I’ve written a few times about the central role played in political crises by the question of whether or not the regime maintains the will and capacity to crack down with violence. Neil MacFarquhar’s story on Iran’s Basiji militia groups helps shed light on the regime’s strategy in this regard. Essentially they’re eschewing mass violence directed at the protests while they’re ongoing. Instead, “Iranians shudder at the violence unleashed in their cities at night, with the shadowy vigilantes known as Basijis beating, looting and sometimes gunning down protesters they tracked during the day.”
This preserves a certain level of deniability. It also, if it works, can cause the protest movement to die of a thousand cuts. Instead of a decisive moment at which the protestors are cut, the constant threat and sporadic reality of small-scale violence can intimidate people out of participating. At first, maybe only a small number of people will be intimidated. But watching the size of the protests diminish can, on its own, be demoralizing to the remaining protestors. Then if after another round of beatings and killings the protests get even smaller you can quickly have a snowball effect. People who might be willing to mount the barricades alongside hundreds of thousands of their fellow citizens can swiftly grow disenchanted with putting their lives on the line if they feel that others have started to stay home. And unfortunately at the moment the Basiji look more likely to start escalating their violence than restraining it.