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The Foreign Policy Essay: The Rising Threat of Revolt in Autocracies

Erica Frantz, Andrea Kendall-Taylor
Sunday, June 22, 2014, 10:00 AM
Editor’s Note: “People power” has long captured the hearts of Western publics, with images of brave protesters standing up to tyrants renewing our faith in how extraordinary ordinary people can be. Yet elite coups, not popular protest, have long been the biggest danger to dictators. However, the Arab Spring brought renewed attention to popular protests as a form of regime change, as autocrat after autocrat fell or appeared near collapse. Andrea Kendall-Taylor, who serves in the U.S.

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Editor’s Note: “People power” has long captured the hearts of Western publics, with images of brave protesters standing up to tyrants renewing our faith in how extraordinary ordinary people can be. Yet elite coups, not popular protest, have long been the biggest danger to dictators. However, the Arab Spring brought renewed attention to popular protests as a form of regime change, as autocrat after autocrat fell or appeared near collapse. Andrea Kendall-Taylor, who serves in the U.S. intelligence community, and Erica Frantz, a professor at Bridgewater State University, contend that the Arab Spring is not an anomaly: popular protest is indeed on the rise as a form of regime change and that this trend, if nurtured properly, could make the spread of democracy more likely.


Authors' Note: This essay draws on a recent article in the Washington Quarterly, in which we argue that today’s dictators should be more concerned with popular protests than they have in the past. Autocrats are becoming more vulnerable to being ousted by revolts. The protests of the Arab Awakening, which unseated four of the world’s longest-serving dictators (Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia, Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, Muammar Qaddafi of Libya, and Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen) make this seem almost obvious. But a review of the historical data reveals that the masses have not always posed such a threat to authoritarian leaders. Historically, the dictator’s group of elite supporters has posed the greatest danger to a leader’s survival in office. In the 1960s and 70s, for example, almost 50 percent of all autocrats who lost office did so via military coup. However, using data from political scientist Milan Svolik that capture autocratic exits from 1948 to 2008 and our own updates through 2012, we find that the percentage of autocrats ousted via coup has declined considerably in the post-Cold War era, falling to less than 10 percent in the last decade. Concurrently, the proportion of autocrats exiting amid revolt has tripled from 4 percent to 12 percent since the end of the Cold War. (The remaining autocrats have exited via other means, including civil war, constitutional processes such as elections or term limits, or death in office.) In fact, from 2010-2012, a quarter of dictators who lost power did so via revolt, and revolts now unseat a greater proportion of autocrats than coups do. Kendall-Taylor photo with borderThere are likely several explanations for the shift in autocratic exit. For example, changes in the geopolitical agendas of Western powers following the end of the Cold War almost certainly contributed to the reduction in the proportion of leaders ousted via coup. After the end of the Cold War, the number of military regimes declined considerably: between 1940 and 1990, military regimes comprised 38 percent of all autocracies, but now constitute less than 10 percent of today’s autocratic regimes. This decline contributed to the decrease in coups because coups are the primary means of leadership turnover in military regimes, almost comparable to votes of no-confidence in parliamentary democracies. In Argentina’s military dictatorship from 1966-73, for instance, coups toppled two of that regime’s three leaders. Moreover, since the Cold War, a number of Western countries have implemented policies that seek to punish those who bring down elected governments by suspending foreign aid in the wake of coups. Following the 2013 coup that toppled Egyptian president Mohammad Morsi, the United States announced suspension of military aid to that country shortly afterwards; however, in late April of this year, the Obama administration decided to partially resume military aid to Egypt. Actions like this also may have contributed to the reduction in the frequency of coups worldwide by lowering the payoffs that would-be coup plotters expect to gain by seizing power. Erica Franz photo with borderSimultaneously, the rise of communication technologies and social media has almost certainly fueled a rise in revolts. Revolts capable of bringing down a dictator are notoriously difficult to orchestrate. While coups require only a handful of individuals, revolts entail the mobilization of tens of thousands of citizens. Social media technologies reduce coordination costs, enable more citizens to make anti-regime preferences public, and widely publicize regime abuses that can serve as triggering events for widespread protest. This is not to say that access to social media is causing revolts. Indeed, such technologies may also be a tool that autocrats can use to maintain power, allowing dictators to track and target threatening opposition. Rather, access to social media opens up the possibility for people to make their discontent public, increasing the odds that others will join their cause and, in conjunction with other methods such as radio or word of mouth, facilitating protests big enough to topple longstanding leaders. The rising importance of the masses in autocracies is important for two reasons. First, it suggests that leaders afraid of revolt are likely to shift their survival strategies, which affects political dynamics within these regimes and generates implications for Western engagement. For one, autocrats are likely to place greater emphasis on minimizing the risk of mass protest through greater restrictions on political and civil liberties, and will likely become increasingly suspicious of Western activity in their countries. Most recently, Russian president Vladimir Putin has publicly blamed the West for orchestrating Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych’s ouster, and Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro has used his state-controlled media to blame the United States for protests in his country. Moreover, the vivid examples of instability related to recent revolts and the anti-Western narratives such revolts enable provide leaders with justification for, and perhaps greater public acceptance of, increasingly repressive measures. The rise of revolt, therefore, is likely to fuel restrictive policies such as the uptick in anti-NGO (non-governmental organization) legislation (Russia’s recent “foreign agent law” is one example) and other restrictions that limit civil space and complicate Western engagement. Second, we find that the way that an autocrat leaves office is associated with a country’s subsequent political path. Although revolts that topple leaders occur less frequently than insider-led ousters (i.e., coups and other decisions made among elites behind closed doors), revolts are actually the form of exit most likely to usher in democracy. Only 20 percent of autocratic leader exits from 1950 to 2012 led to democracy, highlighting the resilience of autocratic rule. When leaders fell through revolt, however, democracy followed in 45 percent of cases. Successful coups, in contrast, only led to democracy 10 percent of the time. The rise of revolt, therefore, could be considered a good news story for democracy promotion. However, revolts capable of threatening a leader’s position are usually violent events that put citizens’ lives on the line. And even when protest movements do succeed in bringing down a leader—which in and of itself is no small feat—democracy only follows half the time. Given such risks, identifying factors that increase the prospects of a movement’s success and enhance the prospects that democracy will follow is important. On the former, recent scholarship has found that non-violent movements can increase the odds of success. Movements that avoid violent tactics are better able to attract widespread and diverse participation and provoke defections, loyalty shifts, or disobedience among regime elites and/or security forces that are key to a movement’s success. Less research has addressed how to increase the prospects that democracy follows in the wake of revolts, but again, the extent of violence seems to be key. Non-violent transitions are significantly more likely to usher in democracy than violent ones. Policies that reduce the extent of violence associated with protests, therefore, should enhance prospects for democratization following revolts. For example, institutionalizing a country’s security apparatus (e.g., establishing transparent guidelines for the selection and promotion of members) could improve the odds of democratization post-revolt by deterring security actors from agreeing to respond to protests with force. In Egypt and Tunisia, for example, some scholars have suggested that the relative professionalization of these countries' militaries led them to resist calls for a brutal crackdown, mitigating the number of casualties. These countries, and particularly Tunisia, therefore have better prospects for democracy than a country like Syria where the security services were largely clan-based, highly loyal, and flew to the regime’s defense. Giving dictators a safe exit or promises of appointments to international organizations (several former African autocrats have served or are currently serving at the Economic Community of West African States [ECOWAS], for example) could also help. Such arrangements enhance a leader’s expectation of the future, thereby lowering the chances they will violently cling to power in the face of opposition. (Indeed, there is some evidence that pursuing more aggressive tactics with outgoing autocrats, like punishing them for past abuses in venues like the International Criminal Court, can have negative regional repercussions, reducing democratization prospects in neighboring dictatorships as leaders respond by digging their heels into the ground to avert a similar fate.) The growing importance of the masses in the politics of autocracies suggests that there may room for optimism. Although these dynamics may complicate Western engagement and elicit some backlash from leaders who perceive a rising threat from the public, the empowerment of the masses may create opportunities for democratization in places they have not previously existed.


Andrea Kendall-Taylor is a member of the U.S. intelligence community. She specializes in the political dynamics of autocracies, democratization, and political instability. Erica Frantz is an assistant professor of political science at Bridgewater State University who studies authoritarian politics.

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