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What explains success or failure in the Arab Spring?

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Published in collaboration with the Peace Science Digest, which summarizes and reflects on current academic research in the field of peace and conflict studies.

Seven years after the blossoming of the so-called Arab Spring, the results of numerous civil resistance movements across the Middle East and North Africa region are mixed. Scholars have studied these cases to discern precisely what might explain success in some cases and failure in others. In an articled titled, “How Civil Resistance Succeeds (or Not): MicroDynamics of Unity, Timing, and Escalatory Actions,” published in Peace & Change, Isabel Bramsen contributes to this emerging body of knowledge on civil resistance in the region by comparing the cases of Tunisia and Bahrain. The former stands out as perhaps the lone case of successful and sustainable regime change and the latter as an uprising that was suppressed before it could come to fruition. What accounts for these divergent outcomes — for whether, in the author’s words, “civil resistance is successful or silenced”?

Bramsen starts by examining prevalent explanations for the success or failure of civil resistance, both in the Arab Spring and more generally. She argues that such prominent explanations as the maintenance of nonviolent discipline, previous organizational capacity, and military defections — and civil-military relations more broadly — are insufficient for explaining the divergent outcomes in these particular cases, as well as the variation within each case over time (in other words, why repression may have failed at one point but effectively suppressed a movement at another).

Instead, employing a theoretical framework developed by Randall Collins, Bramsen focuses on the interactive dimensions of the struggle between a civil resistance movement and the regime it opposes to explain why some movements succeed and some fail. Applying this theoretical lens, she conducted interviews in 2015 with a variety of (mostly) activists — prominent and ordinary, rural and urban, female and male, those who threw stones and those who adhered to nonviolent discipline — from Tunisia and Bahrain, while also drawing on reports, news articles, earlier scholarship on these cases, and YouTube videos.

Through her analysis she finds the following: In Tunisia, the violent repression of the uprising in late 2010 and early 2011 only further unified and energized the protest movement across the country, providing it with greater momentum that eventually contributed to a deterioration of regime cohesion; therefore, when the movement escalated with a massive demonstration on a major street outside the Ministry of Interior, it was from a position of strength and momentum for the movement and at a moment of division and uncertainty for the regime, leading to Ben Ali’s departure.

In Bahrain, the initial violent repression of the movement in early 2011 had a similar unifying and energizing effect, with activists of different stripes, as well as Sunnis and Shias, coming together against a common enemy. The regime’s shift in tactics after a few days, however, pulling out of the Pearl Roundabout (the center of protest activity) and generally allowing the demonstrations to proceed, allowed divisions within the movement to emerge, both between revolutionary and reformist contingents and along sectarian lines — despite some concerted effort on the part of the movement to be decidedly non-sectarian.

A few weeks later, when some segments of the movement decided to escalate with a blockade of the financial district, it was from a position of disunity, without widespread Sunni participation and without the participation of the biggest opposition party. The entrance of Saudi forces the next day and the regime’s crackdown against the movement and clearing of the Pearl Roundabout within the next two days had an important psychological effect on the movement in this context, “emotionally dominat[ing] the protesters.”

Bramsen argues more generally, therefore, that the success of a civil resistance movement depends on the movement’s maintenance of “unity and coherence” while “challeng[ing] the cohesion of the opponent” — where these are influenced by the regime’s “repressive strategies” and the timing of the movement’s escalation, namely whether or not it is undertaken while the movement has momentum. Based on these findings, she urges activists to consider the timing of escalatory activities carefully, planning them for moments of “cohesion and momentum.”

Contemporary relevance

This research reminds us that the success of civil resistance movements does not depend on the mere presence or absence of seemingly static factors like organizational capacity or a disgruntled military but rather on the timing of movement and regime actions and the dynamic interaction between them. This reminder is relevant to current movements around the world and should be encouraging insofar as it means that no movement is a lost cause just because it lacks one of the purported factors of success. Instead, what matters is strategy and a certain perceptiveness when it comes to relations and interactions between the movement and its opponents.

The findings here recall those of Robert J. Burrowes in his 1996 book, “The Strategy of Nonviolent Defense: A Gandhian Approach,” where he emphasizes the prime importance of a nonviolent movement strengthening its own unity and cohesion and weakening the adversary’s. In effect, this means that what matters are not the “weapons” one has at one’s disposal (whether these are actual or symbolic) but rather the effect these “weapons” have on one’s own and one’s opponents’ will to continue struggling.

In this sense, we can better understand how a regime’s choice to violently repress a civil resistance movement can actually have the opposite effect from that intended, strengthening the ability of the movement to continue resisting by unifying multiple social groups around it and reinforcing their will to resist. At the same time, to the extent that violent repression is used against clearly unarmed activists, this repression can itself weaken the unity of the regime and therefore its will and power to continue opposing the movement; the growing cohesion and unity of the civil resistance movement can also sway members/supporters of the regime to the movement’s side as they become convinced of its viability and promise or even just become swept up in its fervor. In short, current movements can use these findings to recall the fluidity and malleability of seemingly fixed power structures and social groups, and use these to their advantage.

Practical implications

Based on these findings, civil resistance activists should keep the following considerations central to their strategizing. First, activists should choose nonviolent tactics based not only on what will withdraw sources of power from the regime but also on what they think will either best strengthen their own movement’s broad-based cohesion or best weaken the cohesion of the adversary, while noting the general importance of employing a diversity of tactics (of both concentration and dispersion, depending on the level of risk).

Second, as noted by Bramsen, activists should choose the timing of escalations carefully, being mindful of the risk of escalating when they do not enjoy sufficient unity or momentum. On the other hand, a well-timed escalation — when the movement enjoys peak participation numbers and diversity — could prove decisive.

Third, activists should resist the urge to see the opponent as monolithic and rather should try to see and relate with the opponent as a diverse group, many contingents of whom could potentially be peeled away from the opponent core, ultimately depleting it of its power.

To subscribe or download the full special issue on “nonviolent resistance,” which includes additional resources for each article, visit their website.