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

Democracy Lab

Mob Rule

Why organized crime is a growing force in world politics.

Mexicans are celebrating a victory over the drug mafia this week. The arrest of Miguel Angel Treviño Morales, the head of the Zeta drug cartel, is big news. Treviño, alias Z-40, made a name for himself as one of the most brutal gangsters in a country that has become sadly inured to violence. One can only hope that his imprisonment will put an end to at least some of the stomach-turning brutality he was accustomed to inflicting on his enemies. (At one point, it’s been revealed, he even considered shooting down the plane of then-President Felipe Calderon.)

But will Z-40’s arrest put an end to Mexico’s drug wars? There’s reason to doubt it. Demand for drugs from the cartels’ customers in the United States remains strong, and until that underlying structural cause is addressed, this lucrative trade will continue to thrive. Some experts point out that one of the biggest beneficiaries of Treviño’s downfall is likely to be Joaquín Guzmán Loera (“El Chapo”), the head of the rival Sinaloa cartel, who can revel in the elimination of one of his most energetic competitors.

Analysts put the value of the global drug trade at some $350 billion a year -- and that’s probably a conservative estimate. And yet narcobusiness comprises only one relatively small slice of the much larger world of global criminality. According to the World Economic Forum: “The cross-border flow of global proceeds from criminal activities, corruption and tax evasion is estimated at over US $1 trillion, with illegal drugs and counterfeit goods each accounting for 8% of world trade.”

Organized crime lurks behind many of the stories in the headlines today, though the connection rarely becomes explicit. Alexey Navalny, the Russian opposition leader who was just convicted on probably spurious charges of embezzlement, made a name for himself by targeting the corruption that is so deep-seated in today’s Russia that it’s often hard to see where the government leaves off and the mob begins. European Union law enforcement officials warned recently that mobsters are capitalizing on the European financial crisis by taking advantage of black markets in goods and services. Meanwhile, the increasing prominence of the Internet in the global economy is fueling worries about the rising power of organized cybercriminals.

Gangsters are cropping up in all sorts of odd places. Criminal syndicates are implicated in everything from the poaching of rare wildlife to the counterfeiting of drugs and manufactured goods. That growing range of activities attests to the criminals’ skill at exploiting the possibilities offered by deepening global interconnectedness. Consider the opening of this story about a recent global raid by Interpol: “More than 6,000 people around the world were arrested in a two-month anti-counterfeiting sweep that netted tens of millions of dollars worth of fake shampoo in China, phony cigarettes in Turkey and bogus booze in Chile.” The investigators discovered everything from a subterranean factory in Ukraine manufacturing counterfeit cigarettes to a workshop in Peru that puts false labels on motors from China.

Mobsters thrive on instability. In the Syrian civil war, the same criminal groups that once played on their close ties to the government of Bashar al-Assad have now mutated into the shabiha, the feared paramilitaries that do the regime’s dirtiest work on the battlefield. But they’re not the only ones. “The link between insurgent groups and organized crime has long been a feature of intra-state conflict,” notes Asher Berman, an expert at the Institute for the Study of War. “Rebels often turn to criminal activity to obtain the weapons and funding they need to maintain the fight.” The rebels in Syria, desperate for cash, are increasingly resorting to mafia-like tactics of their own, ranging from car thefts to the looting of antiquities. Reports of systematic extortion -- the familiar phenomenon of the “revolutionary tax” we’ve heard about so many times before -- and economically motivated kidnapping are also on the rise.

What we’re seeing, though, is just the proverbial tip of the iceberg. Criminals, by definition, prefer to avoid the light of day, so the dimensions of the real mafia problem remain obscure. Was that Vatican official who was arrested in June on money-laundering charges merely trying to make himself and some well-connected friends a bit richer, or is he part of a much broader pattern of institutionalized corruption within the bank of the Holy See? Was that recent police raid in New Delhi that netted a huge haul of black-market weapons a victory over mobsters or terrorists? Did that witness who met an untimely end just before he was to testify in the Whitey Bulger case here in the United States really die of natural causes? Why did the Chinese harbor one of Taiwan’s most prominent triad leaders for 17 years before handing him over to Taipei earlier this month? In most cases, we’ll probably never know the whole story.

But there are a few things that we can say with certainty. First, organized crime in cyberspace is becoming a core problem, one that’s particularly hard to combat precisely because of its amorphousness. Indeed, there’s considerable anecdotal evidence that hackers-for-hire are increasingly lending their services to both governments and gangs. But the opacity of the culprits shouldn’t delude us about the scale of what’s at stake. A report issued earlier this week by a global financial organization noted that half of the world’s securities exchanges came under attack by hackers last year. That means that web-based criminals are potentially in a position to destabilize the global financial system -- entirely aside from the untold losses to individuals and companies from mushrooming cybercrime.

Second, illicit financial flows are a big part of the problem. The biggest problem for large-scale criminals is banking their ill-gotten gains, and right now there are plenty of entirely legal lawyers, accountants, and offshore tax havens that are happy to help. Let’s put aside for the moment the theoretical arguments over the virtues and drawbacks of secrecy jurisdictions, and note simply that preserving the present system, which allows criminals to shift their profits almost effortlessly across the globe without scrutiny, will lead to disaster if allowed to continue unchecked. One recent report co-published by Global Financial Integrity and the African Development Bank claims that Africa alone lost up to $1.4 trillion to illicit financial flows. Surely the continuing existence of a system that allows for the existence of a “shadow financial system” on this scale is not good for anyone -- countries developed and developing alike.

Third, powerful global crime syndicates are the enemy of good government. Democracy can hardly flourish when politicians meld with the shadowy forces of the mafia. It’s precisely this understanding that has spurred the recent wave of protests in Bulgaria, where demonstrators took to the streets after a thuggish young tycoon was appointed as the government’s top security official. Such concerns are by no means restricted to Eastern Europe, though. The wave of recent protests in places from Turkey to Brazil shows that citizens are increasingly worried about official malfeasance and the lack of transparency that allows it. From what I can see, they’re right to worry.

Julio Cesar Aguilar/AFP/GettyImages