How are Urban Revolutions Different?

Urban Revolutions
State flag of Ukraine carried by a protester to the heart of developing clashes in Kyiv, Ukraine. Events of February 18, 2014. From Wikimedia Commons, the free media repository

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Urban Revolutions

Revolution has changed over the past forty years. It has transformed from violent civil wars into massive mobilizations of unarmed protesters. However, Mark Beissinger believes the most important change in revolutions involves where events take place. He argues revolutions have moved from the countryside into cities. Moreover, the difference between the two changes the tactics and strategies of both revolutionaries and governments. The urban civic revolution is less violent, shorter, and more frequent. At the same time they depend upon specific conditions to succeed.

Perhaps the most important ingredient for success in an urban civic revolution is location. Beissinger writes, “Location matters enormously in revolution.” In the countryside, revolutionaries used the landscape to hide. Revolutions often took years or even decades. However, urban revolutions confront the power of the state directly. Beissinger writes, “Urban revolutions occur precisely where the coercive capacity of the state is strongest. They do not seek to hide from state power. Rather, they confront state power directly.” In other words, they turn the strength of the state against itself. It’s a tactic with high levels of risk. They deliberately expose themselves to repression. But it also delivers significant rewards. Many regimes have collapsed under the pressure of a highly visible large scale mobilization.

Of course, large scale citizen mobilization is another key component. Beissinger emphasizes, “While the chances of victory greatly improve if a revolutionary opposition is able to mobilize large numbers, only extremely large mobilizations truly tip the odds in its favor.” Location matters, but a small protest does not induce much pressure on the regime. So, this is the challenge of the modern urban revolution. It must deliver enormous numbers of people to confront the state’s repression directly. It’s a difficult combination to deliver and often happens when observers least expect it.

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2 thoughts on “How are Urban Revolutions Different?

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  1. As the author of Importing Democracy: The Role of NGOs in South Africa, Tajikistan and Argentina, I was intrigued by the podcast, although my research focused on civil society (not necessarily protests). Very interesting, but I wish there had been more focus on the long, hard slog of building democracy from the ground up. Tajikistan is a great example, since the internet is now fueling political participation at the local level , especially among young people. This was not the case when my book was published, in 2013. Julie Fisher

    1. I’m definitely interested in how Central Asia will respond as the war progresses. I’ll keep my eye on Tajikistan.

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