Democracy Lab

The Alchemy of Protest

When do mass political demonstrations work?

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.

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).

But how big is big enough? The opposition rallies that took place in major cities in Russia last year brought hundreds of thousands of people into the streets. Yet Vladimir Putin remains firmly in the saddle. In fact, he doesn't even seem to have blinked.

In some historical cases, the number of people publicly manifesting discontent with a government has been fairly small. It's estimated that less than 2 percent of the population took active part in the French Revolution in 1789. The percentage of Russians who participated in their own revolution(s) in 1917 was comparably miniscule. (Nor, for that matter, was the number of Americans who took up arms against the British in the Revolutionary War in the 1770s and 1780s especially large.) And yet these highly mobilized minorities brought about dramatic outcomes.

In October 1989, I found myself in a crowd of 250,000 people marching peacefully through the center of the East German city of Leipzig. There were little old ladies, and high school students, and factory workers, and office workers toting their briefcases. It was an impressive thing to see: Despite the size and diversity of the crowd, everyone shared a single, clear demand: "Down with the Communist Party." Chants periodically broke out: "No violence! No violence!"

It was a powerful experience, at once morally persuasive and deeply moving. Here were people who had lived under the rule of various totalitarian systems for half a century, suddenly taking to the streets in huge numbers to articulate a vision of their lives that stood directly at odds with the version of reality disseminated by their government.

Their victory was, nonetheless, far from assured. We now know that the communist government came very close to staging a Tiananmen-style crackdown on the Leipzig protestors -- an outcome that was avoided thanks to some heroic, last-minute maneuvering by a few local party officials. Things could have turned out very differently indeed. Would the Berlin Wall have fallen if Erich Honecker had moved ahead with his plans?

In any effect, these are some of the issues worth keeping in mind as Egypt's political confrontation ratchets up this weekend. The only thing that's clear at this point is that nobody can say what's going to happen. There are just too many variables involved, many of them hinging on the actions of large groups of agitated people facing off in the streets of Cairo. If we really understood something about the dynamics of mass protests, we might be able to make some informed predictions. But we can't. This is one area of human nature where we remain a mystery to ourselves.    

MAHMUD KHALED/AFP/Getty Images

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