Civilian Activism After Political Shocks

Civilian Activism After Political Shocks

Civilian activism cuts both ways - it can promote but also undermine democratization processes after political changes.

Countries around the world are experiencing periodic shocks to their political systems. The full development of these drastic changes often takes a long time and is characterized by a period of uncertainty. Most recently, a mass mobilization movement has successfully overthrown the autocratic regime of Omar Al-Bashir in Sudan, but the military is holding on to power. In another context, the ‘successful’ peace deal in Colombia ended the direct fighting between the government and the FARC rebels. Still, 500 activists and community leaders have been killed since 2016.

While these events are different in many ways, all of them represented fundamental shocks that sparked civilian activism in the respective countries. Large parts of the population are still demonstrating on the streets against the old military elite who is trying to stay in command in Sudan. Colombian civil society groups are calling for the peace treaty to be implemented, calling for strikes and protests. It appears as if fundamental political changes not only take time to be implemented, but that they are simultaneously often entailed by prolonged civil activism.

Protesting and rioting after civil wars

In a recent study, we sought to understand how the timing of different phases of activism can be explained by focusing on a very specific form of political change: we investigated how civilians respond to peace agreements after civil wars in Africa. Peace agreements lead to radical changes in the political and social structure of a country, since contemporary wars are usually settled with a compromise between the interests of the government and the rebels. The latter declare to refrain from further violence in exchange for an integration in the military structure, quotas in the parliament or stronger autonomy rights. Civilians are not involved in the majority of the peace agreements and therefore have to deal with the decisions of the former conflicting parties.

Despite being excluded from the peace agreement, we found that civilians tend to become active by protesting or rioting in the aftermath of peace agreements. In particular, the implementation of power sharing triggers civilian activism, while the mere prospect of change (the peace agreement as such) shows no significant effect. Interestingly, especially civilians from ethnic groups that formed the support base of former rebel groups protest or riot to get political concessions.

All good things come to an end?

Security and stability are often prioritized in times of fundamental political transitions. In some cases, however, civilian activism creates or deepens existing social cleavages; or undermines longer-term developments by challenging emerging state institutions.

On the one hand, civilian activism can undermine the successes of political changes in a country. For example, following a campaign by the former president Uribe, the Colombian peace agreement was initially rejected in a national referendum before it was approved by Parliament after some reworking. The Orange Revolution movement in Ukraine (2004) fought successfully against electoral fraud, but shortly thereafter, the movement split into various rivalling factions engaged in internal struggles for power. As a result, the democratic achievements remained fragile and could not be sustained.

On the other hand, civilian activism can make sure that changes are actually implemented. When the pressure to compromise diminishes, the former elites often try to restore the previous political status quo (e.g., military elites in Sudan after dismissal of President Al-Bashir). In many cases, these elites have been successful in unwinding the changes, i.e. Egypt, Chile or Thailand. The pressure exerted by street protests can form a counterbalance preventing such backslides into authoritarianism.

A change for the better or the worse?

It is therefore not easy to make a final judgment regarding civilian activism after revolutionary political changes. Protests certainly are a beacon for an active civil society, there is thus strong evidence that they can potentially promote democratization processes in the aftermath of fundamental political changes. Yet, such activism can also put the achievements of the transition processes under pressure by leading to a stalemate of the various interest groups. In very extreme cases, it can even undermine the achievements of those processes. We therefore need more attention in the public and research on civilian activism after fundamental political changes.