Understanding Protest Movements
By TorchStone VP, Scott Stewart
This September, 22-year-old Mahsa Amini died in police custody in Tehran after being arrested for having violated an Iranian law requiring women to wear a hijab, a head scarf that fully covers their hair.
The news of her death struck a nerve and demonstrations quickly erupted across Iran—and have continued to the present.
Protests in Iran are nothing new and can spring from a variety of causes, including the price of fuel or chicken.
Nonetheless, the protests that have erupted in the wake of Amini’s death have been the most significant demonstrations in Iran since the 2009-10 “Green Movement” protests that erupted following the announcement that Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had won re-election by a landslide.
The Iranian government’s attempts to use force to put down this latest round of protests have been unsuccessful, and have, in fact, only served to harden the resolve of the protesters and garner sympathy for them from other sectors of society.
The ongoing Iranian protests provide a good opportunity to discuss how to understand and assess protest movements.
Estimating Crowd Size
Perhaps the most obvious thing that should be considered when assessing a protest movement is the size of the movement in relation to the population at large.
One way to gauge the overall size of a movement is the number of people that turn out for protests.
As seen by the heated debate that arose over the number of people who attended the Jan.2017 presidential inauguration in the United States, estimating crowd size is always difficult—and is almost always controversial.
Disagreements over crowd size inevitably arise because protest supporters tend to inflate the number of attendees in an attempt to give their cause more weight, while their opponents nearly always seek to minimize the number of participants to discount the significance of the event and the movement behind it.
While it is nearly impossible to get an exact count of a crowd, it is possible to get a rough estimate of the number of participants at a demonstration to help determine whether the movement that organized the event should be taken seriously.
A protest claiming to have 100,000 people but drawing only a few thousand is far different from a protest claiming to have drawn 100,000 that really drew 70,000 or 80,000.
The ability to draw even a rough estimate of a crowd is largely dependent upon imagery available of the crowd—and even that can vary—with protest supporters pointing to photographs of the most densely packed areas, and protest opponents highlighting sparsely packed areas on the edge of the protest.
In a best-case scenario, there will be aerial photos of the protest area that provide a good overall view of the crowd.
If such photos allow the crowd density to be estimated, it is fairly simple to provide a rough estimate of the number of protesters.
Crowd-counting researchers such as Ray Watson of Melbourne University and Paul Yip of the University of Hong Kong have published academic papers documenting that protest crowds can range from the extreme closeness of one person per 2.5 square feet to a dense crowd of one person per 4.5 square feet to a light crowd with one person every 10 square feet.
Because of this variable density, the total area of the protest must be broken into smaller blocks and estimated block by block.
Using photographs taken at a specific point in time to count people who move and shift over time is never going to be 100 percent accurate, but they allow us to roughly gauge the size of the crowd.
Identify Who Is Protesting
But the sheer number of protesters is not the only factor to consider when assessing a protest movement.
Who is protesting—the composition of the crowd—is just as significant, if not more important, as its size.
One of the best guides to understanding protest movements are the books written by Gene Sharp such as his book From Dictatorship to Democracy.
Sharp’s books are useful and credible because they lay out theories on nonviolent revolution that have been adopted by a large array of groups including Freedom House, the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, and the Centre for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies, among many other organizations. From Dictatorship to Democracy, for example, has been translated into over 30 different languages.
These groups have propagated Sharp’s strategies for nonviolent struggle through literature, videos, and training seminars.
They have also conducted thousands of seminars in scores of countries over the past two decades.
Sharp’s theories have influenced revolutionaries that participated in Serbia’s 2000 revolution, the Arab Spring, and the 2013 Maidan Square revolution in Ukraine among many other struggles.
One of Sharp’s key observations is that if a protest movement is only comprised of students or marginalized people, it is far easier for the authorities to quickly quash it with overwhelming violence.
However, a protest movement that attracts support from a broad cross-section of society is far harder to forcibly put down.
Sharp thus emphasizes the importance of protest movement leaders reaching out to other segments of society, as protests involving all segments of society—not only students but farmers, factory workers, shop owners, and retirees—must be taken seriously.
This is exactly what we are seeing in the ongoing protests in Iran, as it is not just women or students demonstrating against the regime.
But in addition to building support for their revolutionary movement, protesters must also seek to undermine the power of the regime.
In his book Waging Nonviolent Struggle, Sharp refers to the “institutions and sections of the society that supply the existing regime with sources of power required for maintenance and expansion of its power capacity” as the regime’s “pillars of support.”
The six pillars of support:
- Local Community (mayor, city council, local bureaucrats, community leaders, business leaders, and citizens.)
- Central Bureaucracy
- Educational System
- Organized Religion
- Business /Commercial Institutions
As for the protest movement in Iran, we should thus pay careful attention to signs that these pillars of support for the regime are beginning to crumble.
The security forces are an important source of the regime’s power, and when veterans join a protest movement, as they did in large numbers in Ukraine in 2013, it is a powerful indicator that the pillar may be crumbling.
The sight of Egyptian security forces beginning to side with the protest movement in Tahrir square was a significant inflection point in the 2011 revolution in Egypt which resulted in the overthrow of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak.
Iran has a bifurcated security system in which the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) is a Praetorian guard that is involved in almost every political, religious, economic, and cultural aspect of Iranian society.
The apolitical regular military, known as the Artesh, has long been jealous of the prestige of the IRGC as well as the corruption and graft that have enriched the IRGC leadership.
Close attention should thus be paid to signs of tension between the IRGC and the Artesh, as this could signal a critical mass of opposition to the current regime.
Identify How They are Protesting
By reading the works of Gene Sharp and other revolutionary ideologues, we learn the strategies employed by these groups and therefore can judge how well a specific protest movement is employing the tactics and strategies.
In the case of Iran, we see the protesters frequently employing so-called dilemma actions.
For example, a woman taking off her hijab and sitting down to brush her hair in the center of a public street creates a dilemma for the government.
If they arrest her for such an innocuous action, it makes the security forces appear to be heavy-handed and generates sympathy for the protesters.
If the government takes no action, it makes the government appear weak and encourages others to conduct similar public displays of defiance.
Hence the dilemma such actions create for the government.
Another aspect to examine is the degree of the protest movement’s organization:
- Are protest leaders able to control the activities of demonstrators over time and distance?
- Is there a unified command among the protesters, or are there factional tensions and fault lines that the regime can exploit to divide them?
- Do protesters carry signs or placards with standard messaging?
- Are the signs hand-made or mass-produced?
- Have the protesters adopted symbolic items of clothing or a particular color like the “green revolution?”
- Is the leadership able to maintain discipline among the demonstrators and prevent them from committing violence in the face of state brutality?
With the democratization of media due to smartphones and the internet, media efforts are also a significant facet of modern protest movements.
- Are the protest movement’s communication efforts sophisticated—or haphazard?
- Are those media efforts targeting a domestic audience, a foreign audience, or both?
- Are media efforts being tailored to broaden the protest movement’s support across other sectors of society, and are they being used to undercut the regime’s pillars of power?
In the case of Iran, while we are seeing widespread uprisings by a variety of actors and factions, we are not yet seeing strong indications of central control.
We are also seeing a good deal of violence, with arson attacks being conducted against security forces and symbolic regime targets. Some protesters have also engaged security forces in running firefights.
The point at which the government begins to use violence against a non-violent protest movement is a critical juncture, and it is important to watch the reaction of the protesters to the government’s use of force.
Do they show signs of fear? Do they back down?
Past protest movements such as the Egyptian revolution and the Maidan protests in Ukraine demonstrated that once the protest movement loses its fear of the government and is able to take and control a symbolic site such as Tahrir Square in Cairo or Maidan Square in Kyiv, it is not easy to suppress the movement—especially if it enjoys widespread public support.
In both cases, government attempts to suppress protests with overwhelming force failed.
Many of the protesters in Iran have clearly lost their fear of government security forces and have begun to respond to the government’s use of force in kind.
But it remains to be seen if they can generate the type of widespread public support needed to succeed in overthrowing the government.
Given the success of the Islamic regime in putting down past protest movements in recent decades, it is logical to be skeptical about the possibility of the current protest movement toppling the regime.
However, as long as the protest movement survives, the situation in Iran should be watched carefully for signs that the protesters are strengthening—and the regime weakening.