Expert Commentary

People power or a one-shot deal? A dynamic model of protest

2013 study from Princeton and NYU on the nature of political revolutions and the possibility that upheaval can be a singular event, unlikely to be followed by more.

The Arab Spring brought sweeping, unprecedented political protests to the modern Middle East, with frustrated citizens engaging in traditional activism on the streets and digital activism online in a mass effort to topple repressive regimes. More than two years later, some initial optimism has faded and concern has set in as the region’s new governments continue to struggle: Egypt’s flailing economy prompted a devastating food and fuel shortage, followed by a military coup and massive violence against opposition protesters; Tunisia has seen a rise in political violence; and attacks in Libya continue to make headlines.

Will the poor record of the new governments prompt another Arab Spring and continuing upheaval? In a 2013 paper published in the American Journal of Political Science, scholars Adam Meirowitz of Princeton and Joshua A. Tucker of NYU examine the probability of new mass, revolutionary protests if new regimes turn out to be just as unsatisfying to citizens as old ones. In “People Power or a One-Shot Deal? A Dynamic Model of Protest,” the authors discuss why citizens might protest to remove a “bad” government at one point in time, but not in another, examining the varying effects that successful, costly protests have on the likelihood of citizens protesting similarly in the future.

What conditions make citizens more inclined to carry out repeated political protests instead of a “one-shot deal”? To answer this question, the authors create a stylized model to analyze what features of a country make citizens more or less likely to protest “bad” governments in the future after undertaking previous “costly efforts.”

Key insights from the model include:

  • “There is likely to be a fundamental difference between what happens following a protest that leads to regime change as opposed to one that leads merely to a change of government without changing the regime.”
  • “We are probably most likely to see a one-shot-deal scenario when the initial governments following a democratic transition are perceived as no better than the ones that preceded the transition.”
  • “The conditions that can lead to ‘one-shot-deals’ seem especially plausible in countries without much of a prior history of democracy, such as Egypt and the Ukraine,” because citizens of new democracies “are not just learning about the quality of their new leaders following a successful protest, but rather may be learning (or think they are learning) something fundamental about the universe of potential leaders in their country.”
  • “In contrast, citizens of established democracies face less uncertainty about this distribution and therefore do not conclude that things are hopeless after particular episodes of bad government.”
  • “Somewhat counterintuitively, then, repeated failures in attempting to remove governments from office may increase the likelihood of protest in the future more than actual success.” This is because leaving the same “bad” government in office “provides no new information for updating one’s beliefs about the universe of potential governments.”
  • “The size and strength of protests may increase over time in a non-democratic regime, but once the initial goal of removing the old regime from office is accomplished, the ability of prodemocracy forces to bring their supporters to the street may diminish significantly.”

The authors conclude that their model “does not deny that [an] optimistic chain of events can come to fruition,” but that there are circumstances that make such events more or less likely. If fledgling democracies observe that their new government is performing just as poorly as the old authoritarian regime, without other comparisons readily available, citizens may be inclined to conclude that all subsequent governments are similarly likely to fail. This, in turn, may lead them to believe that the cost of additional protests may not be worth it.

For additional reading on the Arab Spring, see “The Arab Spring and the Internet: Research roundup,” “Views on Democracy in the Muslim World: Pew Global Attitudes Project 2012 Report,” and “Social Media and the Decision to Participate in Political Protest: Observations From Tahrir Square.”

Tags: Middle East