Consider the stories of two squares:
Tiananmen Square, 1989. After seven weeks of demonstrations, the Chinese authorities had had enough. The army moved in and cleared the square and the surrounding area of protesters. According to eyewitnesses, the soldiers fired into groups of unarmed people, killing hundreds and maybe thousands.
The merciless violence ended the protests. The regime endured.
Shift to recent history and Cairo's Tahrir Square. As you surely know, 18 days of mostly nonviolent protests eventually moved though the entire country and brought down the regime of 30-year leader Hosni Mubarak. In this case, the Army was deployed but did not fire.
Why did the Chinese protests end in death and failure and the Egyptian protests end with relatively little violence and, at least for the moment, victory?
It's a question that can be applied to most of the nations of the former Soviet Union, to South Africa, to dictatorships in South America. Why did some regimes that showed no hesitation for violence and repression over many years not end in bloodbaths?
Conversely, we have China, Iraq under Saddam Hussein, and Iran this very week, where the tools of violence were publicly employed by the state without apparent hesitation.
While the current protests are more easily monitored, live and on every TV screen or computer monitor, that can't be the only difference. Even in 1989, the protests in China were widely televised. In 2009, the post-election demonstrations in Iran were a YouTube phenomenon. And yet, the regimes killed and survived.
In one way, the explanation for the differences is simple: Where there were no massacres, somebody at some level refused to allow them.
It may have been the dictator who finally discovered a moral line he would not cross. It may have been the military leaders who would not give the commands. It may have been the soldiers themselves who would not fire on their fellow citizens.
But where the blood ran in the streets, there was no circuit breaker. Nobody said "no."
As protests bubble up across the Middle East this week, can we even try to predict whether the results are more likely to be Tiananmen or Tahrir?
Lynn Hunt is a history professor at UCLA, former president of the American Historical Association, and the author of "Inventing Human Rights," which examines the origins of human rights in the 18th century.
"The lesson to be drawn is that it has to do with what a regime is willing to do," she said. "The Egyptian regime styles itself as 'modern' and unwilling to do certain things in the public eye therefore (same with the Shah). Saddam ruled by brutal example -- you crossed him and he mutilated you and your family, didn't just kill them, and he didn't allow anything much to get into the public eye."
Which raises the interesting possibility that we should pay attention to the human rights claims of a dictator because there may come a point where he finally decides there is a limit to his oppression.
Roberta Garner chairs the sociology department at DePaul University and is the author of "Contemporary Movements and Ideologies" and editor of "Social Theory: Continuity and Confrontation." She parsed a few revolution narratives for me, looking at conditions that may have influenced the people holding the guns:
"If the leaders cannot count on the backing of the coercive apparatus, they cannot remain in power. That was a key element in the Portuguese revolution in 1974, for example, and in the current situation in Egypt; maybe also in the Philippines. On the other hand, in China and Iraq the coercive apparatus remained loyal to the incumbent regime and was prepared to use violence against dissenters."
"International pressure is important (again, Egypt, and probably South Africa as examples). Sometimes there is a rational calculation whether violence and bloodshed are 'worth it' --maybe a consideration for Gorbachev [in the Soviet Union] and maybe also for the apartheid regime in South Africa."
She offered three possible ways to analyze the events:
- Perhaps humanity is finally getting its moral act together. "Maybe after the unspeakable horrors of the 20th century (WW I, WW II, Auschwitz, Hiroshima, Dresden, Nagasaki, gulags, one war after another, etc.) we have finally learned something. Peaceful transitions to democracy have become more likely after the end of the Cold War (we no longer have two
superpowers meddling in 'their' pawns' affairs) and generally we can see a more enlightened way of managing change and transitions."
- Perhaps there are scientific ways to examine all the data and arrive at some understanding. "If we understand how the army was recruited and trained, how business elites defined their interests, what international pressure was applied (by whom and in what way), how well democratic forces were organized, how strong the Muslim Brotherhood is (or equivalent organizations in whatever country), etc. etc. -- in short, if we understood how all the internal and external forces were aligned, like a gravitational or electro-magnetic force field, then we would understand the outcome."
- Or perhaps it's all chaos, in the way mathematicians use the word: Small changes in initial conditions can have unpredictably huge effects on the results. What if Mubarak had given his minor concessions speech a week or two sooner? What if the crazies on camelback had not stormed the square? What if one frightened soldier had opened fire on the protesters? Would such relatively small changes have altered the outcome? If so, there may be no coherent narrative to understand.
"This is also the position of some quantum theorists -- that at the quantum level we have to accept 'ontological randomness' -- events are simply random (not just appear to be random because we don't know enough to explain them). Some of your readers will like this story," Garner said, "but I would guess that many of them wouldn't."
So which one does she lean toward? Morality, complexity or chaos?
"As a social scientist, I really have to go with number 2," she said. "Let's look at this scientifically, see what conditions produce popular revolts, which ones are likely to be violently suppressed, and which ones succeed -- and to what extent do they succeed?"
Even defining success is a challenge, after all. "Relatively peaceful" still means many people get hurt. The report of the terrible attack on CBS correspondent Lara Logan is particularly dispiriting. It didn't happen during the days when Mubarak's thugs battled for the square. It happened during the celebration.
Which leaves us watching Iran and Syria and Lebanon and Bahrain and so on and wondering: Tiananmen or Tahrir?