Why Sit-Ins Succeed – Or Fail

In view of yesterday’s events in Egypt, I wanted to encourage writers to see Erica Chenoweth’s article at Foreign Affairs with the same title as this blog post from earlier this week. She writes:

Civil resistance involves unarmed people using a combination of actions, such as strikes, protests, sit-ins, boycotts, and stay-away demonstrations, to build power and effect change…. Although there is no set formula that guarantees success, from 1900 to 2006, the single most important factor was wide participation. The larger and more broad-based the campaign was, the more likely it was to succeed. In fact, all of the other factors associated with success—elite defections and the backfiring of repression—seemed to depend in part on the size and diversity of the campaign to begin with. That all makes sense: large campaigns are more likely to seriously disrupt the status quo. Diverse campaigns are more likely to be perceived as representative, hence legitimate.

Take, for example, Egypt in 2011. Small protests that began on January 25 soon escalated. They came to involve millions of Egyptians from a remarkable cross-section of society. President Hosni Mubarak attempted to disperse protestors occupying Tahrir Square, but he soon found that his own security forces were unreliable. Many simply ignored his orders and others joined the protests outright. Contrast that example with the recent Muslim Brotherhood-led sit-ins. Those involve primarily young men, whose claims to legitimacy are contested. Although these civilians do have allies among the Egyptian population, they do not boast the same numbers as the Tamarod movement that ousted Morsi, which had its roots in earlier anti-Mubarak sentiment. And whereas Tamarod assembled tens of millions of signatures calling for Morsi to step down and led influential government elites to defect, the pro-Morsi faction has not.

The piece concludes with a note of caution:

One of the most dangerous misconceptions about civil resistance is that several weeks of street demonstrations or sit-ins can bring about major systemic change. On the contrary, the average civil resistance campaign takes nearly three years to run its course. Although three years might sound like an eternity, the average violent campaign takes three times longer and is twice as likely to end in failure. History shows that civil resistance campaigns tend to succeed when they build the quantity and quality of participants, select tactics that provoke loyalty shifts among ruling elites, prepare enough to maintain nonviolent discipline, and skillfully change course under fire to minimize the damage to participants. All of this takes time, organization, preparation, and a good deal of strategic imagination.

The full piece – definitely worth a read – is available here.

[h/t to Daniel Treisman.]

[Cross-posted at The Monkey Cage]

Joshua Tucker

Joshua Tucker is a Professor of Politics at New York University.