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Lessons on building democracy after nonviolent revolutions

Why do some nonviolent revolutions end in democracy while others do not?

This article was first published on Waging Nonviolence.

Tahrir Square, Cairo, April 1 2011. Credit: Flickr/Lilian Wagdy via Wikimedia Commons. CC BY 2.0.

In 2011, Egypt began a political transition following a nonviolent revolution. There was tremendous optimism both from within the country and abroad that the transition was likely to lead to a democratic outcome. In 2014, Burkina Faso also began a political transition after a nonviolent revolution overthrew longtime authoritarian President Blaise Compaoré. While many admired the revolution, its unfavorable conditions — low levels of economic development and a region that was less conducive to democracy — made the prospects for democratic advancement less optimistic. Yet, today, Egypt is once again under autocratic rule, following a 2013 coup by General Abdel-Fatah al-Sissi. Popular mobilization defeated a similar coup in Burkina Faso in 2015, and the country has now had democratic elections, putting it on the road to a long-term sustainable democracy.

What explains these differences? Why do some nonviolent revolutions end in democracy while others do not? And is nonviolent resistance really that much of a factor in promoting democracy in the first place? These are the questions that I examine in a new monograph from ICNC press: When Civil Resistance Succeeds: Building Democracy after Nonviolent Uprisings. The monograph builds on statistical research into 78 political transitions initiated by nonviolent resistance from 1945 to 2011, as well as interviews and in-depth examination of three particular transitions: Brazil’s transition away from military rule in the 1980sZambia’s transition away from single party rule in the 1990s, and Nepal’s transition away from monarchy in the 2000s. It focuses first on building our understanding of these questions using the best tools of social science research, and second on generating practical lessons that activists, political leaders and external actors interested in helping promote democracy after nonviolent revolutions can apply to their own situations.

The first major takeaway from the research is that nonviolent resistance does encourage democratic progress, even in very unfavorable circumstances. Out of the 78 political transitions initiated by nonviolent resistance, 60 ended with at least a minimal level of democracy. This is a much higher proportion than political transitions initiated through any other means. This strengthens the findings of earlier research that found that nonviolent resistance led to more democracy than violent resistance.

The second major takeaway is that when nonviolent revolutions fail to lead to democracy, this typically happens because of two specific challenges, which I refer to as the challenges of transitional mobilization and street radicalism. If these challenges are successfully resolved, then democratic outcomes are much more likely. If they are not successfully resolved, then countries tend to revert to non-democratic regimes, or end up with a hybrid regime mixing some elements of democracy and autocracy.

The first challenge is transitional mobilization. Nonviolent revolutions typically involve very high levels of social mobilization, with huge numbers of people from all walks of life pushing for positive change. Yet often after an initial democratic breakthrough this mobilization significantly declines. This is a problem because establishing democracy involves much more than simply removing a dictator. There are many more milestones on the road to democracy, and if popular pressure isn’t there for each one of them, then transitions can easily become derailed.

I highlight three lessons for maintaining mobilization during transitions after nonviolent revolutions. The first is to foster independent sources of civic pressure. It is difficult during a political transition to keep independent civil society groups vibrant and pushing for the needs of ordinary people. Often groups that were independent from the state enter politics en masse during the transition, undermining their independent voice and becoming too focused on gaining power. Or they become too professionalized, often because of connection to international donors, losing their “movement” character and connection to ordinary people. Neither entering politics nor professionalization are inherently bad things, and often both can be very useful. But it is crucial to maintain some independent voices that can sustain or escalate pressure for the sake of democratic change.

The second lesson for maintaining mobilization is to not put too much faith in your leaders. There is a strong tendency in many movements to personalize one’s opponents as wholly evil and one’s own leaders as wholly good. This tendency can lead to a belief that if your leaders could only be in positions of power then democratic progress would naturally follow. But the sad truth is that even good people who have gone through great sacrifices as part of a movement can also be corrupted by power. So, during political transitions, when movement leaders may be entering positions of political power for the first time, it is critical that they are judged based on their actions not on their history.

The third lesson is to build and maintain a positive vision of the future. Pro-democracy movements often focus on negative goals to mobilize people against dictators. It can be easier to unite a diverse coalition around getting rid of a particularly hated leader, rather than having hard conversations about what the future will look like once the leader is gone. But having those hard conversations is crucial because, once the hated leader or regime is gone, people need a reason to continue to engage in activism.

The second challenge is preventing what I call street radicalism. This challenge is in some ways the mirror image of the challenge of transitional mobilization. Nonviolent revolutions can provide strong signals that the tools of nonviolent political action can be wielded powerfully to achieve particular political goals. In the uncertainty of a political transition, this often means that there is a breakdown in building new regular avenues of politics and a common return to the streets. New institutions are delegitimized, and factions focus on using the most extreme tactics of nonviolent (and sometimes violent) resistance to gain short-term power advantages.

Street radicalism during transitions can prevent new institutions from forming, disrupt the creation of normal politics, and often lead to an authoritarian resurgence as ordinary people get fed up with the disruptions and uncertainty of politics. For example, in 2006 a primarily nonviolent resistance movement ousted Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. In the following years, back and forth campaigns by Shinawatra’s “Red Shirt” supporters and their “Yellow Shirt” opponents severely undermined Thailand’s economic and political stability, leading to a 2014 military coup that ended the country’s democracy and has led to a dictatorship ruled over by former General Prayut Chanocha.

The first lesson on preventing street radicalism is to be careful when using highly disruptive protest tactics. Nonviolent resistance has many important “weapons” in its arsenal that can be very effective in disrupting social, economic and political life. This is what makes it a potent way of fighting injustice and oppression. But when these tools are deployed for selfish ends, or called upon too readily when new political institutions are still weak, they can backfire. Short-term gains achieved through disruption often rebound against the activists gaining them as ordinary people’s lives are destabilized.

The second lesson is to focus mobilization on new institutional channels. Political regimes, to be stable over the long-term, need to develop regular norms of interaction and participation. Movements can help to direct these norms in a democratic direction by focusing activism on institutional channels. For instance, one major feature of most political transitions is the writing of a new constitution. Activism can focus on directing the rules of that constitution towards expanding freedoms and human rights protections, setting up an institutional environment that can protect democracy for a long time to come.

The third lesson is to not shut out everyone from the old regime. Accountability for past crimes, particularly grievous human rights abuses, is central to any meaningful democratic tradition. But often the focus in political transitions moves beyond accountability to punishment and vindictiveness towards all those associated with the old regime. This creates a whole class of political players who have political skills but now no way of exercising them, and no reason to buy into the new democratic politics. They can thus often turn into a potent force seeking to undermine new democratic politics and preventing the creation of new institutions.

Maintaining mobilization and preventing street radicalism certainly aren’t the only challenges that political transitions after nonviolent revolutions face. Specific countries have their own unique challenges related to any number of different aspects of democratic progress. I focus on these challenges for two reasons. First, we see their dynamics across many different kinds of contexts. Second, they are characteristics of political transitions that are most open to change by those interested in promoting democracy.

It is important to emphasize as well that these lessons are meant to inform, rather than to limit, the choices that activists and politicians make during political transitions. There is no simple recipe for creating democracy after a nonviolent revolution, and the ways that these challenges, general as they are, will develop in particular countries will vary widely.

Nor does the successful resolution of these challenges necessarily guarantee that one’s country will remain a robust democracy indefinitely into the future. For instance, while Brazil’s transition in the 1980s was a good example of both high mobilization and low street radicalism, recent years have brought significant challenges to that country’s democracy, captured most recently by the election to the presidency of far-right populist Jair Bolsonaro. However, getting a country through the uncertainty of a political transition through high mobilization and low street radicalism tends to put countries on a stronger path towards a freer and more democratic future.

About the author

Jonathan Pinckney is a post-doctoral research fellow in political science at the Norwegian University of Technology and Science (NTNU). He studies nonviolent resistance, democratic transitions and political violence.


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