PRIO Has the Leading Experts on Protests

How does a country’s security apparatus react to a protest movement?

And what happens in the aftermath of successful protests?

PRIO is conducting three major research projects about protest movements, securing its position as an international leader in this field.

Photo: Artemas Liu / Wikimedia Commons

In 2019, the world experienced a surge of non-violent protest movements. Such movements have spearheaded the removals of illegitimate heads of state. For example, a protest movement in Sudan removed Al-Bashir after 30 years in power, and in November, a protest movement in Bolivia succeeded in deposing Morales. What is still unclear about these “successful” protests is what will happen afterwards. Experiences from the Arab Spring, now almost 10 years ago, give grounds for somewhat restrained optimism.

Although a protest movement may overturn a regime, democratization is not the inevitable result. The Arab Spring illustrates how hopes of democracy in the wake of mass mobilization are not always satisfied. While Tunisia has made major steps towards democracy, Egypt has moved in the wrong direction.

The Autumn of 2019 has clarified that there is a need for more knowledge about mass mobilizations and non-violent protests. Why, when and how do such protests occur? Why are some more successful than others? The media frequently returns to these questions.

PRIO has long been at the forefront of research on protest movements. This became even clearer when the Research Council of Norway granted us funding in December 2019 for a major new research project: Mobilizing for and Against Democracy. The project’s goal is to investigate why some movements succeed in introducing greater democracy, while others fail. We intend to answer this question by looking in detail at the social groups involved in mass mobilizations.

“This new project makes PRIO unique”, says PRIO’s Research Director, Håvard Mokleiv Nygård. “PRIO already has two major projects in this area: Securing the Victory and Street-level Autocrats. With this new project, PRIO will house three major projects that simultaneously are investigating mass mobilizations and protests. As a result, we will have a large team of leading experts in the field. This is something that no other research institution can boast of, either nationally or internationally.”

In order to gain insight into what this research is about, we spoke to some of the researchers involved in these three projects: Marianne Dahl and Sirianne Dahlum are both senior researchers at PRIO. In addition, we interviewed Professor Carl-Henrik Knutsen of the University of Oslo, who is also a senior researcher at PRIO.

2019: An unusual wave of protests

The protest movement of 2019 may have been the biggest wave of non-violent mass mobilizations in history.

“The number of movements taking place at the same time is not that surprising,” says Marianne Dahl. “Namely, it’s not unusual for protests to come in waves, as we saw last autumn. Mass protest movements learn from each other, and at the same time give each other inspiration. People can find courage and strength in the fact that people in different countries, but who are facing challenges similar to their own, are successfully mobilizing tens of thousands or millions of people against a regime.”

But why do these waves happen when they do?

“That is less clear. As a rule, mass mobilizations have their roots in long-standing problems. The protests in Chile started when the authorities increased the price of metro tickets. But ticket prices had already risen 17 times in 10 years. What was it this time that caused people to have had enough? Existing research provides no satisfactory answers about why protests and waves of protests occur when they do. A possible explanation is that the triggering factors could be quite random,” explains Dahl.

Research so far shows clearly that large, non-violent demonstrations are more likely to be successful than violent actions. What we do not know so much about is the internal dynamics within the protest movements themselves, and not least the dynamics between the military and the demonstrators. This is precisely the focus of the Street-level Autocrats project.

“Many protests succeed because the military change sides, but we don’t know why these shifts in loyalty occur. Examples of this include Romania and East Germany in 1989, and Egypt and Tunisia in 2011. To contribute to increasing knowledge about this, the project will collect novel data mapping the behaviour of armed forces during mass mobilizations,” says Dahl.

“We will not only capture instances of armed forces as a whole changing sides, but also instances of smaller-scale support for protests, for example where individual soldiers change sides, or refuse to obey an order to shoot.”

“One such example was the unrest in Romania in 1989,” explains Dahl. “After seven days of protests, the defence minister ordered a withdrawal of the armed forces. This marked the end of Ceaușescu’s 22-year dictatorship. Although the actual order was decisive for the outcome, earlier events are likely to have forced the defence minister’s hand. During the seven days of protests, we saw scenes of soldiers and protesters embracing each other. It is highly likely that the defence minister had no choice other than to withdraw the forces in order to avoid a split within the military.”

“In order to understand these types of dynamics, for the first time, Street-level Autocrats will map the actions of individual soldiers and their support for demonstrators. We want to understand more about the dynamics within security forces and between demonstrators and security forces, and accordingly improve our understanding of the outcomes of protests.”

Who is supporting the protests?

In contrast to Street-level Autocrats, which focuses on the response of a country’s security apparatus to demonstrations, Mobilizing for and Against Democracy and Securing the Victory take a more long-term perspective. Indeed, Sirianne Dahlum’s research focuses on the social groups involved in non-violent and violent protests: Who are the people taking to the streets? Are some groups more successful than others? One of the main objects of Securing the Victory is to survey who is protesting, and what they want to achieve.

“When I read about protest movements in the media, they are often presented as a homogeneous group that is fighting against the regime, apparently with the protesters always wanting to achieve greater democracy. This is a misunderstanding,” says Sirianne Dahlum. “In any protest movement there will be countless groups that are protesting to achieve different goals. Some of these groups will want greater democracy, while others may want something completely different. In order to understand the outcome of a protest movement, and what happens afterwards, it is important to have an overview of who the demonstrators are, the nature of their goals, and what organizations are involved.”

“Greater knowledge about who is protesting enables us to say much more about the potential of different groups to contribute to promoting democracy. This can help external actors to decide which (if any) groups should be supported, and to ascertain the extent to which the campaign is actually being run by proponents of democracy.”

Tactics and social background

Like Dahlum, Carl Henrik Knutsen is interested in understanding the differences between the different actors who are active in a movement. He wants to look at those protesting against a regime, but also at those supporting it.

“I’m interested in investigating both what kinds of preferences the different groups have, and also what resources they have at their disposal. In my opinion, the tactics employed will differ depending on who is doing the protesting. Members of the urban middle class, for example, will probably use different tactics and resources, and have different interests, than industrial workers and farmers.”
These issues are the starting point for the third project that PRIO has gained funding for: Mobilizing for and Against Democracy.

“We can think of protest movements as a kind of game between different social groups, where the winner is the group that ultimately gets to govern the social structure, and that gets to decide what rules must be followed. The nature of the institutions that come into being will be linked not only to the nature of the groups that have power, but also to the identity of those exerting pressure from the outside to change the regime,” explains Knutsen. “There is good reason to believe that the nature of the institutions that come into place after a dictator has been deposed, and the functioning of the new regime, will depend on who had the greatest success in the actual protest movement and the transitional phase following the protests.”

There are already case studies that attempt to understand this dynamic between groups in a society and how this dynamic influences the society’s politics. The researchers in Mobilizing for and Against Democracy want to make this understanding more generally applicable, both by conducting a systematic gathering of data to allow comparisons between different countries and eras, and also by improving theoretical knowledge.

For example, the project aims to find out which groups will succeed best in achieving the most democracy. Provisional data show, for example, that when industrial workers are dominant in a protest movement, there is a much greater likelihood of democratization afterwards (see the article by Knutsen, Dahlum and Wig in the Washington Post, or their research article). This finding is important, because it deviates from earlier findings, which have often highlighted the urban middle classes as being particularly important for achieving democratization.”

“This illustrates the importance of the work that will be undertaken in these various projects,” says Knutsen. “By improving theoretical knowledge, we can see which existing theories and assumptions are robust, and which need to be revised.”

In addition, Dahl, Dahlum and Knutsen all emphasize that these three major projects together will gather large quantities of new data from different eras and different countries. The data will provide the key to answering many previously unanswered questions, also for other research projects.

  • Translation from Norwegian: Fidotext
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