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.


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.

Take, for example, Egypt in 2011. Small protests that began on January 25 soon escalated. They came to involve millions of Egyptians from a remarkable cross-section of society. President Hosni Mubarak attempted to disperse protestors occupying Tahrir Square, but he soon found that his own security forces were unreliable. Many simply ignored his orders and others joined the protests outright.

Contrast that example with the recent Muslim Brotherhood-led sit-ins. Those involve primarily young men, whose claims to legitimacy are contested. Although these civilians do have allies among the Egyptian population, they do not boast the same numbers as the Tamarod movement that ousted Morsi, which had its roots in earlier anti-Mubarak sentiment. And whereas Tamarod assembled tens of millions of signatures calling for Morsi to step down and led influential government elites to defect, the pro-Morsi faction has not.

Now, security forces are showing little hesitation in repressing pro-Morsi protestors, meaning that participation may become even more risky. And that would further undermine the movement's ability to solicit more support from more diverse participants who aren’t able to take as many personal risks to bring about change. In general, it is hard to predict in advance whether a movement's goals will resonate with a wider population at any given time. But in terms of attracting people to the cause and keeping them involved, sensitivity to their exposure to risk is key.


Almost all major nonviolent campaigns have faced violent repression, and recent uprisings in the Middle East and elsewhere are no exception. Some tactics are riskier than others, though, and ones where people gather and stay in concentrated spaces for a long time -- occupations, sit-ins, and announced demonstrations -- are among the riskiest.

Violent repression does decrease the chance that civil resistance campaigns will succeed, but it does not necessarily doom them. Historically, those movements that survive are the ones that are able to shift their tactics the face of crackdown. So, they might move toward stay-at-homes, boycotts, and general strikes to avoid repression while building ever more legitimacy and popularity -- exactly the opposite of what government forces want. In Justice Ignited, the activist-physicist Brian Martin argues that repression backfires when the greater public views it as excessive, unjust, and disproportionate; when the repression is made public through veracious reporting and documentation; and when the movement has a strategy to combat government propaganda that minimizes or justifies the crackdown.

Martin’s arguments held up in a recent study I completed for the social scientists Lee Smithey and Lester Kurtz’s forthcoming book The Paradox of Repression. I found that abuse publicized through media channels was more likely to backfire, especially when those channels were international. Presumably, in some cases, the police, military, or paramilitaries are sensitive to how the abuse would be perceived by their allies or patrons abroad. In addition, some populations may view foreign media services such as Xinhua or BBC as more objective than the local state media, lending more credibility to a story and helping to counteract state media propaganda.

Repression was also more likely to backfire when the size and diversity of the campaign was already well established, so that the repression seemed especially unjust. For example, Shah Reza Pahlavi’s crackdowns on protestors during the Iranian Revolution backfired because leftists, Islamic clerics, urban intellectuals, peasants from the countryside, oil workers, and merchants were all unified in their opposition to the regime. This broad-based participation signaled the end of the Shah’s legitimacy and made every further attempt at suppression even more illegitimate. A similar process occurred in the Philippines, where Marcos attempted to quell political opposition by assassinating his main political opponent, Benigno Aquino. That backfired because Aquino already had a diverse array of supporters, ranging from leftist intellectuals to devout Catholics.

Finally, repression was more likely to backfire when the opposition campaign maintained nonviolent discipline -- that is, when it did not react to regime violence with more violence. Nonviolent discipline made the repression seem disproportionate and excessive. For example, activists participating in the Nashville lunch counter sit-ins during the U.S. civil rights movement had prepared themselves to endure any crackdown without retaliating. Their experiences of harassment, beatings, and arrests dramatized the injustices of segregation in ways that began to shift public opinion about its legitimacy.


The campaign to desegregate Nashville lunch counters was not reliant solely on lunch counter sit-ins, of course. It also involved boycotts of white businesses in downtown Nashville, silent marches, direct negotiations with the mayor of Nashville and white business owners, and attempts to increase the costs of continued repression by volunteering for arrest, which overwhelmed the jail system. If the campaign had been limited to lunch counter sit-ins alone, it may have ended differently.

Indeed, campaigns that shifted between high-risk methods, such as protests and sit-ins, and lower-risk methods, such as stay-at-home demonstrations, had greater staying power, momentum, and resilience than campaigns that relied on a single method. There are many reasons: For one, all would-be participants have different levels of risk acceptance. Not everyone is willing to stand in place while a column of tanks approaches. But risk-averse participants may be willing to sing illegal songs or to shut off their electricity at a coordinated time of day. The more ways there are to participate in civil resistance, the more -- and more diverse -- participants there will be. In addition, since each tactic carries a slightly different risk and provokes a different response, movements can sequence their tactics over time to diminish the regime’s ability to crush them. 

Sit-ins, for example, have a couple of tactical benefits. They demonstrate a movement’s resolve, shut down access to key buildings, force the regime to make a move, and create a media-friendly disruption in the short term. When combined with other methods, such as general strikes or boycotts, authorities may find them quite difficult to deal with.

However, the longer sit-ins go on, the riskier a strategy they become for the protesters. To be sustainable, sit-ins require participants who are willing to subject themselves to considerable discomforts (missing work, going hungry, sleeping outdoors, dealing with unsanitary conditions over time). Such conditions mean that the diversity of the participants generally declines over time, as mothers, children, and older people peel away. That leaves the youth -- males in most cases -- which may compromise the movement’s perceived legitimacy.

Further, like many other methods that are concentrated in specific public spaces, sit-ins can make participants quite vulnerable to repression. That is especially dangerous for campaigns in their early stages, before they have attracted enough supporters with diverse social, economic, and political views to capture the public’s hearts and minds. And although repression can sometimes backfire, movements that deliberately provoke it are taking a major risk. In fact, experienced organizers often think of sit-ins and nonviolent occupations as methods to be used at the end of a nonviolent campaign -- after extensive planning and training has taken place, and after the movement has built a diverse and committed following through everyday forms of resistance, including celebratory gatherings with party-like atmospheres, silent marches and demonstrations, flash mobs, walk-outs, signature-gathering, protests, and even attempts to negotiate -- rather than at the beginning, when smaller and less diverse movements haven’t yet built enough legitimacy to deter a major crackdown.

Tiananmen Square is a case in point. After several weeks of growing protests throughout cities in China and a sit-in in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, the Chinese Communist Party offered student occupiers a chance to negotiate. It subsequently warned them that their continued sit-in would be forcibly dispersed. Hard-core student activists refused any concessions short of democratic reform, and the sit-in continued. As it went on, even sympathetic, reformist elites began to view students who remained in the square as unnecessarily stubborn, insolent, elitist, and unyielding -- and not broadly representative of the wider population. In the end, reformists were unable to spare the movement from the bloodshed that followed. And the bloodshed did not backfire; it effectively suppressed the movement.


One of the most dangerous misconceptions about civil resistance is that several weeks of street demonstrations or sit-ins can bring about major systemic change. On the contrary, the average civil resistance campaign takes nearly three years to run its course. Although three years might sound like an eternity, the average violent campaign takes three times longer and is twice as likely to end in failure. History shows that civil resistance campaigns tend to succeed when they build the quantity and quality of participants, select tactics that provoke loyalty shifts among ruling elites, prepare enough to maintain nonviolent discipline, and skillfully change course under fire to minimize the damage to participants. All of this takes time, organization, preparation, and a good deal of strategic imagination.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now