So You’ve Got a Popular Uprising; Now What?

Nonviolent rebellions aimed at toppling governments don’t occur very often, in part because mobilizing a popular uprising is very hard to do. Unfortunately for protesters, actually toppling the government and installing a new one more to their liking turns out to be even harder. As a result, when popular uprisings do occur, they usually fail to achieve their core goals.

A quick survey of recent uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East shows what I mean. Of the six major uprisings in the region so far this year, only two have more or less succeeded, and those victories remain partial and fragile. Tunisia’s uprising has probably been the most successful one; there, President Ben Ali was quickly driven from power, and the country is now nominally governed by an interim body that includes longtime outsiders, although the timing and implications of future elections are still unsure. In Egypt, President Mubarak was eventually ousted, but the country is now run by a self-appointed council of military officers, and the breadth, depth, and timing of future political change remain highly uncertain. In Yemen, a wounded President Saleh has fled to Saudi Arabia for medical treatment, but he has not officially ceded power, and the resulting uncertainty is exacerbating a quickening collapse of that country’s state and economy. In Morocco, King Mohammed VI seems to have taken the wind out of protesters’ sails with window-dressing “reforms” approved by popular referendum. Protests continue to swell in Syria in spite of the state’s monstrous response, but President Assad has hardly budged, convoking a “national dialogue” that is widely regarded as a sham. Last but not least, the status quo ante still stands in Bahrain after King Hamad ruthlessly quashed his country’s nonviolent uprising with help from Saudi Arabia.

The rarity of victory by popular uprisings is largely a function of the peculiar nature of protesters’ power. Protest movements are typically composed of hundreds or thousands of ordinary citizens. Those citizens might fill a country’s streets and squares, but they are excluded from the formal government positions that actually control policy and personnel choices. Movement leaders can’t fire and hire people, and they can’t make or change laws. Their exclusion from government leaves them without a clear mechanism for converting the power of their numbers and moral suasion into concrete political outcomes. Without the use of violence to compel change, the only way protesters can achieve their objectives is to persuade influential insiders to act on their behalf or to step aside and cede power to other officials who will. What usually happens instead is either repression or conciliatory measures that fall short of the movement’s core goals. Political insiders often use their favorable positions to direct change in ways that protect their own interests while appearing to respond to protesters’ demands, and that “damage control” usually means partial victory at best for the people in the streets.

Even though the deck is stacked against them, there are some things movement participants can do to improve their odds of success. In his award-winning 2004 book Unarmed Insurrections: People Power Movements in Nondemocracies, political sociologist Kurt Schock uses comparative analysis of several recent popular uprisings to identify choices that improve prospects for movements’ success. In broad terms, he sees two; movements are more likely to succeed when they 1) organize in ways that help them withstand repression and 2) employ tactics that undermine state power. On withstanding repression, Schock concludes that movements are usually more resilient when they are organized like networks rather than hierarchies; when they employ a mix of tactics and methods; and when they innovate faster than their repressors.

I think that Schock’s point about tactical innovation is important but often overlooked. When protesters settle into a pattern that fails to produce significant political change, perseverance can start to look like folly. Under these circumstances, bystanders and weakly committed participants might conclude that the state is likely to withstand the challenge and then hedge their bets by withholding their support. To try to break the deadlock, movement leaders can experiment with other forms of action that might draw new supporters or expose new weaknesses in the state’s defenses.

Of course, as cases like Syria today remind us, survival is only half the battle. As Schock (p. 52) also argues, “If challenges are to contribute to regime transitions, they must transform political relations.” He notes that movements are more likely to change political relations when they create or exacerbate divisions among ruling elites or win support from influential third parties (e.g., foreign governments). More important, though, is a movement’s ability to undermine state power by targeting the state’s “dependence relationships.”

In any society, the state directly depends on segments of its own populace to rule. If any of these segments, such as military personnel, police officers, administrators, or workers in energy supply, transportation, communications, commerce, or other key sectors, refuse or threaten to refuse to carry out their duties, the state’s power is significantly undermined. The withdrawal of cooperation on which others depend is a valuable resource for exerting power over others. (p. 53)

The notion that protesters are more likely to succeed when they manage to peel elements of the military and police away from the regime is fairly conventional. The idea that protesters might achieve similar ends through alliances with other groups is less often recognized. Schock’s case studies provide several examples. In South Africa, the dependence of the apartheid system on black labor made strikes and other work stoppages unusually painful for the racist regime and the business leaders who supported it. In Nepal, state employees helped propel a popular uprising against that country’s king in 1990 by openly casting their lot with the demonstrators. In Thailand, the growth of an entrepreneurial class in the 1980s created a powerful new constituency that turned against the military government in 1992 when many of its members worried that harsh repression of pro-democracy demonstrations would scare away investors and tourists.

In making this point, Schock draws on the work of Gene Sharp, the scholar-cum-activist whose writings on nonviolent resistance emphasize the careful analysis of power and its social roots as a crucial piece of movement strategy. As Sharp told the Utne Reader, “If you can identify the sources [of political power], you can cut them off.” Separating a dictatorship from the bases of its power its does not guarantee that a popular uprising will achieve all of its goals, but it certainly does improve a movement’s bargaining power.

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