The Songs of Angry Men

Can Les Misérables help us understand why some revolutions succeed and others barely get off the ground?

On a freezing Kansas afternoon, I dragged my mother to a palatial suburban movie theater to see the only holiday event I really cared about -- reliving the tragic tale of history's most musical revolutionaries. Most viewers left the showing of Les Misérables discussing Anne Hathaway (good), Russell Crowe (bad), and Sacha Baron Cohen (ugly) -- but as a student of political violence, something else caught my eye. I was more interested in the structural integrity of the barricades and the poor substitution of tenors for tactics.

The history of Paris is a history of revolutions -- 1789, 1830, 1848, 1870, 1968. For reasons known only to Victor Hugo, Les Mis is set during the lesser-known June uprising of 1832, an anti-monarchist rebellion that was crushed by King Louis Philippe I. The movie offers more than tragic romance and soaring ballads -- it provides a blueprint for understanding the relationship between cities and violence.

Means, motive, opportunity

Why do some revolutions succeed, while others barely get off the ground? Many of the academic debates surrounding civil wars and insurgencies boil down to the relative weight of the opposing factions' resources (means), grievances (motive), and political openings (opportunity).

The revolutionaries in Les Mis don't lack for grievances. The revolution of 1830 had ended Bourbon rule in France, but disappointed both those who wanted to forge a republic and those who wanted the restoration of a Bonapartist regime. In addition, Paris was plagued by pervasive unemployment, censorship, poor public services, and a growing gap between factory owners and factory workers. But unwashed masses do not a revolution make -- it was comparatively middle class Parisian students who led the 1832 uprising.

As the street urchin Gavroche makes clear in Les Mis, the students are afforded a compelling opportunity for their revolt: the public funeral of Gen. Jean Maximilien Lamarque, one of the most prominent anti-monarchist figures in France at the time. Co-opting public events and demonstrations is a standard tactic for urban uprisings -- which is why, for example, government censors in China tolerate criticism of the regime but not calls for public gatherings or protests.

While the students have sufficient opportunity and solid grievances, they lack the means to pursue their revolution. Not only are they short on weapons and ammunition, they also lack broad public support: Few residents donate furniture to their barricades. As a result, the rebellion fizzles -- government troops are able to march through Paris and isolate the rebels after a few short days. Clandestine organizations like the students' secret society may avoid government detection, but wider mobilization is inherently limited -- leaving only empty chairs and empty tables, as the survivors sadly sing.

Haussmann and Napoleon III were right

The student uprising may have been crushed, but the physical terrain of the French capital at the time was favorable to armed insurgents -- as shown by the successful uprisings of 1830 and 1848. The narrow streets and confined districts of Jean Valjean's and Marius's Paris provided cover to partisans, repeatedly thwarting efforts of government troops called in to restore "order" to the city. This is partially due to the rigid tactics favored by the governments of the day, where relatively large units marched down the street in formation.

The French authorities eventually learned their lesson. Following the collapse of the Second Republic in 1851, Napoleon III established the Second Empire. Among his most significant reforms during this period was commissioning Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann to redesign Paris, transforming it into the city we know today. Though aesthetic considerations drove demand for green spaces and new building facades, the desire to exert better control over rioting Parisians played a significant role. One of the central design elements of Haussmann's Paris is wide boulevards -- specifically, the width of a cavalry squadron in extended line.

This is where urban planning intersects with military plans. In addition to its boulevards, Paris's famous circles are spaced to allow for interlocking fields of (cannon) fire. Haussmann isolated the most rebellious neighborhoods from the 1848 July Days by filling in a canal. He also placed Paris's grand railway stations so that they would be rapidly accessibly by government troops, and designed urban blocks so that corner buildings were set back from the intersections -- making them next to impossible to barricade, while simultaneously bringing light and air into city streets. After 1968, most of the city's cobblestone roads were also paved over to prevent the pavers from being used as projectiles in future protests.

This isn't just historical trivia from a bygone era: Modern urban planners are still looking for ways to move people and goods through a living city, while still securing it from attack. There are few better examples than Haussmann's Paris.

Beyond the Battle of Algiers

While Paris may have a history of revolutions, urban uprisings don't actually have a great history of success. One of the few pieces of received wisdom in counterinsurgency circles is the futility of urban revolts. Concentration of state security forces in built-up areas and the isolation of urban populations from potential sources of support have traditionally made it difficult to organize, recruit, and operate in cities. Urban rebel groups are thus typically detected and suppressed before they can reach a critical mass -- see, for example, how easily Inspector Javert is able to infiltrate the student group spearheading the uprising.

But this conventional wisdom is changing, driven by grinding urban insurgencies in BaghdadRamadi, and Fallujah. It may now be possible to organize and train virtually, allowing networks and capabilities to grow without attracting the attention of modern-day Javerts. Rapidly growing urban spaces like Karachi and Lagos combine weak governance, informal settlements, and choking population density, which offer sanctuary to proto-insurgents. Add to this the ready availability of modern telecommunications, global finance networks, and regional and international transport, and these mega-cities present a perfect storm of means, motive, and opportunity for modern insurgents.

Having built a counterinsurgency doctrine based on the experience of Frenchmen fighting communist peasants, we may now need to update our framework to address a much more urban and inter-connected environment. Innovations in aerial surveillance, big data, and network mapping provide some tools for modern-day Javerts. But the protagonists of urban mayhem -- protesters, revolutionaries, warlords, and crime bosses -- will likely continue to sing the songs of angry men for years to come.

Laurie Sparham/Universal Pictures


The Palestinian Implosion

Salam Fayyad's bold effort to build Palestinian institutions could soon collapse -- unless Israel and the United States spring to action.

Three years ago, Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad launched an ambitious plan to build effective, responsive, and clean government institutions. The results were impressive, and Fayyad was hailed as a figure who was making true progress toward a two-state solution even as formal negotiations faltered.

These days, however, the entire project is under dire threat. The political and social worldview that informs Fayyad's vision has been undermined by Hamas's apparent ability to leverage armed conflict to its political advantage. To reverse this disturbing trend, the international community and Israel need to recognize that Palestinian institution building is a strategic priority -- not merely an economic or technical one. Urgent steps on all sides are required to save this project, or its vision for Palestinian independence and peace with Israel may give way to more confrontational approaches, to the detriment of all.

There is no denying the progress that has been made. Under Fayyad, the Palestinian Authority (PA) eliminated structural corruption in ministries and other public agencies under its control. Palestinian security forces have been providing both Palestinians and Israelis with unprecedented security. In 2011, the United Nations, World Bank and the International Monetary Fund all issued reports certifying that the PA fully met the criteria for independence. The PA "is well positioned for the establishment of a state at any point in the near future," read a 2011 World Bank report. In April 2011, international donors noted, "Palestinian institutions compare favorably with those in established states."

It has been downhill since then. In stark contrast to the situation in 2011, Fayyad's government is now unable to meet payroll for more than 140,000 public sector employees -- including teachers, nurses, police officers, and civil servants. The PA's institutions are on the verge of collapse. One million Palestinians are threatened with the prospect of falling into poverty over the course of the coming year as a result of the economic crisis.

The ongoing PA fiscal crisis was aggravated by the Palestine Liberation Organization's failed 2011 bid for Palestine to be granted member-state status at the United Nations, which led to a reduction in U.S. and European Union aid. This is now compounded by Israel's decision to withhold Palestinian tax revenues in retaliation for the successful 2012 push to win non-member observer state status at the United Nations.

According to the 1994 Paris Protocol, Israel collects taxes accruing to trade transactions with the Palestinians -- amounting to 50 percent of the PA's monthly budgetary commitments -- and is obliged to transfer the revenue to the PA. In practice, this gives Israel an easy way to plunge the authority into fiscal crisis whenever it wants to put pressure on the Palestinian leadership.

Israel also announced plans to use the withheld money to pay the Israel Electric Company more than $350 million in outstanding bills owed by Palestinians. But these debts are not owed by the PA government -- they are owed by privately owned Palestinian electric companies in the West Bank and Gaza. The latter, of course, are under the control of Hamas, which does not distract itself by trying to collect money from consumers. Israel's decision not only harms the PA, it directly benefits Hamas -- and bails out deadbeat Palestinian businessmen -- all at the expense of ordinary Palestinian public sector employees and their families.

Politically, this move also undercuts the one Palestinian leader who has been unwavering about working openly with the global community and Israel. Fayyad has consistently worked to create and maintain law and order, and rooted out systemic corruption within the ministries and agencies under his control. The tumult of the recent war in Gaza again demonstrated the effectiveness of PA governance, as Palestinian security forces successfully maintained order in the West Bank under difficult circumstances. Today, however, Fayyad is increasingly identified in the public consciousness with the inability of the government to pay public sector salaries.

Hamas, meanwhile, is riding high after its recent conflict with Israel. Its regional standing is being buoyed diplomatically by allies like Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood-led government and Qatar, which recently promised an additional $400 million in aid and rebuilding projects for Hamas-held Gaza.

The pressure from Hamas's resurgence, Israel's withholding of Palestinian revenues, and reduced donor aid could eventually lead to the PA's collapse. Strikes and demonstrations in the West Bank based on economic grievances began a few months ago, and have become a recurring feature of the Palestinian political landscape. Hamas and some Fatah officials have been trying to use the non-payment of salaries to settle scores with Fayyad and derail his policies.

Fayyad responded to Israel's withholding Palestinian tax revenues by calling on the Palestinian people to voluntarily buy Palestinian, rather than Israeli, products. It was an economic response to an economic measure: Fayyad never used the word boycott, as some reports mistakenly suggested. He did not single out settlement products, nor did he call for, or initiate, any official measures. But all of his statements were sensationally, and often inaccurately, covered in the Palestinian and international press.

This all comes in the context of Israel's announcement of an aggressive expansion of its settlement enterprise, including the construction of more than 5,000 new housing units mainly in highly strategic areas in and around Jerusalem. These proposed settlement plans, if completed, would make it exceptionally difficult -- if not impossible -- for East Jerusalem to serve as the capital of a Palestinian state, and threatens to cut off the city from the rest of the West Bank almost entirely. The danger these plans pose to the two-state solution was noted by the State Department, the 14 other members of the U.N. Security Council, and the European Union, all of whom expressed deep concern at Israel's announced settlement projects. The Palestinian public's faith in the viability of a two-state solution is at an all-time low -- and this despair is spreading regionally, internationally, and even among pro-peace Israelis.

The erosion of the two-state solution and the weakening of the PA is leading the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to a crisis point. This has been exacerbated by the financial and political crisis facing the Palestinian security forces, whose members are not being paid and whose self-image as protectors of the Palestinian national project is being undermined both within the public and its own ranks. This is the single most urgent reason to take early and effective measures to end the fiscal crisis.

The current trends are ominous: Hamas is growing stronger in both Gaza and the West Bank, while the financially strapped PA is struggling to present a viable alternative. If this continues, the world will witness what Fayyad recently termed a "doctrinal defeat" of those who work for progress through nonviolent strategies. The message being conveyed to the Palestinians is that a policy of partnership with Israel, the United States, and the international community is fraught with more risk than open confrontation.

It is not too late to correct this course and prevent the situation from deteriorating further. President Barack Obama's administration and Israel must have a frank, friendly conversation about this issue, which is vital to both countries' national interests. Specifically, they should ensure that funding is injected into the projects still being pursued by the PA to prevent its collapse and restore its credibility. It is not too late -- but time is running perilously short.