The problem with protests

Burkina Faso’s capital, Ouagadougou, is still the scene of clashes between forces loyal to the military junta that just toppled the country’s interim government and those who are protesting said coup. To you and me and most other outsiders, this obviously looks bad, right? And, you know, it is; people are dying in the streets at the hands of security forces backing a government whose legitimacy is highly questionable. But this brings up a point, which may not even apply in the case of Burkina Faso, that I know I lose sight of frequently (though I think/hope I catch myself at least some of the time) when protesters start clashing with security forces (I tend to sympathize with the protesters, in case that becomes unclear later on in this piece), which is this: the mere fact that there are protests is not evidence of a general popular resistance to the government.

Join me as I try to untangle my brains. It could get pretty ugly here, so be forewarned.

Urban protesters get a lot of attention because big urban protests are hard to ignore. This is true whether you’re talking about Burkina Faso, Burundi, Egypt, Tunisia, Iran, Ukraine, Syria, Turkey, Brazil, or China. People crowding and clogging the streets of a major urban center inevitably get noticed. But it’s a huge mistake to assume that a big urban protest movement reflects the general sentiment of the entire country. For one thing, city dwellers aren’t necessarily a majority of a given country’s population: most Brazilians and Ukrainians live in cities, for example, but less than half of Egyptians and only about a quarter of Burkinabé make their homes in a city. We’re all special snowflakes in that sense.

Then you have to figure that even massive protests only draw a small fraction of a city’s people out into the streets, at least at any given time; there are almost 8 million people living in Cairo, for example, and if a majority of them had turned out all at once in 2011 or 2013, it would have been incredible. During the 2013 protests against the Muslim Brotherhood government of Mohamed Morsi, the Egyptian military estimated that 14 million people turned out to protest, nationwide, an absolutely extraordinary number. That figure was almost certainly heavily inflated by the military, which as we all know now was planning a coup to oust Morsi (under the esteemed leadership of General Field Marshal President for Life Abdel Fattah el-Sisi) and needed all the justification it could get. But even at that, 14 million people was about 17% of Egypt’s population. I don’t say this to diminish the power or significance of the protesters who did turn out (hundreds of thousands of people crowding into Tahrir Square at one time made a very compelling point), just to put it into perspective.

Now obviously, you’re thinking, I’m assuming that the people who live in rural areas, or the urban dwellers who don’t go out into the streets to protest, disagree with the protesters, when there’s no reason to make that assumption. They might agree with the protesters but are unable/unwilling to take the risk of protesting, you say, or they might be totally indifferent to whatever is being protested. And that’s true! But don’t we routinely make the opposite assumption? Don’t we regularly assume that a few hundred thousand people protesting in the middle of, say, downtown Cairo are able to speak for over 80 million Egyptians? What evidence do we have to support that assumption? My point is, we simply don’t know. And maybe it doesn’t matter in the big scheme of things; protesters have a right to be heard and truly representative governments ought to be as responsive to them as possible, even if they don’t necessarily represent an absolute majority of the population. But I think it’s helpful to try to keep these things in context, if only for the sake of accuracy.

This is, I think, an important thing to keep in mind, because what happens, at least to me, is that when a government clamps down on protests and people start getting killed, I get angry about that totally unacceptable thing and then start to make some sloppy assumptions about that government’s overall popularity that I’m sure slip into my writing. I’ve had a lot of bad things to say about Burundi’s Pierre Nkurunziza, for example, because of how his security forces have treated protesters in Bujumbura, but that causes me to lose sight of the fact that, outside the city, he has been (and likely continues to be) a really popular guy. And since Burundi is only about 10%-15% urbanized, it’s entirely possible that those protests in Bujumbura are not at all representative of the majority of Burundians. This reflects a very sizable urban-rural opinion gap that obviously can’t be reflected in an urban protest movement, and so if people looking at Burundi from the outside simply focus on the protests they’re getting a very skewed sense of what things look like in Burundi overall. Does this excuse Nkurunziza playing games with the constitution to nab another term in power, and then sending his security forces out to gun down people protesting that? Of course not, but it does help to explain how and why it’s happening.

You’ll very likely be able to say the same thing about Rwanda’s Paul Kagame if/when people start protesting his efforts to get a third term in office; Kagame is by most accounts very popular, and why not? He’s the hero of the 1994 genocide, having rallied the fleeing Tutsi and led the counterattack that pushed the Hutu génocidaires all the way out of Rwanda and into the DRC. Turkey’s Tayyip Erdoğan is another case in point; his popularity appears to have slipped recently, but back in 2014, after his police had spent the better part of a year terrorizing the Gezi Park protesters, he remained popular with Turks at large, even though the very prominent protests in Istanbul might have suggested otherwise. You might even have been able to make this argument about Bashar al-Assad in Syria, at one point, though I’m not sure about that and anyway you couldn’t seriously make it now, after he’s spent four years killing tens of thousands of Syrians “guilty” of nothing more than living in rebel-occupied territory.

On the other hand, you have places like Burkina Faso, where Blaise Compaoré really does seem to have worn out his welcome in 2014; Brazil, where everybody (not just the protesters) really seems to hate Dilma Rousseff; and Ukraine, where we all know there was a sizable minority of people who didn’t approve of the coup that toppled Viktor Yanukovych, but where a large majority appears to have been pretty happy to see him go. There are places like the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where Joseph Kabila may still be popular as he plans to stick around past his term limit, but there doesn’t seem to be any reliable way to tell one way or the other as far as I can see. And Egypt, where popular support for the Morsi government was at approximately ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ percent just before Sisi shoved him out the door.

Of course, even in these places, the legitimacy of forcing out some rulers (ones who were freely and fairly elected, specifically) is questionable at best even when they are wildly unpopular. When an elected leader loses popular support, the appropriate thing to do is, ah, not re-elect them, not to march out into the streets and forcibly remove them from office. Unless, of course, you have reason to think that they’re not going to stand for re-election, or won’t honor the results of another vote, in which case I suppose you have to do what you have to do.

We should also mention Iran, where Mahmoud Ahmadinejad probably played some games with the results of the 2009 elections that then spurred the Green Movement, but where he may have won the election anyway even without those games; after all, most pre-election polling (by both Iranian and Western outfits) showed him in the lead. Again, the Green Movement was a remarkable protest movement and I’m not diminishing its importance (its effects still reverberate through Iranian politics today), but you’d be making an assumption to say that it represented a majority of all Iranians. It’s fine to assume, but we should probably also challenge those assumptions from time to time.

And domestic protests here in the U.S. are fair game for this kind of questioning as well, but that would be another 1400 words at least and I don’t have it in me.

Anyway, if I’ve just written ~1400 words to wrap my head around an error that only I make, please disregard this post. But I imagine that most of us who aren’t subject matter experts in these particular countries are often guilty of looking just at the very attention-grabbing protests without pausing to ask whether those protests really reflect the mood of the nation as a whole.

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