In light of the rumored coming resignation of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, I thought I would share an interesting conversation with my colleague Peter Rosendorff yesterday. Peter raised the question of why governments ever fall simply because there are protesters in the street? After all, couldn’t governments simply go about their business of governing and wait for the protesters to go home? More generally, as political scientists do we have a good model of what factors actually determine whether protests succeed in removing governments from office?
So to answer this question, we started with the most extreme and obvious explanation, and then tried to walk our way backwards:
- If protesters actually “storm the palace” and kills the currently leader(s) of the government, then protest will yield government change (e.g., Romania).
- If protesters stop short of killing the current leader(ship) but somehow forcibly exile him/her/them, then protest will yield government change.
- If the continued persistence of protest leads the current leader(ship) to think that either Options 1 or Options 2 will come to fruition, then it is possible the leader(ship) will step down and/or flee, then protest will lead to a change in government
But heading back to current developments in Egypt, none of these factors seem to explain what is going on. Instead, we seem to need to get into other explanations, like:
- If protest convinces other pivotal actors in society that they would be better off with a different government in place, these actors may take actions in order to bring about a change in government. In this case, we could again say that protest has led to a change in government.
So this proposition would force us to identify two key factors. First, who are the pivotal actors in society that can actually force a change in government? Clearly – as is the case in Egypt – the military is always a possible candidate here. But are there others? Party leaders? Key economic figures? Major civil society players? I guess part of what I’m wondering is is this explanation inevitably a story about the military? Or, put another way, will we look back on events in Egypt and describe what changed on Day 17 simply as the military deciding that Mubarak was now a liability, and little more than that?
The second factor this last proposition points to is what exactly is it that protesters can do that convinces these pivotal actors that a change in government is necessary? Is simply bad PR, e.g., protesters getting beaten or killed making it harder for the country to manage its international relations? Could it be more economic, e.g., shutting down commerce in a capital city for an extended period of time? Or might it actually be something more normatively pleasing, such as demonstrating to these pivotal actors that the regime no longer has the support of the people?
I am very interested in responses to this post. For those familiar with “successful”” protests (which I am loosely defining as leading to a change of government), what made the difference? For political scientists who study protests and regime change, what kind of models do we have that explain exactly why protest gives way to regime change? I know we have a vibrant literature on the question of why people protest in the first place (see here for some citations), but what do we know about why protest actually leads to changes in government?
A very brief second observation on the possible fall of Mubarak: based on what I wrote previously on the links between 1989 and 2011, my expectation is that the fall of Mubarak will energize protest in other Middle Eastern and North African countries. Mubarak is a very big fish in the region, I would guess – and this is of course only a guess – that whatever contagion effect Tunisia had is likely to be exceeded by a possible Egyptian contagion effect.
As always, we welcome guest posts from Egypt experts especially if, as now seems likely, Mubarak does give up power later today.