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Red Team, Blue Team: Simulating a Successful Nonviolent Resistance

12 Sep

If you are an activist in an authoritarian regime today, you need a plan–and a good one. With regimes threatening to drive pro-democracy resistance movements underground, it would be useful for opposition leaders to know their options, the different risk profiles of those options, and the variety of potentially effective methods they could use to avoid repression while keeping the momentum of the movement going.

Back in the days when I worked in emergency medical services (a long time ago), I participated in mass casualty-incident scenarios to learn how to effectively deploy our resources, anticipate and deal with curveballs (since nothing ever goes according to plan), and figure out how to save the most lives when real incidents occurred. Although simulations almost never go the way you plan, they give you opportunities to respond to unplanned events, which turns out to be as important as having a good plan in the first place. Moreover, lots of creative thinking can emerge out of these types of sessions. Well-designed red team/blue team exercises can help people to experience and prepare for a number of different scenarios without having to experience any of the adverse consequences of making mistakes in real life.

Military, marketing, and IT personnel often spend considerable time and energy on red team/blue team “games,” or “battlefield scenarios” that they use to map out strategy and to anticipate and respond to unforeseen events in constructive ways. The “red team” is often the one hatching up a plot to engage the opponent (e.g., a terrorist attack against a the US), and the “blue team” is given limited information with which to stop the red team within a given time frame (e.g., a way to thwart the attack). Red team/blue team exercises allow officers and strategists to develop a skill that is crucial for a successful nonviolent resistance: the ability to outmaneuver the opponent under adverse conditions.

Militaries and corporations often have massive resources and personnel to devote to simulations. They sometimes fly in “subject experts” to help design and implement the scenarios. Now, most civilians in most countries don’t have backgrounds in conducting red team/blue team exercises, nor are they in a position to “practice” nonviolent resistance in the streets or to fly in experienced activists to help them develop these skills. But when the stakes are high, as they are in Syria and many other places today, a few big strategic mistakes could end the movement.

How can nonviolent resistance movements strategize without subjecting themselves to detection or repression?

One way do so is by playing People Power: The Game of Civil Resistance. Developed by York Zimmerman and the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, this game allows people to develop a scenario where their opponent in the game approximates their opponent in real life. The site says:

People Power is about politics, about strategy and about social change. As a leader of a popular movement you fight against tough adversaries who control the police, the army and bureaucracy, even the media. The only weapon in your hand is your strategic skill and ingenuity.

The game can be used by activists to develop strategic skills and experience in facing a militarily superior adversary. Part of the idea is to allow people to get used to making strategic mistakes (like choosing the same, predictable method over and over again, or failing to communicate the campaign’s message to a wider audience) against brutal opponents without winding up in prison.

It’s $10, but they will make exceptions.

Now, importantly, I wouldn’t suggest that playing a video game (if they could even access it in the first place) is going to improve oppositions’ chances against brutal dictators. That would be an especially arrogant and irritating claim.

But in the long term, I do think that strategic planning (and strategic thinking) is a crucial element to a successful nonviolent resistance. If activists today can improve those skills by playing a game, they should. If they don’t find a tool like this useful, they should invest some time in figuring out another way to do it. As Winston Churchill said, “Those who plan do better than those who do not plan even though they rarely stick to their plan.” He would know.

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Divide and Rule: How Dictators Hold onto Power

25 Aug

Gregory Berger and the folks over at the School for Authentic Journalism created another fantastic video about the Egyptian revolution. This one features a former member of the Muslim Brotherhood, Mohammed Abbas, who intimates that part of Mubarak’s strategy of maintaining power was sowing seeds of sectarian strife among the population. Watch it here:

My co-author, Maria Stephan, is fond of saying that whichever side (opposition or regime) that succeeds at dividing and ruling will ultimately win the conflict. The opposition succeeds by dividing the regime from its main pillars of support — like the army, security forces, or economic elites. The regime succeeds by dividing the opposition and causing separate factions to turn on one another.

There is empirical support for this among separatist movements too. Kathleen Cunningham had a recent article in the May 2011 issue of the American Political Science Review that finds that countries tend to offer concessions when movements are internally divided (as opposed to internally united), suggesting that regimes distribute carrots selectively and in ways that turn different factions against one another.

The lesson: dictators are afraid of united campaigns, and they will go to great lengths to sow divisions among them.

Who’s Next? Does Longevity Equal Vulnerability?

24 Aug

Joshua Keating looks at the world’s longest-ruling dictators. From his post:

Barring a truly remarkable turn of events, Muammar al-Qaddafi’s rule appears to have come to an end. Having taken power 41 years and 357 days ago, Qaddafi had been the world’s longest-ruling sitting leader (not counting royals). He fell short of the all-time record of 49 years set by Fidel Castro, as well as those of Chiang Kai-shek (46 years) and Kim Il Sung (45 years.) So who takes the crown now?

According to Wikipedia, it’s Cameroonian President Paul Biya, at 36 years. However, that’s disputable since Biya was actually prime minister for the first seven of those years and only assumed the office of the presidency when the sitting president died in 1982.

Going down the list, there’s Mohamed Abdelaziz, president of Western Sahara –which is not a generally recognized country — at 34 years. Then there’s Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh at 33 years, though his grip on power is tenuous to say the least.

That leaves Equatorial Guinea’s kleptocratic President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo as the world’s longest-serving undisputed ruler at 32 years and 21 days. Jose Eduardo dos Santos of Angola and Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe are close behind him, both at 31 years.

Given that Obiang and dos Santos are both 71 and Mugabe is 87, Castro’s all-time dictator longevity record appears to be pretty safe.

Some hypotheses worth testing someday:

1). As the leader’s health dwindles, movements may see new opportunities for mobilization. This was true in Iran when the Shah got some bad health news, and it seems true in Egypt and Yemen as well. Wild cards may include countries where succession is clear (like in Saudi Arabia or North Korea) versus countries where the next leader is contested (like in Zimbabwe).

2). The longer the leader’s tenure, the stronger the population’s grievances. I’m not sure whether this holds in Cuba, but it seems like people get more and more irritated with corrupt leaders the longer they are in power. Hence, the longer you rule, the more vulnerable you become.

Thoughts?