Political transitions are difficult, and they require successful activism in both the protest and postprotest periods. The transition from participating in protests to longer-term activism can be especially complex. In our Civic Research Network, we feel that this element of activism and political transition receives relatively little analytical attention. Thus, we conducted ten country case studies to provide some deeper reflection on postprotest activist strategies in different contexts.
Social movement studies generally concentrate on the organization and strategies that lead to demonstrations. Political scientists, meanwhile, look at the institution building that follows such demonstrations. As the focus in transitions switches from protests to institutional reforms, the countless individuals who make up protests often are forgotten, and only the most prominent ones among them are celebrated or remembered. The ten countries examined shed light on the path that activists adopt once their protests finish—whether successful or not. Spanning four regions, the countries included Armenia, Brazil, Egypt, Ethiopia, Romania, Thailand, Taiwan, Turkey, Ukraine, and Zimbabwe. The timespan covered 2013 to 2019, a period of global protests that followed the 2011 wave of revolts concentrated in the Middle East and North Africa and the Western states hit by economic crises. The articles are written by firsthand observers, either academics or activists. Although the authors report a number of specificities unique to each country, certain general trends transcend the ten cases and reveal patterns in what happens after protests.
One of these trends is the move into mainstream politics. The authors therefore asked: under what conditions do activists take such a route? Often the choice to join government or a governing coalition in parliament can lead to the continuation of effective activism, mainly where protests have been relatively successful. There, activists can work from inside the system and implement what they fought for, helping to build democracy. They channel their energy toward concrete political actions and transform street activism into mainstream politics. In Taiwan, for instance, after the successful 2014 revolt, many Sunflower movement activists entered formal politics. In Ukraine as well, after 2014, a number of Euromaidan activists joined the government. Similar examples occurred in Romania, where figures of the 2012–2017 protest period entered cabinet offices and parliament, and in Armenia, after the success of the 2018 Velvet Revolution. And although the voices of most of these activists were marginal in largely establishment-controlled governments, they spearheaded some advances in reform and many kept their spirit of activism alive.
However, the case studies reveal that entering the sphere of power, even if it is a regime that emerges out of successful protests, can lead to cooptation. This is seen as a failure of the ideals for which activists rose up in the first place. In fact, when they reach power, revolutionary forces usually mutate into ruling machines, and the bureaucratic political system ends up prevailing over idealism. Even in established democracies, many problems that triggered protests persist—which makes the activist-turned-politician complicit in the eyes of the general public. This is a relatively common problem, and it is only in Taiwan that activists who joined politics have (so far) generally avoided the accusation of being coopted.
The problem is most acute in authoritarian milieus, where activists are given a false sense of opportunity to act. Some get disappointed and leave politics, but many decide to stay and give legitimacy to the authoritarian regimes in question. They think they have real influence, but they end up mere figureheads used by authoritarian regimes. In Thailand, for instance, some yellow shirt activists went on to found proarmy political groups and even run for election as representatives of the establishment parties. In Zimbabwe, a number of anti-Robert Mugabe figures supported the military-backed government that succeeded Mugabe. In Egypt, many protesters who led the way before the 2013 coup cheered for the army and became part of the new regime.
To some extent, this trend has tarnished the concept of activism among the population. Zimbabwe is an example of this outcome: activists who stayed alongside the army and the new government are not seen as impartial, independent activists but rather as part of a pathological regime structure. The activist capital they amassed during the protests then vanished.
Another postprotest pathway relates to those who also entered politics but from an opposition angle. The ten case studies show that many activists either joined traditional political groups or created new ones—though the latter was more common. Activists who launched new movements proved that they can take their capacity to organize and lead civil society into politics. Their new movements are meant to break with established norms and be autonomous in applying their ideas and vision. Such models were seen in Taiwan, where democratic life continues to make gains and where new opposition groups were able to enter parliament through elections. In Thailand and Zimbabwe, where democracy is in tatters, some activists also moved into opposition politics. Thai red shirts and Zimbabwean activists, for instance, joined opposition groups and ran for election in 2019. In the authoritarian systems that prevail in both countries, the results of joining the political opposition were limited, and these activists were not able to advance their goals.
In Ukraine and Armenia, many activists did not choose to enter politics at all, concerned about the bad reputation of political life in their countries. Among the minority who stayed in politics, cooptation was difficult to resist. The withdrawal of potential opposition voices, therefore, allowed the far right to consolidate itself and become a strong and representative opposition force, ignoring the other groups and following radical—and occasionally violent and divisive—politics.
In some instances, activists refused categorically to enter politics and continued to be involved in activism from outside the system. In Armenia, for example, fear of cooptation kept many activists, especially the leftists opposing neoliberal policies, out of politics. They thus focused their efforts on opposing tax reforms and defending the working class, among other things, often in opposition to the new government. Yet they did not cut ties with their former colleagues who decided to join the government, and this allowed for channels of dialogue between the two sides. In the case of Ukraine, however, where the weakness of the central state has worsened the security situation and encouraged violent groups to form, many activists resorted to radical, violent means to apply pressure on the government, adopting a far-right ideology. In Turkey and Egypt, most activists concentrated on pure activism and stayed out of mainstream politics because they did not have any other practical choice. In Turkey, where Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government morphed into a semiauthoritarian regime (a transition that accelerated after the failed 2016 coup), many activists mobilized to observe the 2018 elections from within election observation organizations. In Egypt, the story is different, not least because the level of repression is higher than other places discussed. The image of activism was distorted by postprotest events—which led to a consolidated dictatorship—and a strong antirevolutionary media that equated protests with chaos and foreign interference. Hardcore Egyptian activists have ended up marginalized and in a precarious situation: they are unable to join politics, and they face difficulties in mobilizing people around them.
In Egypt, as in other countries where authoritarianism emerged after the protest movement or where the latter was able to consolidate itself more deeply, activists remaining outside the system follow a different model. They adapt to the neoauthoritarian context, which restricts protests and political activism, and change the nature and structure of their movement. They create or join progressive, alternative movements. They can do so out of conviction, as in Taiwan and Ethiopia, or out of fear, as in Turkey, Thailand, or Zimbabwe. They defend specific causes that are seen as less polemical but nonetheless important, such as ecology and urbanism issues, the LBGT cause, women and youth empowerment, academic concerns, or trade union reforms. Many of these movements are local and decentralized. Thus, they appeal to a different part of the population than the cosmopolitan youth of the capital, who normally are prominent in protests but whose energy and commitment are not always easy to sustain. Local issues attract people who are directly concerned and so do specific issues because they will call on those who feel the problem directly. Even when the momentum of mass mobilizations has faded, these smaller instances of what are sometimes collectively referred to as micro-activism keep the flame of resistance alight. In this vein, the internet remains a space for activists to sustain their efforts, regardless of their place in the political spectrum. Facebook and Twitter campaigns, social media hashtags, YouTube, and other video outlets are a preferred means for fostering alternative activism.
One final postprotest trajectory is more disconcerting for the fate of global activism: in the wake of failed protests, many activists have abandoned activism or at least gone into prolonged hibernation. They feel resigned to this option for a number of reasons. Governments often restrict public space after protests, which makes activism risky. Activists may sense that they have achieved enough through protests, even though such judgment normally proves premature; conversely, they may feel despair if the outcome of protesting is negligible or even counterproductive. The leaderless nature of many protest movements also makes sustained activism difficult to achieve. Hibernation usually denotes a failure of the protest movement.
The ten case studies are far from being an exhaustive overview of the postprotest pathways activists have taken around the globe. Yet they do offer enough empirical detail from a diverse range of situations to help advance debates on the question. There is no uniform recipe for success. The kind of postprotest route that works in one context can fail in another. In fact, most examples collected here commonly run into problems. Even though activists have sharpened their thinking about long-term strategies, our case studies show more instances of postprotest disappointment than resounding success.
Once protests succeed, the doors of political posts often do open and many activists end up in government. And our case studies do not support the common view that activists instinctively spurn mainstream politics. Some activists are able to influence their country’s politics: this is a key way in which activism has evolved in the past decade. But the success of such a political move is not guaranteed because of the risk of cooptation, which also has grown. Other protesters decide to continue their activism but in the ranks of the political opposition. They leave behind the pure activist mantle and become politicians opposing the government in parties and parliament. But when they do not make it to the highest levels, these activists can end up marginalized and lose the momentum that made them prominent in the first place. Others decide to stay where they started, campaigning and fighting as if nothing had changed, but they also risk losing popular support and becoming sidelined. Moreover, their hesitation creates a vacuum that may be filled by nondemocratic groups, such as the far right. Activists also may opt for alternative, decentralized types of activism, often to avoid political scrutiny under authoritarian regimes but also to garner support from new groups that may have felt alienated or were concerned little with the previous waves. This kind of alternative activism may succeed on its own terms, but its ambitions are usually much narrower than the protests that precede it. Finally, some activists decide to give up and retreat from activism entirely, whether out of fear, disillusion, or disorganization.
The life cycle of postprotest activism is varied and complex. The mix of decisions, often contradictory, that activists choose helps explain why revolutions take the directions they take afterward. And while the protest momentum does not necessarily evaporate when protesters go home, moving beyond that stage in an effective way proves hard, even harder than protesting. The plethora of choices at the disposal of protest leaders and activists that we uncovered show the difficulty of finding a unified postprotest pathway. The success or failure of the civic process after a protest is linked to this cutting-up of forces, as the common goal of toppling a regime does not morph automatically into a united strategy for building democracy.
Youssef Cherif is the deputy director of Columbia Global Centers, Tunis. He is a member of Carnegie’s Civic Research Network.