Table of Contents

The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace gratefully acknowledges support from the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation and the Ford Foundation that helped make this report possible.

In the past ten years, a startling wave of large-scale citizen protests has washed over the political life of every region of the world. In countries as diverse as Algeria, Armenia, Korea, Iran, Venezuela, and Sudan, protests have exploded, often with little warning and sometimes with dramatic outcomes. Protesters have taken to the streets to speak out about corruption, economic injustices, environmental questions, repression, and a range of particular local issues. Several protests have driven political leaders out of office; some have triggered draconian government reprisals. Mass mobilizations have occurred in democracies and nondemocracies and advanced and developing economies alike. They are now a major feature of global politics.

These protests attract considerable attention while they are occurring. Media coverage is extensive as the drama of revolt plays itself out on the streets of cities around the world. Large numbers of observers offer their views on the sparks that led to the protests, the makeup of the protest movements, and the goals they seek. Iconic pictures capture the tumult of huge protests in Harare, Hong Kong, Kyiv, New York, Paris, and São Paulo, and millions of people across the world see them as symbols of this age of rage.

The relative lack of attention to such questions is a major omission. What happens in the immediate aftermath of a protest is just as crucial as what occurs during the protest. It is a major factor in determining whether mass protest becomes a force to restructure politics or ultimately remains a dramatic yet ineffective interlude in the status quo. Yet even though this is a vital question in contemporary politics, after each successive protest, the media quickly moves onto other issues and policymakers turn to the next dramatic crisis. Vital postprotest trends and dilemmas can easily get lost from view.

Though much work has gone into devising analytical frameworks for the protests themselves, nothing comparable exists for the period following them. As protests become a pivotal aspect of global political struggle, a better understanding is needed of activists’ strategic choices after their protests die down. In most countries where large-scale protests have taken place, mobilizations last for a certain amount of time and then disperse, after achieving varying degrees of impact. Protesters then face a series of decisions about what to do next: whether to redouble their efforts or step back from conflictive political activity, whether and how to change tactics, and whether to focus on different issues or simply to disengage.

Richard Youngs
Youngs is an expert on the foreign policy of the European Union, in particular on questions of democracy support.
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This collection of articles examines the crucial question of what happens when mass protests abate. It looks at the issue across ten countries, addressing three specific elements: how to categorize activists’ preferred pathways beyond protest, how to explain why activists choose these pathways, and how to understand the outcomes of the different pathways.

Analytic Framework

The country case studies that follow focus solely on large-scale protests that have involved considerable numbers of people, have lasted over a sustained period, have been based around considerable organizational efforts, have sought significant changes in the country’s economic or political governance, and, in general, have taken on a high degree of political salience. The working assumption for this analysis is that these kinds of protests will have an identifiable postprotest period. Those involved in this period will need to make decisions that will determine what happens to their momentum of contestation.

Each case study covers one country where important developments have taken place in a period following large-scale protests. First, for each country, the types of postprotest strategies pursued by different civic activists are identified. These postprotest pathways include several options:

  • Protesters move into mainstream politics.
  • Protesters lie low, in part to protect themselves from government repression.
  • Protesters move into traditional nongovernmental organizations.
  • Protesters adopt new forms of organization and resistance.
  • Protesters move into low-profile community organizing.

Second, the different balance between these tactical choices in their respective countries is explained. To this end, relevant factors are identified: the comparative effectiveness of the original protests, the political context, the breadth of participation in the protests, and the different themes driving the original mobilization. In particular, the studies examine whether the strongest explanation of postprotest strategies is evident in the division between successful and unsuccessful protests, or whether other, less obvious explanatory factors occasionally may be at least as powerful.

Third, the outcomes of the chosen postprotest pathways are assessed. Can conclusions be drawn about which pathways work best, and in what conditions? Is the move into mainstream politics most effective, or does it risk cooption? Which is best at keeping the spirit of the original protests going: the more radical activities or the low-key pathways? Do protesters abandon “contentious politics” too quickly, or do they stay too long stuck in a protest frame of mind and thus fail to move into other types of political engagement? Which is the greatest failing in the wake of protests: under- or overinstitutionalization of activism?

Key Protests

The case studies show that a variety of postprotest pathways have been used. In a number of countries examined, protests were powerful enough to dislodge incumbent governments. In some cases, the change of government appeared to open the way to meaningful and structural political reform, but in others it did not. This difference presented protesters with contrasting choices. After protesters achieved their immediate aim of ousting those in power, they faced strong resistance in some countries but more favorable conditions in others. In other cases, protests disbanded without having achieved their essential aims, leaving protesters to debate alternative ways of maintaining some degree of contentious civic spirit and pressure against governments.

The case studies focus on the following countries and their main postprotest trends:

  • In Egypt, civic activist strategies after the 2011 revolution that ousted president Hosni Mubarak became highly polarized around a division between secularists and Islamists. This divide dominated activists’ choice of postprotest pathways and led both camps into supporting nondemocratic political dynamics—a state of affairs that has suppressed most forms of civic activity.
  • In Turkey, postprotest repression made life more difficult for activists. After the emblematic 2013–2014 Gezi Park protests in Istanbul, most activists chose to adopt a lower profile and focus on relatively apolitical issues. Activists failed in their attempt to gain support for a new Gezi political party, and an increasingly authoritarian government clamped down on the more political forms of activism that emerged out of the protests.
  • In Armenia, civil society actors dramatically forced a change of government in May 2018 and then adapted to work in closer partnership with a nominally reformist prime minister. Successful protests opened the way for more partnership-based activism strategies, although activists also want to be ready to actively reengage if the new government does not follow through on its reform promises.
  • In Ukraine, since the 2013–2014 Euromaidan revolt, activists have moved into new roles of supporting the formally democratic government but also sought ways to resist the government’s growing reluctance to reform fully. Some activists have remobilized in protests, and the largest activist group has focused on local-level volunteering and community-organizing tactics influenced by the ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine.
  • In Romania, there have been numerous and regular protests since 2012 on several different issues, though, in recent years, protests have focused on the government’s indulgence of political corruption. In this case, after each peak of protest passed, protesters were able to retain an impressive capacity to remobilize. They also have looked for ways into mainstream politics, and, in doing so, they have begun to reshape Romania’s political party system.
  • In Zimbabwe, the military has gradually taken tighter control since the November 2017 protests that helped drive president Robert Mugabe from office. As leaders of the Zimbabwe African National Union-Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF) moved to take power and impede the democratic transition, repression increased against activists, forcing many to lie low and move away from opposition politics. Gradually, however, activists in Zimbabwe have looked to reengage in new ways to contest this military rule.
  • In Ethiopia, protests forced a change of government in 2018 when prime minister Hailemariam Desalegn resigned. Demonstrating a common tactical dilemma, Ethiopian activists have wound down their contentious mobilizations and tried to help the new government meet its promises of reform—though they remain prepared to move back into the streets as concerns grow that democratic change is stalling.
  • In Thailand, protests helped bring a military regime to power in 2014, and in the postprotest period, activists became much more highly politicized. Activists supportive of the army have been able to develop a whole range of new civil society initiatives; those hostile to the junta have found their activities restricted. Because activists were so closely aligned to either the yellow shirt or red shirt political camps, they looked mainly to move into politics in support of their respective projects.
  • In Taiwan, many activists in the so-called Sunflower protests of 2014 moved into mainstream party politics after the mobilization ended. Although some activists expressly kept to standard civil society campaigns, notably, some explored pathways into mainstream politics as a means to retain the reformist spirit of their protests.
  • In Brazil, protests in 2016 pushed president Dilma Rousseff out of office. Following the protests, right-wing activists intensified their activism through a mix of formal civil society organizations, political parties, and more sporadic targeted campaigns. Their actions had an equally profound postprotest impact, supporting the controversial election of President Jair Bolsonaro in 2018.

The collection concludes with a summary that draws out common findings across the different country studies. In most countries, the postprotest period bore several pathways for activists: some chose to hibernate, at least momentarily; some entered politics, either joining the opposition or the government, where protests have succeeded; and some sought different forms of activism as policy goals changed, though they made efforts to maintain a kind of mobilization capital that could be reactivated if necessary. These pathways have tended to overlap significantly, with many activists hedging their bets among them. The most effective combination of tactics seems to vary across countries, as political contexts differ so significantly.

Above all, the experiences described in this collection indicate that postprotest choices truly matter and make a significant difference in determining whether protests achieve long-lasting change, or whether activists fall prey to the dangers of government cooptation. The case studies show that the standard criticism that activists singularly fail to move “from protest to politics” is no longer entirely fair—even if this might have been valid to some extent a decade or more ago. Yet they also suggest that maintaining effective postprotest activism can be far harder than organizing an influential protest and that all postprotest pathways easily encounter serious obstacles. The postprotest tactical choice is an understudied, underappreciated variable among the many factors that influence democratic transitions. Even though these studies are merely a schematic first attempt to address the postprotest conundrum, they nevertheless reveal the need for a more systematic understanding of the interplay between protest and postprotest forms of political change.