Saturday, February 19, 2011

Why Do Protests Ever Bring Down Governments?

The good folks over at the Monkey Cage -- such an awesome blog -- ask a question I've been wondering about myself.

First, who are the pivotal actors in society that can actually force a change in government? Clearly - as is the case in Egypt - the military is always a possible candidate here. But are there others? Party leaders? Key economic figures? Major civil society players? I guess part of what I'm wondering is is this explanation inevitably a story about the military? Or, put another way, will we look back on events in Egypt and describe what changed on Day 17 simply as the military deciding that Mubarak was now a liability, and little more than that?

The second factor this last proposition points to is what exactly is it that protesters can do that convinces these pivotal actors that a change in government is necessary? Is simply bad PR, e.g., protesters getting beaten or killed making it harder for the country to manage its international relations? Could it be more economic, e.g., shutting down commerce in a capital city for an extended period of time? Or might it actually be something more normatively pleasing, such as demonstrating to these pivotal actors that the regime no longer has the support of the people?

A UNC professor writes in to the Monkey Cage with an excellent observation on the nature of authoritarian regimes, and protests in these regimes.
The key to answer this question, I think, is to understand the basic nature of authoritarian rule. While the news media focus on "the dictator", almost all authoritarian regimes are really coalitions involving a range of players with different resources, including incumbent politicians but also other elites like businessmen, bureaucrats, leaders of mass organizations like labor unions and political parties, and, of course, specialists in coercion like the military or the security forces. These elites are pivotal in deciding the fate of the regime and as long as they continue to ally themselves with the incumbent leadership, the regime is likely to remain stable. By contrast, when these elites split and some defect and decide to throw in their lot with the opposition, then the incumbents are in danger.

So where do protests come in? The problem is that in authoritarian regimes there are few sources of reliable information that can help these pivotal elites decide whom to back. Restrictions on media freedom and civil and political rights limit the amount and quality of information that is available on both the incumbents and the opposition. Moreover, the powerful incentives to pay lip service to incumbent rulers make it hard to know what to make of what information there is. Rumor and innuendo thus play a huge role in all authoritarian regimes.

Read the whole thing.

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