Part of Foreign Affairs Report: Morsi and Beyond

Why Sit-Ins Succeed -- Or Fail

Without a Broader Strategy, Pro-Morsi Encampments Are Unlikely to Work

Riot police take up positions against pro-Morsi protesters in Cairo, August 2, 2013.
Riot police take up positions in Six October City in Giza, south of Cairo, August 2, 2013. (Amr Abdallah Dalsh / Courtesy Reuters)

For weeks, opponents of Egypt’s military-led transitional government have held mass sit-ins in Cairo, Alexandria, and elsewhere in an attempt to force the generals to reinstate President Mohamed Morsi. In doing so, they are following the tactics of the activists who have occupied China’s Tiananmen Square to protest communism, the Philippines’ Epifanio de los Santos Avenue to demand the ouster of President Ferdinand Marcos, the United States’ National Mall to denounce the Vietnam War, and countless others.

But tactics are not the same as a strategy. In a study of nonviolent campaigns from 1900 to 2006, no popular movement that relied on a single method alone -- such as sit-ins -- worked. Effective civil resistance involves a number of skillfully sequenced moves that increase broad-based, diverse participation, allow participants to avoid repression, and lead regime loyalists to defect. Without a broader strategy based around these steps, sit-ins can end in catastrophe.

LOTS OF PEOPLE POWER

Civil resistance involves unarmed people using a combination of actions, such as strikes, protests, sit-ins, boycotts, and stay-away demonstrations, to build power and effect change. In his analysis of historical cases of civil resistance, Gene Sharp, the founder of the Albert Einstein Institution, identified nearly 200 methods of nonviolent action, ranging from protest to persuasion, intervention to noncooperation. Since his seminal text was published in 1973, experts have identified thousands more.

Although there is no set formula that guarantees success, from 1900 to 2006, the single most important factor was wide participation. The larger and more broad-based the campaign was, the more likely it was to succeed. In fact, all of the other factors associated with success -- elite defections and the backfiring of repression -- seemed to depend in part on the size and diversity of the campaign to begin with. That all makes sense: large campaigns are more likely to seriously disrupt the status quo. Diverse campaigns are more likely to be perceived as representative, hence legitimate.

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