Over the past few years we’ve grown used to the iconography of protest. In the wake of the Arab Spring, images of angry young street demonstrators shouting slogans, wielding signs, and confronting security forces have become almost commonplace. But just as often we’ve seen campaigns of public protest flounder or go into reverse: just look at Egypt and Libya, to name the most prominent cases. The recent surge of street demonstrations in Sudan once again confronts us with a fundamental question: How does public protest undermine authoritarian governments? Are demonstrations really the key to toppling autocrats?
Research shows, in fact, that demonstrations are just one of many tools that civil resistance movements can use to effect change. Successful movements are those that use a wide array of methods to pressure their state opponents while keeping their activists safe. The demonstration tactic we’re used to seeing is just one of many hundreds of tactics available to civilians seeking change — and successful campaigns for change must use more than just a single tactic.
Maria Stephan and I conducted research on a related but broader question: “When does civil resistance work?” The results of our research show that opposition campaigns are successful when they manage to do three key things: (1) attract widespread and diverse participation; (2) develop a strategy that allows them to maneuver around repression; and (3) provoke defections, loyalty shifts, or disobedience among regime elites and/or security forces.