individual members are killed, new recruits constantly join the movement. They are difficult to track down because they have not been recruited by known members. Since the movement lacks a central leadership it also cannot be decapacitated. It is like the Larnaean Hydra which grows two new heads for every single one Hercules chops off. 

But despite the important role the new media have played in the Arab revolutionary movements, the ultimate requirement for success is gaining broad popular support. Media are of course a useful tool for this. But what is also required is, to use the terms of colonial counterinsurgency specialists as Robert Thompson and David Galula, the successful match between grievances (held by the people) and a cause (presented by the revolutionaries). 

In the Arab world, the Jihadists pioneered the use of the web to proselytise, recruit and even organise attacks. Some of their ideas, such as anti-Americanism and hatred of the corrupt and repressive dictators were indeed widely shared. However, the declared end goal of returning to the times of the Prophet was not capable of winning the hearts and minds of broad segments of the Middle Eastern population. In other words, the Jihadist cause did not match with the widespread grievances. The appeal of Al Qaeda’s cause declined even further when the group, and especially its Iraqi branch under Al Zarqawi, began to target fellow Muslims. The first clear example of this decline was indeed Iraq’s Sunni Tribal Revolt. 

Currently it is the Arab Spring that is making Al Qaeda redundant. The Jihadists witness from the sidelines how protesters demand constitutional democracy, economic reform and human rights rather than attacks against the US and a theocratic form of government. The activists could attain this wide support because while appealing to similar grievances as Al Qaeda (corrupt, violent, and inefficient dictators) their cause of constitutional democracy has a much broader appeal than Al Qaeda’s cause of a Talibanesque government. 

Indicative of this are the post-revolutionary election results in Tunisia and Egypt. In the former country’s October polls, the Islamic-Democratic Ennahda party was the winner with 33 per cent of the votes, followed by various secular parties. At the time of writing of this article, Egyptian exit polls suggest a victory by the Muslim Brotherhood, followed by sizeable support for both the Salafists and liberals. The Brotherhood has committed itself, like Ennahda, to a sort of Islamic-Democracy in the style of Erdogan in Turkey, which is far removed from Jihadism. The support for the fundamentalist Salafists seems to come more from disgust with the existing ruling class’ corruption and economic mismanagement than from a desire to lead a puritanical life, as suggested by interviewees in for example The New York Times article ‘Hope Glimmers in Long Lines at Polls in Cairo’ from 28 November or Robert Fisk’s blog entry for The Independent of 1 December. To satisfy their voters the Islamists will thus have to copy Turkey’s economic boom rather than Mullah Omar’s religious decrees. 

The 2011 revolutions thus show that social media change the functioning of revolutionary movements only partially. They facilitate a shift from hierarchical organisations towards loosely connected networks. They are also a useful tool in spreading propaganda. What they do not do is diminish the need for broad popular support, which requires a fitting match between widespread grievances and an appealing cause. If that requirement is unfulfilled, a movement might linger on the fringes of the political landscape like Al Qaeda, but also in the 21st century will fail to overthrow the political order.  


Marno de Boer obtained an MA in History of Warfare at King’s College London and is currently pursuing an LLM in Public International Law at Utrecht University. 


8 December 2011


Related Article:

Ramee Mossa, The End of Dictatorship: Globalizing the Arab Spring