General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is throwing down the gauntlet. The Egyptian army chief called upon his supporters to mass in the streets of Cairo on Friday, June 26, to show their approval for the new government. He said that a big turnout would amount to a "mandate" for the army's efforts to crack down on violence and terrorism.
The general's move exposes Egypt to a serious risk of just the kind of violence he says he aims to avoid. Dozens of people have died in street clashes since the military toppled the elected government of President Mohamed Morsy earlier this month. Meanwhile, as Sisi's partisans took to the streets on Friday, Muslim Brotherhood supporters weren't just sitting at home, twiddling their thumbs while the generals' fans try to assert their control over Cairo's streets. They took to the streets as well, staging dueling rallies across the capital. Judging by past experience, it seems unrealistic to expect the two sides to push their causes in public without more blood being spilled. Surely Sisi knows this. It's hard to escape the conclusion that he's counting on the pro-Morsy camp to go on a rampage, which would then enable him to stamp his opponents as violent extremists who should be dealt with accordingly.
I fervently hope that Egyptians disprove my pessimism, but there's just no way to tell yet. The reality is that you can never say in advance what effect demonstrations are going to have. When the masses take to the streets, all bets are off. If you think about it hard, in fact, it's not at all clear why some mass protests succeed while others don't. Political scientists have exhaustively analyzed all sorts of other phenomena over the years. Yet we seem to be stumped when it comes to street-level activism.
More from Democracy Lab
- The Ukrainian President's Big Broken Promise
- The Heretical Pope Francis vs. Rush Limbaugh
- A Deeper Shade of Orange
The basic mechanism is clear enough. People usually gather in public spaces when they want to express their disagreement with a government or policy in the most immediate and physical of ways: by demonstrating it. But when does such an assembly really start to have an effect, and how? Can such effects be measured?
A quick look around the world suggests that generalizations are hard to come by. In Bulgaria, big peaceful protests against the government have been going on for the past 40 days. But Prime Minister Plamen Oresharski, elected in May 2013, has continued to resist demands that he and his government resign -- and now the police are cracking down. Similar protests have shaken governments in Turkey and Brazil over the past month, but leaders there have also held fast to power. It all makes for quite a contrast with Egypt, where a whole series of massive anti-Morsy demos paved the way for the army to step in. In that case, at least, a manifestation of popular sentiment on the streets of the capital triggered major political change.
But wait: Both Morsy and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan are Islamists who came to office through free elections -- yet one leader fell while the other has endured. Why? In 1989, tens (if not hundreds) of thousands of Chinese demonstrated in Tiananmen Square and in dozens of other cities around the country. Then, communist leader Deng Xiaoping deployed the army, killing dozens, perhaps even hundreds, and bringing it all to an end. In Iran in 1978 and 1979, the Shah's troops also fired on demonstrators -- yet that merely fueled the resistance, ultimately leading to the collapse of the Shah's regime. Historians assure us that the Chinese regime maintained its will to fight back against the public display of dissent, while the Shah's didn't. But this isn't actually a very helpful answer. What is this "will" that we're talking about? How does it work? Can it be substantiated? Or perhaps even measured?
The power of demonstrations lies, it would seem, in the overtly public nature of the challenge that they pose. Authoritarian governments are especially vulnerable to being called out in this sort of way, since they often make various absolute claims to legitimacy that can be dramatically disproved when large numbers of their own citizens take to the streets. If demonstrations get big enough, they can begin to erode a government's hold in all sorts of concrete ways, by preventing public services from being carried out or by taking physical control of certain spaces (like the crowds in Cairo's Tahrir Square in 2011).