Recent protests in the Middle East and North Africa, as well as protests a decade earlier in East Central Europe, have peaked public interest while raising concerns about the potential for democracy protests to catalyze major reforms in governance. Although the number of protests that occurred in these periods was remarkable, democracy protests are not a new phenomena, but rather have come and gone throughout history. In some cases, the potential of these protests has been realized and significant reforms have resulted, while in others, the protests have been repressed and hopes of a more democratic future have been crushed. To shed light on these issues, the five Ws of democracy protests—namely what are democracy protests, who organizes and participates in these protests, when and where are democracy protests more likely to emerge, and why do these protests matter—are discussed.
Risa A. Brooks
The protests that began in Tunisia in December 2010, and quickly spread across the Arab world, have drawn significant attention to the impact of militaries and coercive institutions on protests and revolutionary movements. The actions of the militaries were a central determinant of the outcomes of the uprisings of 2010–2011. In Tunisia and Egypt the decision by military leaders to abstain from using force on mass protests to suppress them led to the downfall of the countries’ autocrats. In Syria and Bahrain, militaries defended political leaders with brutal force. In Yemen and Libya, militaries fractured, with some units remaining allied to the leader and using force on his behalf and others defecting. In still other states, leaders and militaries were able to forestall the emergence of large, regime-threatening protests. To explain these divergent outcomes, scholars and analysts have looked to a variety of explanatory factors. These focus on the attributes of the militaries involved, their civil-military relations, the size and social composition of the protests, the nature of the regime’s institutions, and the impact of monarchical traditions. These explanations offer many useful insights, but several issues remain under-studied. These include the impact of authoritarian learning and diffusion on protest trajectory. They also include the endogeneity of the protests to the nature of a country’s civil-military relations (i.e., how preexisting patterns of civil-military relations affected the possibility that incipient demonstrations would escalate to mass protests). Scholars also have been understandably captivated by the aforementioned pattern of military defection-loyalty, focusing on explaining that observed difference at the expense of studying other dependent variables. The next generation of scholarship on the uprisings therefore would benefit from efforts to conceptualize and investigate different aspects of variation in military behavior. Overall, the first-generation literature has proved enormously useful and laid the foundation for a much richer understanding of military behavior and reactions to popular uprisings in the Arab world and beyond.
Karen A. Rasler
There is an argument that nonviolent civil resistance or protest campaigns should be studied as dynamic and complex phenomenon, rather than a single case comprised of various attributes, such as size, scale, and scope, which are then compared with other cases. As protest campaigns have increased all over the world during the last few years, international relations scholars have begun to devote more time and resources to studying them systematically with new data projects and analytical tools and methods. In light of this emerging research program, one needs to understand that protest campaigns contain large-scale processes of political contention that evolve across time and space. Such evolutionary processes are the result of the interactive relationships among multiple governmental and nongovernmental actors. These interactions reflect “highly interdependent sets of actions and reactions” that generate causal mechanisms and intersect with other large-scale processes which can produce similar and dissimilar outcomes across different political contexts. An argument will be advanced that a “relational mechanisms-process” approach articulated by McAdam, Tarrow, and Tilly provides analytical leverage over such complexity. Most, international relations scholars, unlike social movement scholars, are not familiar with this approach. So, the effort herein is to not only make the case for a relational mechanisms-process approach but also to illustrate it with a partial analysis of the Egyptian uprising on January 25, 2011, which led to Mubarak’s resignation. The end result is a call for theoretical and empirical research that bridges two communities of scholars, one that is dominated by sociologists (social movement scholars) and the other that is dominated by political science (international relations political violence scholars).