Protest Movements as Political Strategy


By Ben West

Recent protests throughout Sudan are the latest in an ongoing trend of protest movements around the world, from Muslim Brotherhood supporters in Egypt to oil workers in Norway and opposition parties in Thailand. Protests have proved an effective strategy against autocratic regimes, political repression and austerity measures. As with insurgency strategy, protests rely on underlying support from the population rather than on superior weapons. Both insurgency and protests are forms of asymmetric opposition in which the insurgents or protesters cannot succeed by using force to overwhelm the state but must find (or create) and exploit specific weaknesses of the state.

However, protest movements are not as aggressive as insurgencies. Violence is integral to insurgent strategy, but protest movements may be simply a negotiation tactic to extract concessions from a state or a corporation. Strikes are one of the most common forms of protest used to leverage labor resources for higher wages or more benefits. Thousands of protests, such as strikes, occur around the world every week. Most are small and insignificant outside the protesters’ community. In order to address the geopolitical importance of protest movements, this analysis will focus on protests intended to create political change.

Sometimes protests can spur insurgencies. In the case of Syria, civilians congregated in the streets and public places to call for political change. As the state’s responses became increasingly violent, elements of the movement formed a militia that began a parallel insurgency. As violence escalated in Syria, insurgent tactics eventually replaced protest tactics.

Not all protests evolve into insurgencies, though. Some are repressed by the regime, while others are able to achieve their objectives through other means. The ultimate challenge of analyzing protest movements is to distinguish between movements that could successfully change the order of a country and movements that fizzle after grabbing a few headlines. Stratfor distinguishes the two by looking at the tactics a given group of protesters uses and the strategic imperatives of the state against which the protesters are demonstrating.

Protest Tactics

Protest movements usually start with far fewer resources and far less organization than the established entity against which they are protesting. They are fighting an asymmetric battle against a state that has far more resources to use against protesters. For example, the April 6 movement that was behind Egypt’s 2011 protests got its name from April 6, 2008, the day Egyptian authorities clamped down on a fledgling political youth movement with a series of arrests. The Egyptian state was able to end the 2008 protest movement relatively quietly; this is how most protest movements end.

Those groups that do survive must have a fluid yet responsive organizational capability, and they must control the perception of what they — and their opponents — stand for.


Organizing protests becomes increasingly dangerous as the movement becomes more successful. Most authorities will tolerate a certain amount of activism because it is seen as a way to let off steam. They appease the protesters by letting them think that they are making a difference — as long as the protesters do not pose a threat. But as protest movements grow, authorities will act more aggressively to neutralize the organizers. Sincere protest movements may prove successful if they can survive a round of arrests, a baton charge from the police or a counterprotest from government supporters.

Another element to look for in protest organization is the unity of message. Using the same slogans and carrying mass-produced signs, especially if the protesters are in multiple cities, shows a level of unity that indicates a single organizer, whether that be an individual or a committee. The centralization of a protest movement is key because it means better coordination and swifter decision-making in response to obstacles. And later on, if the protest movement is successful, there is an individual or small group of individuals who can exploit the power generated by the protest movement for political gains.

The level of discipline shown by the members is another important indicator of a movement’s organization. It is absolutely critical that a protest movement maintain the moral high ground; otherwise it is too easy for their opponents to smear the protesters as thieves, thugs or hooligans. Once protest movements number in the tens or hundreds of thousands it is impossible for organizers to enforce discipline themselves. However, organizers can recognize the importance of discipline and instill a zero-violence rule across the movement, while relying on grassroots security efforts to enforce it.

Protest movements become successful when large groups of people gather, yet abstain from the obvious power they have to loot, steal or commit other crimes in the chaos of street protests. That abstention shows discipline, and discipline indicates control over what is effectively a civilian army.


In the beginning, protest organizers must overcome the authorities’ attempts to disperse the movement as well as the movement’s initial lack of legitimacy. Protest movements typically start small and represent a fringe opinion. In order to increase the movement’s numbers, organizers have to convince others that their interests are best pursued through protest. One way to do this is to make the smaller demonstrations appear larger in order to convince people that the protests represent the interest of more of a majority.

Protest movements often frame their demonstrations to make them appear larger. If a protest only has a few hundred people, it will look small and insignificant huddled in the middle of a massive central square. It will look much more formidable walking down a narrow, winding street that conceals the length of their procession and amplifies their noise. This doesn’t mean that protest movements demonstrating on narrow, winding streets are necessarily small, but if they are, it is likely someone skillfully picked an appropriate venue for their demonstration. Knowing when and where to demonstrate indicates the sophistication of a protest movement.

Many times, the availability of imagery of a protest indicates how media savvy a protest movement is. A sophisticated movement will alert the media ahead of a demonstration to ensure it is broadcast — more sophisticated movements will make sure to provide symbolic images for the media to disperse. A good example of this is when Iranian students breached the perimeter of the British Embassy in Tehran in November 2011. Dozens of journalists and cameramen (many with pre-positioned tripods) were on hand to record the symbolic moment. In that case, the actual breach did not cause much damage, but the degree to which Iranian authorities flaunted their disregard for embassy security eventually led to the British abandoning the mission. Imagery of protest scenes is crucial to analysis of a protest; if the scenes are set up well, it’s likely someone organized it that way to ensure the message got out.

Perception becomes reality when fear of the regime evaporates. Despotic regimes rule through fear, and when demonstrators lose their fear of the regime and begin to realize that they have power to make changes, the protests often can make some quick progress — as seen with the rapid fall of former Romanian President Nicolae Ceausescu in 1989. However, this loss of fear does not always guarantee success; the government sometimes can drastically increase violence to counter protesters’ lack of fear – as seen in Tiananmen Square in 1989. In the Syrian uprising in 1982, fear of the regime never evaporated, and the movement was quickly and firmly put down in a few weeks. In the Syrian opposition’s current iteration, the fear of the regime has been broken, and the movement has persisted for more than a year.

Pillars of the State

Once the tactics of a protest movement have been assessed as organized and sophisticated, it’s time to assess strategic weaknesses of the state that the movement can attack. Governments rule by controlling key pillars of society, through which they exercise authority over the population. These pillars include security forces (police and military), the judicial system, civil services and unions. If the protest movement is trying to overthrow the government and not just extract concessions, the movement will work to undermine the pillars of the state. Removing the support of one or more of these pillars will erode a government’s power until it can no longer effectively govern, at which point protest movements can begin assuming institutional control.

It’s important then to assess the key pillars of the government that a protest movement is targeting. Stratfor has done this in Syria by identifying the al-Assad clan, Alawite unity, supremacy of the Baath party and control over the military-intelligence apparatus as the key pillars of the Syrian state. The Syrian opposition may employ the most sophisticated tactics possible, but unless those tactics erode one or more of those pillars, the government can continue to exercise power over the state.


Finally, when considering the overall impact of a protest movement, context is crucial. Some states have a higher tolerance for protests than others. Typically, open democratic states tolerate protests more than closed repressive states because security is not as crucial a pillar in open states as it is in closed states. For example, Thailand regularly sees protests with participants numbering in the tens of thousands. Protests have effectively shut down Bangkok and even disrupted the Association of Southeast Asian Nations conference in 2009, but the basic pillars of the state have remained intact.

Meanwhile, the protests that began June 16 in Sudan have numbered only in the hundreds but are grabbing media attention. Due to Sudan’s reputation as being repressive, even such small protests could trigger dramatic responses from the state. Thailand has a number of state institutions — particularly the monarchy – with which it wields authority, whereas the Sudanese regime relies much more on security and energy revenues to assert its authority. Sudan has less tolerance for even mild threats to either pillar. Stratfor is watching Sudan carefully to see if the protest movement there can survive the ongoing security crackdown.

By understanding how a protest movement works and how well it targets and exploits the weaknesses of the state it is demonstrating against, we can assess how successful movements are likely to be.

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