Public Protest as a Road to Democracy?

We are all quite aware that 2011 was a year full of protests. I say “Arab Spring” and”Occupy” what do you think of? I picture crowds filling the streets. Chanting, screaming, yelling for change. Time was on to something when they named “The Protester” their person of the year. There was certainly a lot of noise.

What changed? Maybe you shoot back – what didn’t change? Ben Ali is gone. Mubarak is gone. Gadaffi is gone. Papandreou is gone. Burlusconi is gone. Even Kim Jong-il is gone. Okay, but what changed? What assurance is there that the public protests that pushed most of these out of office will in someway lead to something better for their countries? We know what has been torn down. What will be built up?

Within political sciences many have argued that the public protest is not actually a very likely candidate for moving a country from authoritarianism to democracy. Why would that be? What factors might stand in the way of a public protest leading to a democracy?

Let me at least give you five:

1. Lack of Leadership 

Authoritarian rulers do not appreciate challenges to their rule from other potential leaders. So what do they do? They repress leadership. Students are the universal opposition of regimes, in the words of Samuel Huntington. While certainly public protests have been more than just students, the young people do contribute a significant amount to the cause. Nor am I discounting the importance of young peoples movements. I’m in full support of students and youth taking an active role in the shaping of their society. However, if they are not able to create leaders who are able to reach a broader demographic than just the youth the protest may ultimately fail to produce.

2. Institutional Weakness

Another factor is that the authoritarian government controls nearly every aspect of civil life. Especially in single party regimes they monitor and control the institutions. The civil servants that run the daily affairs of the country are employed by the regime. A violent removal of all those elements leaves the country with weak institutions. During the transition period to a new government there must be some sort of civil institutions. In some societies these are able to operate under the rule of the regime. Whether they are labor unions, religious groups, etc. institutions and organizations will be an important part of a new society. If they are lacking or prove too weak then the prospects may be grim.

3. Factionalism

During protest movements we don’t often hear much about factionalism. There is a common goal – remove the current person from power. That is pretty much all that matters. Ideologies and principles take a back seat. However – once that goal is accomplished – factions come to the surface in the rebuilding phase. The ability for groups to form broad-based and effective coalitions will be crucial to a transition to a democratic government. If they are not able to do this then the factions will compete – with institutions that are not strong enough to handle the competition within the political arena – and the political movement that started out so well. That drew together people from all different backgrounds and ideologies will ultimately come to nothing. Worse than nothing it will produce instability.

4. Instability

 The period falling the removal of a regime is often marked by instability. One study (from the 1980s) looked at the transition after the removal of a long-ruling leader to determine if the way he was removed made a difference for the instability that followed. The most volatile and negative effects came about when he was overthrown. It is studies like these that inform the fears of outside countries who are cautious about supporting public protests of regimes. This is the charge leveled against the US for their foreign policy in the Middle East. That they will support an authoritarian regime rather than democracy to protect their interests. The evidence in many ways supports the conclusion that instability will follow. If a country persists in a period of instability for too long someone will step in to offer stability. Oftentimes this is the military and sometimes this creates a military regime. It happens not because that is what the public wanted but because they are the only ones who offer peace. This is especially true when violence is involved.

5. Use of Violence

One of the most crucial components is whether or not the opposition movement uses violence in their protest against the authoritarian regime. When they do the likelihood of producing a stable democracy decreases significantly. There are also studies that have shown that nonviolence is a more effective strategy than even a well-armed and well-organized resistance. A non-violent opposition is able to engender more support from more facets of society. It does not offer the regime any way to legitimize their use of force against the protesters. As many have pointed out having the military on your side – or at least not actively against you – is key to successfully removing the regime. Soldiers are less likely to join forces with those who have been throwing Molotov cocktails at them. It also sets the standard for what your goals and objectives are. If you are willing to stand by your principles in your efforts to achieve them.

So what do you need to go from the crowd chanting in the street to the crowd casting votes at the ballot box to the crowd living in a secure, stable, and democratic society? Leadership, institutions and organizations, a willingness to work together and not default to factionalism, minimize the instability, and a rejection of violent methods.

Is it a guarantee of a transition to democracy? No. Is it going to make it easier? No. But it offers the best hope that the public protests will be part of putting the country on a road to democracy.

Public Protest as a Road to Democracy – References


Reading Today’s Stories…10/1→

It’s  been a while since I’ve been able to post with links to some of the stories I’m reading. As an aside, I’ve started toying around with a new way of reading articles using the integration of Instapaper and my Amazon Kindle. (I have a 2nd gen. kindle, but just this week Amazon announced a whole new line of new technology and lower prices, if you don’t have one I HIGHLY recommend it! I’ll post on that later) Now onto the links…

U.S. shouldn’t have killed al-Awlaki –

Some interesting commentary out on the killing of American citizen al-Awalki. He had over the past few years become one of the primary ideologues of anti-American sentiments throughout the world, but especially in the Western world. So why then would we criticize his killing? It sends a message to many that the American government is willing to circumvent the rule of law. In the end it may make martyrs into motivation. In this piece Ed Husain provides a good conclusion:

The United States cannot kill its way out of terrorism. Just as with the Cold War, the challenge from Islamist extremism and jihadist violence urgently needs a cultural, intellectual and informational response. Violence breeds more violence and, in this case, literally creates martyrs out of al Qaeda’s murderers.

Read the whole story here.

Boston Review — Alexander B. Downes: Regime Change Doesn’t Work

This is a piece out of a much larger series investigating the process of Regime change and how it does – or more often – doesn’t work. This is a question that has resurfaced in the past few months with the intervention in Libya and the continuing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. So does it work? Should it work? Should it even be engaged in? What motivations should elicit intervention?

Read the whole story here

Why Facebook Works for All, Twitter for Some –

An interesting post on part of what makes the difference between‘s 500 million active users verses‘s roughly 50 million active users. Though twitter continues to be a significant tool for many in terms of use like this author says it is the little league world series next to the World Series. Is this exclusivity part of the mystique? Is it what makes twitter work? Do you tweet? Why? Why not?

Read the whole story here.

Image representing Twitter as depicted in Crun...
Image via CrunchBase

Reading Today’s Stories…9/16

So it has been a few days since I’ve posted links to news stories around the political-theological-cultural-historical world (at least the part that I’m reading in) so here are a few interesting links I’ve found.

Nancy Fuchs Kreimer: The Good News About American Islamophobia

So I have mentioned a few of the studies referenced in this article before. But this is a summary of a few reports put out that chart the attitudes of American’s toward those of a different religion: specifically Islam. As a country that purports to advance freedom this is a major question we have to face. Read the whole story here.

Why the Kabul Embassy Attack Is Really A Disaster —

American Embassy in Kabul
American Embassy in Kabul

One of the major news stories from a few days ago was the attack on the American embassy in Kabul. This attack was the first that was able to last until a second day. However, that is not the only reason why this is a significant attack. Though the weapons and tactics were not really significant enough to produce serious damage  on a hardened target like the embassy they do carry a significant message.

As 2011 has ground on, the attacks in Kabul have become more intense, lasted longer, demonstrated better intelligence and tactics on the part of the insurgency, and struck ever more supposedly-secure targets. It is part of a years-old trend in the Taliban insurgency: by engaging in high-profile attacks on targets we assume to be safe, they are engaging in propaganda of the deed, of using their assaults to send a very deliberate message to the Afghan people: you are not safe, you are not secure, and the West cannot protect you. This has gone on for years now. It is not a secret.

Read the whole story here.

Video: Bloodlines Trailer | Crossway

I am very excited for this new book to be released later this month. It is written by a prominent pastor and gives his story of growing up within the religious but deeply racist south. It is an extremely important book and I think will be a great help to the church in combating some of the issues in our country today. It has application to how you treat your neighbors who only speak Spanish or how you treat the new family in your kid’s school who pray in a mosque on Friday. What does your faith as a Christian and the Gospel have to say about that situation?  Watch the short trailer below:

Reading Today’s Stories…9/10→

Today is a cool date: 9/10/11 (for those who use the American order of dating…I supposed for many in other parts of the world today is 10/9/11 and thus not quite as cool…well, next month you will have your 9/10/11)

Okay…on to some links for today:

Iran’s nuclear policy threatens itself first – The National

Have not posted much about Iran recently. This latest post is a good reminder that the ones who are really suffering from Iran’s abrasive foreign policy and nuclear program – that has isolated itself from many countries in its own region as well as around the world – are the Iranian people themselves. They are under a restrictive government that has forced the country to be subjected to sanctions that have farther restricted the economic development of the people. There are signs of life (the protests following the 2009 elections) but substantive change has not appeared on the horizon. Read the whole story here.

Making sense of 9/11 by Prince El Hassan bin Talal – Common Ground News Service 

I found this piece very well written. It comes from a Saudi prince and offers some insightful commentary on the mindset of many in the Middle East. Yes, young people in the Middle East look at situations and have much to critique about the United States. Especially when it comes to Palestine they feel their brothers and cousins are being wronged. Yet at the same time they look longingly at some elements of Western culture. Ideas like freedom and individuality. The ability to make your own decisions. The idea of a meritocracy. These concepts resonate with the massive youth population. His concluding thoughts are very interesting. It does not mean there must be a minimizing or denial of differences.

It is the acceptance of difference, which implies a freedom from fear, that any terrorist must surely fear most. Instead of fighting against “terror”, we should be fighting for optimism and hope.

Read the whole story here.

Republican Debate…summarized

Okay, so perhaps a bit of an oversimplification but a humorous look at a recent debate by GOP candidates.

Interrogation vs. Torture↓

Today’s article from Public Discourse is an excellent commentary on the issue of interrogation and torture. The author writes from her own experience working as an interrogator at Guantanamo Bay. She articulates that these two courses of intelligence gathering are antithetical. By no means does she minimize the value of interrogation. What she does hope to discredit is the false dichotomy of “security” and “humane treatment of detainees.” Instead she argues,

the real contrast is between torture, on the one hand, and security through interrogation consistent with respect for the humanity of the detainee, on the other.

The United States of America has consistently articulated that it stands as a defender of human freedoms and dignity. In the past ten years this has been called into question on multiple fronts, but none more significant than this issue. How can a country that claims to be a beacon of freedoms willfully degrade human dignity?

Torture does this on at least three different levels.

(1) Torture violates the dignity of the detainee.

(2) Torture degrades the integrity of the interrogator.

(3) Torture betrays the dignity of those who suffer from intelligence failures; this includes those who may be victims of otherwise preventable attacks.

When we think of this issue we often consider the first level – the dignity of the detainee. This is not very difficult to understand when we consider some of the methods of torture that have been employed.

One that is not – as often – considered is the damage that is done to the interrogator. We are employing and commissioning American men and women to act in ways that are truly inhumane. Not only in reference to the aggression and physical treatment but also on a psychological level. To commit these kinds of acts requires considering another human being as less than human. Once this is done nothing is off limits. This is the very mindset that we decry as despicable. As history illustrates when leaders – like Muammar Gaddafi or Saddam Hussein or Adolf Hitler – consider a people as non-human then unbelievable atrocities can be committed. This is not a path that the American public should be willing to walk. It is not a path that the American public should be will to force others to walk for us.

From the author’s experience interrogation was far more effective in gathering useful intelligence. In this approach the interrogator seeks to gather both a breadth and depth of information from the detainee rather than just reactionary surface information that is often extracted under torture. To do this the interrogator wants to understand who the person is and what they know.

As is true of any human being, a detainee is a unique, complex web of beliefs, values, behaviors, past experiences, relationships, loyalties, and culture which are carried around in the heart and mind. The information an interrogator wants is embedded in that web. To get at it, an interrogator must be able to find the most efficient and effective way to discern a route through the labyrinth of that web. From this the interrogator can find openings for rapport-oriented emotional connection and build on these.

In order to truly find out who the person is requires maintaining the humanness of that person. With these intact the interrogator is able to withdraw what the detainee values, is motivated by, and knows.

The author finally brings the discussion back to the upcoming presidential election. She feels that it is essential that the foreign policy articulated by the United States government is one that firmly supports interrogation but rejects torture. In this way the values of the American people are not forsaken in the efforts to ensure the safety of the nation. To violate your principles while fighting to secure them is an ignoble place to be.

Inspired by: Jennifer Bryson: My Guantanamo Experience: Support Interrogation, Reject Torture « Public Discourse