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What the response to 2013 Middle East protests reveals about how threatening they are to their own governments

- September 24, 2012

The following is a guest post from political scientists Emily Hencken Ritter of the University of Alabama and Nathan Danneman of Emory University.


In recent days, protests have broken out across the Middle East in response to a rogue American-made video with extreme anti-Muslim viewpoints. Demonstrations have tended to be violent and targeted at American embassies and other installments around the Middle East. The New York Times has posted this interactive map (h/t Idean Salehyan), which highlights the locations of video-connected anti-American protests with links to some details about events in those locations. The map highlights that protests seem to have spread across the Middle East, as if protests were a contagious virus or a wildfire (a quick Google search suggests the media thinks this too, frequently displaying maps and employing terms like “spread” and “wave”: see, e.g., here, here, and here).

It may seem like this spate of protests should be a cause of worry, but the states in which they are occurring are not treating them as such. Why is that?

Political violence can spread in space, whether because actors or resources cross from a warring state to a peaceful one (altering incentives) or because similar actors learn from one another (learning processes). Though most work has focused on the spread of civil wars rather than protests, similar processes can also explain the diffusion of protests across borders. As was frequently discussed during the “Arab Spring,” groups with access to the media can observe that protests have occurred in a nearby state (and their degree of success) and follow suit. Kuran (1991) points out that as more actors join a movement, even more will follow suit – and this phenomenon is not constrained by borders. This suggests that though these protests may remain limited to extremists, they are likely to continue happening in other places.

The most common government response to potential or actualized protest is state repression, particularly among states that are not full democracies. One might expect, then, that an increase in protests would lead to an increase in repression in less democratic states. In a forthcoming article, we find that leaders, concerned that conflict and protest will spread to their state, often utilize repression in an effort to preempt unrest before it begins within their borders.

While many of the governments of the states where protests are occurring have made statements and taken some actions to quell the population, they have not cracked heads to stop the violence. What makes the current spate of protests different from the Arab Spring, when states not only repressed violent populations but also populations that had not yet rebelled?

Foremost, these protests do not represent a significant threat to the state authorities who would make such a decision. Joe Young points out that these are small groups of extremists rather than the many thousands who protested in the spring of 2011. More than that, though, these groups aren’t protesting against their own government, as they did then, but the US government. As such, these protests represent low costs or risks to the states in which they are occurring.

Secondly, giving a small amount of rein to protests is useful for governments trying to cooperate with US initiatives without alienating their more extreme constituents.  For example, leaders in Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood explicitly noted trying to balance international and domestic pressure as a reason why their condemnation of embassy attacks were hesitant and weakly worded.

Though governments are working with the US to try and keep these actions isolated, they are unlikely to take the swift and costly actions that would eliminate them. The domestic costs are not high enough for these governments. Thus, while these states are helping, these protests by a small number of extremists are likely to continue to until protestor enthusiasm wanes.