Why Architecture and Calendars Are Trojan Horses for Repressive Regimes

The simple thought first occurred to me while visiting Serbia earlier this year. As I walked in front of the country’s parliament, I recalled Steve York’s docu-mentary, “Bringing Down a Dictator.” In one particular scene, a large crowd assembles in front of the Serbian parliament chanting for the resignation of Slobodan Milosevic. Soon after, they storm the building and find thousands of election ballots rigged in the despot’s favor. I then thought of Tahrir Square and how more than a million protestors had assembled there to demand that Hosni Mubarak step down. There was one obvious place for protestors to assemble in Cairo during the recent revolts. The word Tahrir means “liberation” in Arabic. That’s what I call free advertising and framing par excellence.

These scenes play out over and over across the history of revolutions and popular resistance movements. In many ways, state architecture that is meant to project power and authority can just as easily be magnets and mobilization mechanisms for popular dissent; a hardware hack turned against it’s coders. A Trojan Horse of sorts in the computing sense of the word.

So not only was the hardware vulnerable to attack in Cairo, but the software—and indeed the name of the main variable, Tahrir—was also susceptible to “political hacking”. These factors help synchronize shared awareness and purpose in resistance movements. There’s not much that repressive regimes can do about massive hardware vulnerabilities. Yes, they can block off Tahrir for a certain period of time but the square won’t disappear. Besides, regimes require the hardware to project symbols of legitimacy and order. So these must stay but be secured by the army. The latter must also preempt any disorder. So more soldiers need to be deployed, especially around sensitive dates such as anniversaries of revolutions, massacres, independent movements etc. These politically sensitive days need not be confined to local events either. They can include dates for international events in contemporary world history.

A colleague of mine recently returned from China where he was doing research for a really interesting book he’s writing on subverting authoritarian control. He relayed how the calendar in China is getting more crowded with sensitive dates. Each date requires the state to deploy at times considerable resources to preempt or quickly put down any unrest. He described how the vast majority of people assembled at a recent protest in Beijing were actually undercover police officers in plain clothes. This is not immediately obvious when watching the news on television. The undercover officers inadvertently make the turnout look far bigger than it actually is.

As authoritarian regimes increase their efforts to control public spaces, they may require more time and resources to do so–a classic civil resistance strategy. They may sometimes resort to absurd measures like in Belarus. According to a Polish colleague of mine, the regime there has gone so far as to outlaw “doing nothing” in public venues. Previously, activists would simply assemble in numbers in specific places but do nothing—just to prove a point. The regime’s attempt to crack down on “doing nothing” makes it look foolish and susceptible to political jokes, a potent weapon in civil resistance. More here on subversive strategies.

The importance of public spaces like Tahrir in Cairo are even more evident when you look at a city like Alexandria. According to my colleague Katherine Maher, one of the main challenges for activists in Alex has been the lack of a central place for mass gathering. In fact, the lack of such hardware means that the “activism software” needs to run differently: activists in Alex are looking to organize marches instead of mass sit-ins, for example. More here on civil resistance strategies and tactics used by Egyptian activists.

Know of other “hardware” hacks? I’d love to hear them. Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below. Thank you!

5 responses to “Why Architecture and Calendars Are Trojan Horses for Repressive Regimes

  1. Hi, I think that your argument about Tahrir Square as a free advertising place has a lot in common with the game theory concept of focal point introduced by Thomas Schelling in the 60s . The last April I wrote about this concept and I used the Tahrir Square example too.

    Regarding buildings and monuments as symbols of power and perfect targets for rebels’ attacks, the history of the African decolonization process is very illuminating. As Raymond Betts puts it, countryside usually was the base of operations but rebels’ attacks and manifestations always took place in the city. Tribunals, municipal buildings, prisons were all symbols of the colonial culture and an attack to this kind of site had a high symbolic power and ensured high visibility.

    Both these observations led me to a third and final one corelated with the topic: reality is not the map, partly because space is rarely neutral.

    Congratulations for your amazing website and for your work.
    Greetings from Italy,
    Elio Amicarelli.

  2. Pingback: Crowdsourcing vs Putin: “Mapping Dots is a Disease on the Map of Russia” | iRevolution

  3. It should be noted that the great emphasis on “the central square” in the “blueprint for colour revolutions” has led several regimes to close their central squares at important time. This may be done just by order, like in Minsk, where demonstrations are only allowed to take place far off the city center.
    Or the regimes organize alternative events, either pro-government demonstrations or festive activities with an unpolitical and/or comercial character (often organized by state firms).
    Or they fence the area off and I think to remember atleast one case (Sudan?) where the square efore demonstration day over night was turned into a construction site…

    This kind of behaviour of course is not only limited to pure dictatorships. In West Germany demonstartions had to keep several hundred meters distance to the Parliament (Bannmeile). And just today the Hungarian Government announced that during the national “Revolution Day” the whole inner city will be used for government festivities and therefore cannot be used for demonstrations on 15th of March 2012, 2013 and 2014!

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