Why Do Protests Bring Down Regimes? A Follow Up

Professor Graeme Robertson of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill sends along the following follow up to my post from last week regarding the question of why protest ever leads to a change in government. Robertson’s book, The Politics of Protest in Hybrid Regimes, was published by Cambridge University Press in December 2010.


Why do protests bring down authoritarian regimes? At first blush, it is indeed surprising, especially when we consider the willingness of authoritarian incumbents to murder and maim in order to hold on to power. Moreover, while the implicit or explicit threat of storming the palace and lynching the tyrant may always be there, actually getting yourself slaughtered like a Ceausescu or a Najibullah is a rare event (perhaps surprisingly rare given the crimes that dictators commit in office, but that is a question for another day).

The key to answer this question, I think, is to understand the basic nature of authoritarian rule. While the news media focus on “the dictator”, almost all authoritarian regimes are really coalitions involving a range of players with different resources, including incumbent politicians but also other elites like businessmen, bureaucrats, leaders of mass organizations like labor unions and political parties, and, of course, specialists in coercion like the military or the security forces. These elites are pivotal in deciding the fate of the regime and as long as they continue to ally themselves with the incumbent leadership, the regime is likely to remain stable. By contrast, when these elites split and some defect and decide to throw in their lot with the opposition, then the incumbents are in danger.

So where do protests come in? The problem is that in authoritarian regimes there are few sources of reliable information that can help these pivotal elites decide whom to back. Restrictions on media freedom and civil and political rights limit the amount and quality of information that is available on both the incumbents and the opposition. Moreover, the powerful incentives to pay lip service to incumbent rulers make it hard to know what to make of what information there is. Rumor and innuendo thus play a huge role in all authoritarian regimes.

In this context, protests are excellent opportunities for communication. Broadly, there are two types of messages being sent. The one that gets the most scholarly attention is at the level of protesters trying to convince other citizens that “people like them” hate the incumbents and are willing to act. This is, for example, why educated activists from organizations like the April 6 Movement in Egypt organized demonstrations in working class neighborhoods and tried to dress like ‘ordinary’ kids so working people would see people like themselves in the protests.

However, the other kind of message is the one that protests send to pivotal elites, who are weighing staying the course against the potential costs and benefits from switching sides. In the Egyptian case, the pivotal elites seemed to have included, on the one side, “national capitalists” associated with part of the military, and, on the other side, the beneficiaries of privatization and Mubarak’s economic “reforms”, associated with his son Gamal. When the “swing voters”, the semi-autonomous Intelligence Services (mukhabarat), moved behind the national capitalist faction, Mubarak was finished. Much of the action in the last days of January seems to have consisted of various high profile figures using the protest to signal their allegiance to or defection from Mubarak. This kind of signaling is less studied now in political science but it was a major part of the so-called transitology literature on authoritarian regimes in Latin America and other 3rd Wave cases.

Of course, it is not just through protests that this kind of signaling takes place. In fact, in the post-Cold War era, much of the communicating takes places through authoritarian elections (as I show in a working paper with Grigore Pop-Eleches of Princeton). The Colored Revolutions are cases in point. Where elections signal that the opposition is viable and the incumbents weak, protest against falsification and corruption can have an effect (Serbia, Ukraine). By contrast, where elections signal regime strength and control (Belarus and Russia), protest is unlikely to impress pivotal elites.

The implications of thinking about authoritarian regimes in this coalitional way, instead of thinking about a contest simply between authoritarian incumbents and the opposition, are substantial. Most importantly, a coalitional model helps to explain why the apparently “strong” can fall so quickly to a bunch of kids and workers in the street. The strength of the incumbents is only as good as the alliances they have. In other words, regime strength and opposition strength are not independent variables, but are to a significant degree co-determined. Once pivotal allies switch, regime strength quickly withers, and, to quote Mark Beissinger, “the impossible becomes the inevitable”: http://www.princeton.edu/~mbeissin/research.htm.

11 Responses to Why Do Protests Bring Down Regimes? A Follow Up

  1. joe February 18, 2011 at 8:42 pm #

    This sounds a lot like O’Donnell and Schmitter’s work on Transitions in the mid-1980s…

  2. dilbert dogbert February 19, 2011 at 4:37 pm #

    I was talking to a Polish economist of the communist era and asked him a question that had been puzzling me: Why do authoritarians seem to be the lynch pin of the state and when they die things either fall apart or there is a real opening for change? His partial answer was: The Terror kept them in power and the followers were reluctant to continue the terror. Your post was really helpful in providing a more systematic answer.

  3. No thanks February 22, 2011 at 2:14 am #

    the real question is why don’t protests in china bring down regimes

  4. Right Wing-nut February 22, 2011 at 1:15 pm #

    Some of us learned this playing Junta

  5. Right Wing-nut February 22, 2011 at 1:16 pm #

    Some of us learned this playing Junta

  6. Pensans February 22, 2011 at 6:16 pm #

    Does this apply to the American civil rights protests? Who were the elites in coalition then?

  7. Menso February 22, 2011 at 8:33 pm #

    The protests in China are usually not against the regime. They tend to be against a crooked local politician.

    Moreover, in following with the logic of this post, the government in China is an enormous collection of politicos, businesspeople, bureaucrats and military men, few of whom have any reason to side with anti-government protesters. The Chinese Communist Party is very effective at co-opting various segments of society, and now has businesspeople and intellectuals in it, along with the usual suspects. The upper class is thus very happy with the status quo.

    Finally, a large part of the middle class likes the government because they consider it responsible for the growth in wealth they have experienced over the past generation. They, too, would probably need to be won over before anyone could bring down China’s government. In short, it is not going to happen.

  8. Mike February 23, 2011 at 5:21 am #

    It’s a bit like a mafia boss. His power is not absolute. He depends on the support of his lieutenants. If they all (or enough of them) decide to change allegience, for whatever reason, then the boss is out and a new guy takes over. Mutiny is always a possibility. The system doesn’t change however.

    Hun Sen in Cambodia is no different. There are a number of power centres within the country. He has to try to keep enough of them happy that they continue to support him.

  9. Jay Ulfelder February 25, 2011 at 8:53 am #

    Here’s an interesting paper on this topic that I hadn’t seen before, by Ruth Kricheli and Yair Livne:



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