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In 2011, Egyptians quickly tired of protest. Here’s why that matters for Sudan and Algeria.

New research suggests demonstrations eroded popular support for democracy during the Arab Spring

- September 4, 2019

After eight months of protest, Sudan’s ongoing transition to civilian democratic rule will reach a milestone this week when the country’s transitional government is announced. Meanwhile in Algeria, protesters continue to gather weekly to demand fundamental changes to the political system five months after the removal of the country’s president.

In the face of ruthless security apparatuses, how can protesters in Sudan and Algeria avoid the fate of Egypt, where the old regime was able to engineer a comeback only two years after the ouster of the country’s erstwhile dictator, Hosni Mubarak.

What makes a revolution successful?

Many factors determine whether a revolution is successful in installing a stable democracy, from international intervention to a country’s economic conditions. Protesters’ strategies also matter. Since the 1970s, protesters have often stayed in the streets after a dictator was ousted. In countries such as Portugal and South Africa, this helped consolidate a new, democratic political order by keeping pressure on elites not to backtrack from their promises. Some observers have suggested the opposition in Sudan should do the same.

But is protest always the answer? Some in the region have cast doubt on this conventional wisdom. Earlier this year, Ala’a Abdel Fattah, one of Egypt’s most prominent activists, wrote an article about the lessons he learned from the 2011 revolution. In it, he derides the boilerplate advice given to revolutionaries to stay in the streets after bringing down a dictator. Instead, he argues, the Egyptian experience suggests opposition forces need to understand the nuances of national politics when deciding when and how to protest. We agree.

The perils of protest

Protest is a powerful weapon, but it can also be a double-edged one. After a dictator is toppled, staying in the streets can help maintain pressure on elites reluctant to democratize. But our research on Egypt during the Arab Spring suggests it can also alienate fellow citizens and undermine public support for democracy.

After Mubarak stepped down as president in February 2011, an unprecedented wave of mobilization spread across Egypt. Workers, activists and local residents staged nearly 5,000 protests in the first year alone, but this was not universally welcomed.

Soon after Mubarak was ousted, news media began to report on “anti-protest protests” by shopkeepers and local residents who complained that protesters were harming businesses and disrupting everyday life. Anti-protest events continued throughout 2011 and into the following year.

Gallup surveys conducted in the summer and autumn of 2011 found the vast majority of Egyptians thought ongoing protests negatively affected the country.

Public disillusionment with democracy

We examined how mobilization in Egypt affected political attitudes after the fall of Mubarak by using local newspaper reporting to map protests, and matching this with data from the Arab Barometer survey. Our findings suggest that within five months of Mubarak’s ouster, Egyptians living in high-protest areas were more likely to associate democracy with socioeconomic threat, indecisive leadership, and instability.

To those familiar with the Egyptian media, this may be unsurprising. During this period, conservative Egyptian media figures often demonized protesters and portrayed the ongoing protests as a source of chaos and instability.

But our data shows that local protest affected attitudes toward democracy regardless of whether people consumed this kind of media. What seems to have mattered was people’s personal experiences. In Egypt, sustained protest often disrupted people’s everyday lives — schools, hospitals and businesses were closed, and traffic was obstructed. Our findings show that skepticism about democracy was most evident among Egyptians living in areas where protests lasted longer and disrupted public space.

We know from the work of other researchers that during periods of transition to democracy, people observe the accompanying political and economic developments and form opinions about whether democracy will be a successful form of government in their country. Our research suggests that in Egypt, those who experienced disruptive protest used this information to inform their views on how democracy would perform in the country.

Egypt may hold lessons for other countries in the region

Why does this matter? As we’ve seen in Egypt, popular disillusionment with democracy can be harnessed to roll back democratic gains and even bring back authoritarianism. When democracy is seen as ineffectual, it becomes easier for counterrevolutionary figures to stoke nostalgia for the (real or imagined) stability and prosperity of the old dictatorship.

In Sudan, protest leaders and the military have agreed to a three-year transition period. This will give figures from the former regime plenty of time to undermine new democratic institutions and discredit opposition forces. Over the next few years, Sudanese revolutionaries may benefit from being cognizant of public sentiment toward protest and responsive to public concerns about the disruptions it causes.

The Algerian uprising faces a very different set of challenges. Although Algerians succeeded in deposing the country’s president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, the country’s military remains firmly in charge. But even at this early stage, a recent online survey conducted by the Brookings Institution provides tentative evidence that a significant minority of Algerians may already be tiring of protest. The survey suggests almost 40 percent of non-protesters believe activists should demobilize and start preparing for elections. Only 18 percent of protesters felt the same way.

There are many differences between these two countries and Egypt in 2011. But one similarity bodes ill for Sudan and Algeria. In all three cases (especially in Algeria), there is no well-established opposition movement able and willing to ensure protesters mobilize strategically. As the Egyptian experience shows, sustained and uncoordinated protest can be unnecessarily disruptive — and risks eroding public support for democracy.

Thoraya El-Rayyes is a doctoral candidate in political science at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Neil Ketchley is an associate professor of political science at the University of Oslo.