Protest projection: Part 1 | The World from PRX

This examination was featured in basic State, a weekly foreign policy newsletter from Inkstick Media. Subscribe here.

Most protests are directed against a fairly immediate authority. When you march on a picket line, you’re protesting to get more leverage over your boss. When you and your neighbors fill up your downtown chanting “Black lives matter,” you’re protesting (in part) to get more leverage over your local government and police department. But protests have other audiences, many of which are farther away – physically and conceptually – than the people the protest is aimed at. This week and next on thorough Dive, we’ll look at new research about how protest movements impact third parties.

Related: Foundations of international relations: Part I

Sometimes the audience that takes an interest in your protest isn’t already in your country. That happened to Arab Spring protesters in a variety of different ways. People around the vicinity looked at early protests in Tunisia and took inspiration. Then Twitter took an interest and decided that it was the hero of the protests. In the end, though, for many protesters, it was foreign governments that were among the most effectual audiences for their protests. For protesters in Bahrain, Syria, Libya, and Yemen, that meant military interventions by foreign powers in response to their protests, most of which have had devastating consequences. 

Related: Foundations of international relations: Part II

In a new article in the journal International Politics, political scientist Shamiran Mako develops a theory about why protests led to interventions in those four countries and why those interventions played out the way they did. In Mako’s telling, though the uprisings in each country were aimed at securing concessions from that country’s government, the reality of the near-at the same time uprisings throughout the vicinity changed not just the situation of each individual country but the complete regional order. Each individual movement on its own did little to change the international structure, but when they all rose at the same time it upended the regional balance of strength.

With the regional balance of strength up in the air due to the protests, Mako argues, regional powers saw opportunities to meddle in their neighbors’ affairs in ways that were not possible before. Because the legitimacy of so many governments had been called into question, all of a sudden regional powers could intervene not just at the level of the state but with the elements of the coalition of groups that, in normal times, formed the state. 

In Yemen, for example, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), the Saudi-led regional group responded to protests by trying in 2011 to broker a change that would remove dictator Ali Abdellah Saleh and replace him with another GCC-oriented leader. In a situation where Yemen was the only country in the vicinity undergoing change, the GCC effort might have succeeded, since there would be little reason for other parties to upset the balance of strength. As negotiations continued in the post-Arab Spring era, however, other players joined and initiated or increased their sustain for other Yemeni factions. Qatar and Turkey backed groups associated with the Muslim Brotherhood, and Iran directed some resources to the Houthis. By 2015, with the Houthis gaining ground militarily and Saudi Arabia responding with direct military intervention, the potential of democratization in Yemen had faded almost completely. Instead, the country had become a battleground for factions seeking to stake or expand their claim to a piece of the new regional order being born. 

Basically, chaos is a ladder, but ladders go both up and down. Foreign powers pay particular attention to domestic social movements because, when successful, they create moments when the rules of the international game can change. In the Arab Spring, the speed and extent of the rule changes produced incentives for regional and world powers to target states that could be profitably be divvied up into factions. For people in those states, who began protesting hoping to resolve the contradictions in their societies, the effect of foreign intervention was often disastrous. 

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