Find pathways beyond mass protests

Protests that took place in Egypt last month. (Mohamed Abd El Ghany)

Protests that took place in Egypt last month. (Mohamed Abd El Ghany)

The last half-year has seen a startling cluster of protests around the world, including Algeria, Bolivia, Catalonia, Chile, Ecuador, Egypt, France, Georgia, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Iraq, Lebanon, Russia, Sudan and the United Kingdom. These follow on the heels of protests in many other countries over the past five years or so.

The protests involve a wide range of citizens, including people that were previously not politically active. The revolts are increasingly a primary route through which people seek to bring about social, political and economic transformation.

But there is a major problem with such protests.

In the heat of revolt, local people’s involvement is high in energy and creativity. Civic and political organisations dedicate themselves to debating tactics and aims. International media attention is intense. Governments debate with urgency how to respond as citizens take to the streets. But once a protest dies down, all this political, media and diplomatic attention tends to evaporate.

This is a serious shortcoming because what happens in the period immediately after a protest is vitally important. When a protest ends, activists and governments take decisions and formulate strategies that will influence the next phase of a country’s possible reform process.

Some of the current protests, such as those in Algeria and Hong Kong, have kept going for an incredibly long time. But all protests eventually begin to disband or scale back. This is the moment when protestors need to make difficult decisions. Do they simply disengage from politics or build new types of civic campaigns? Do they move into existing political parties, build their own outfits or steer clear of mainstream politics? How do they retain and build a capacity to remobilise at the right moment in the future? How do they protect themselves from the government repression that may follow in the protests’ wake? These are the kinds of decisions that determine whether mass protests lead to deep-seated change or are merely high-octane ephemera.

Yet such post-protest dilemmas typically garner little debate. In recent years, analysts, journalists, civil society activists and international organisations have given much attention to protests — this debate has helped protests to evolve, often in highly effective ways. But there is a pressing need to devote equal attention to the aftermath of a protest. This is when any gains made by a revolt can either move to a higher political level or wither away.

Post-protest pathways

Post-protest strategies can lead to one of three outcomes. Protests can serve as a platform for long-term political reform; they can fizzle out leaving little legacy in their wake; or they can be counter-productive in triggering a regime clampdown.

A new report from the Carnegie Endowment For International Peace, with centres in Washington DC, Moscow, Beirut, Beijing, Brussels, and New Delhi, includes case studies that uncover the factors and decisions that determine which of these outcomes prevail. Although many celebrate the supposedly leaderless nature of protests, reformers need to develop some kind of institutionalised decision-making processes and capacities. The nimbleness of contemporary protest movements is rightly celebrated as being crucial to their power. Yet what works as an asset in the midst of a protest can easily become a liability in the period when activists need to devise longer-term reform programmes and seek to turn the disparate energy of a revolt into a more tailored political strategy.

Another factor is whether protestors can stay united. Internal divisions readily appear among reformers once the unifying adrenalin of street action fades. When this happens, regimes find it easier to avoid or even reverse reforms after protests die down. To maintain civic momentum, activists need to look beyond the means of effective direct action and consider how to build bridges between the diverse range of actors involved in all of today’s protests. Where this happens, as in Tunisia, political reform is more likely to put down roots than where it does not, as in Zimbabwe for example.

After protest peaks, protestors also need to build a wider set of alliances in their countries or they may find themselves isolated from other sectors also ostensibly in favour of change. This often means they need to develop some kind of relationship with mainstream politics. In most cases protestors struggle with this, but there are examples where the move from protest to politics has been more successful, such as Taiwan’s Sunflower movement.

In some countries, the most serious challenge is for reformers to avoid the draconian repression that follows a protest. Some prominent activists have to lie low to avoid government attacks, and yet often they succeed in finding more covert ways to remain active in human rights issues. In some cases, such as Egypt, they are working hard to find ways to do this, relabelling their activities and waiting for opportune moments to re-engage with more political strategies.

Where protests succeed in dislodging a regime, the post-protest period is no less important. In these cases, the most pressing dilemma is how to avoid co-option. Protestors will nearly always be forced to work with members of the “old guard” who can easily hijack a democratic transition. Armenia, Algeria and Sudan are cases where civil society reformers need to maintain their current co-operation with new government figures while also retaining independence and an ability to mobilise again if democratisation falters.

The international dimension

These considerations are pertinent to the role that international actors can play in the post-protest period. When protests are in full-flow, outside actors need to move with the utmost caution. Regimes can easily smear protests with being engineered by outside powers. Western governments have been tepid in their responses to the Hong Kong protests, for example, because of their desire not to endanger commercial relations with China. But there are also sound tactical reasons for not getting too heavily involved in the middle of a protest.

International pressure can be more productive in the period after protests. Outside actors such as the European Union and the United Nations can help bring different actors together to develop post-protest strategies. They can facilitate the sharing of information between protestors in different countries. They can also fund projects to improve co-operation between protestors and the formalised nongovernmental organisation sector.

International groups can provide protestors with technical assistance on how to move into party politics, evade repression and link with different kinds of civic activism. And they can aim to ensure that mass revolts are one integral part of their support for other areas of social, economic and political transformation.

As a protest dims, the international community can and should step up its involvement. Yet in practice donors and international organisations can all too easily have their focus drawn away to the next emergency situation as soon as the current revolt no longer dominates the headlines.

It is difficult not to be moved by what activists in Hong Kong and elsewhere have achieved in recent months. But it is important to keep in mind that it is when the crowds go home that a lot of the really decisive politics and power broking happens. The post-protest moment may not be as dramatic as the heat of a demonstration, but it is of vital importance in influencing whether protests are ultimately meaningful and whether their effect is positive or less benign for democracy.

This is an area of civil society action that still needs considerable rethinking and fine-tuning. The calming of a protest should not be treated as an end-point but as the preparatory beginning of a new phase of political activism.

This article first appeared on Open Democracy

Richard Youngs

Richard Youngs

Richard Youngs is a senior fellow in the Democracy, Conflict, and Governance Program, based at Carnegie Europe and professor of international relations at the University of Warwick. Read more from Richard Youngs

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