The power of agitation

by Jonathan Pinckney, Maria J. Stephan

Talking about a revolution (Issue II/2020)

In December 2018, Sudan was rated one of the world’s most repressive nations. It’s dictatorial leader Omar al-Bashir was nominated by the National Congress Party to serve a third term as president, against the constitution. The assumption was that the necessary constitutional tweaks would be passed without any problems by the supine parliament. Bashir gained a reputation for being one of the world’s most brutal dictators and is held responsible for the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Sudanese citizens during the Darfur conflict in the mid-2000s. But everyone assumed that his regime would carry on indefinitely.

However, barely four months later, protests that had begun as complaints against rising petrol prices grew into a nationwide movement. This demanded al-Bashir’s overthrow and a transition to democracy. In April 2019 al-Bashir’s long-time supporters in the military renounced him, carried out a coup and arrested the dictator. But the protests continued after al-Bashir’s downfall, to put a stop to extended rule by the military, which finally agreed to share power with a civilian council and to open the path to a democratic transition. 

This unexpected outcome of the conflict was just the beginning of an extraordinary year that saw a host of campaigns throughout the world. Citizens rose up in large numbers to demand political change. These movements differ in terms of their particular demands and goals but they were all non-violent from the start. They called for public demonstrations, strikes and boycotts. Many of these movements achieved great change, as in Sudan. A burgeoning academic literature on the topic of non-violent action – also known as civil disobedience – helps us understand why some movements achieve great success, while others fail. 

Every movement has been shown to be most effective when it manages to mobilise the largest and broadest possible share of the populace to participate. Larger movements are generally much more successful than smaller ones, because greater numbers of participants bestow more legitimacy and heighten the disruptive power of the movement – the power to destroy something existing – thereby forcing decision-makers to react. This disruptive power can be especially effective if tactical measures are concentrated within a short timespan. As Martin Luther King said, non-violent direct action is most effective when it “seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension […] that it can no longer be ignored.” These crises and tensions that bring opposing sides to the negotiating table are all the more potent when people’s participation is greater and wider.

“Recourse to violence engenders more government repression”

But taking part is much more than just a question of numbers. In more wide-ranging movements, there’s a greater number of potential points of contact between the movement and its opponent. These points of contact can also be exploited to undermine the loyalty of groups faithful to the prevailing system, such as the military or police. Members of these institutions are often less inclined to support violent repression of a movement if they know that their friends and family members could fall victim to this suppression. For example, according to reports, security forces were unwilling to open fire on demonstrators during the so-called bulldozer revolution that forced the Serbian president Slobodan Milošević from power, because they knew that their children were among the protesters. This kind of shift in loyalty, particularly on the part of security forces, are often the decisive point at which governments have no choice but to give in to a movement’s demands.

When there are no meeting points between a movement and its opponents, perhaps because members of a movement are seen as separate from members of a regime due to perceived differences relating to ethnicity or other categories of identity, then pressure from outside can be significant. South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement, for instance, fought for decades to put pressure on the nation’s white-ruled government to get rid of racist laws and to make the country more democratic. But it wasn’t till the late 1980s and early ’90s that a combination of continuing domestic pressure and international boycotts brought the apartheid regime to the negotiating table. 

Civil society movements are often violently suppressed. In Sudan (2019) and Nicaragua (2018), demonstrators were shot by security forces and paramilitary groups. Because demonstrators can often react with counterviolence, some studies have found that recourse to violence on the part of demonstrators usually leads to heightened repression from the regime and consequently to fewer people demonstrating. More recent movements have taken specific steps to renounce violence. In Sudan, the key opposition groups (including those who had formerly taken up arms) have pledged to fight against al-Bashir’s regime non-violently. Members of the pro-democracy Hirak movement in Algeria gave out flyers featuring a code of behaviour based on a disciplined non-violence, to counter the violence of the regime and interference by agents provocateurs.

Another distinction between successful and failing movements is the ability to adapt to changing conditions. Non-violent action includes a huge range of tactics that enable diverse forms of participation, each tactic depending on the abilities and varying readiness of participants to take risks. Public protest in a repressive dictatorship like al-Bashir’s in Sudan won’t be to everyone’s liking, but in a flexible movement not everyone needs to take to the streets to make a contribution. For example, after months of street protests and increasingly violent confrontation with the police, Hong Kong’s current protest movement has broadly stepped back from public demonstrations and is now focusing its efforts on strikes and on boycotting pro-China businesses. This shift in tactics enables the movement to exert greater pressure on its opponents while at the same time limiting injuries suffered by its supporters at the hands of violent and repressive state authorities.

“In the middle of an uncertain process, it’s hard to sustain a collective vision”

Movements that stay focused on a collective, long-term vision for social and political transformation have also led to significant changes. In Sudan and Algeria, movements have successfully overthrown the countries’ authoritarian leaders, have kept up their mobilising efforts and demanded far-reaching changes, for example civilian control over the military. This has helped the movements to keep up pressure on the remnants of the old regimes to continue to engage in democratic reform. In contrast, the movement that forced Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak from office, during the 2011 Arab Spring, fell apart for reasons of faith and ideology almost as soon as Mubarak had gone. From being allies against a common enemy, left-wing students and Islamists from the Muslim Brotherhood became rivals arguing over different visions for Egypt’s future. This split in turn played into the hands of the Egyptian military, which used this to engineer a coup in June 2013 and once again establish an authoritarian regime, this time under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

As the Egyptian example shows, it’s a major challenge to sustain a collective vision within a diverse movement during the uncertainties of a political transition. For this challenge to be successfully met often requires a flair for negotiation and dialogue – as much among the various constituents of a movement as between the movement and those who oppose it.

Non-violent movements are extremely dynamic and which movement will be successful is hard to predict. To gain insight into a movement’s efficacy, we need fundamental knowledge not only of context but also of participants both within the movement and stakeholders within governing bodies. But when we look at movements of increasing size and diversity, with activities extending beyond street protests, that are practising non-violence and developing long-term ideas for the future, then it’s likely that we’ll be seeing significant changes in the future. 

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