Wartime Nonviolent Mass Protests and Post-Conflict Politics

Reyko Huang, Texas A&M University

This memo was drafted for POMEPS Studies 30,The Politics of Post-Conflict Resolution.” 

In violent conflicts, civilians are often depicted as mere victims of violence whose choices consist of fleeing, staying silent, or actively supporting one warring side or another, all in the pursuit of their primary objective, survival.[1] The basic drive for self-preservation seems so intuitive as to be an unassailable assumption in these contexts. And yet, reality easily defies such depictions. My research shows war often has the effect of galvanizing individuals toward nonviolent mass activism, and that mass activism can outlast the war to critically shape postwar politics. In this essay I study wartime dynamics to explore how the social legacies of war may affect post-conflict politics.

The ongoing war in Yemen has caused immense human suffering, with tens of thousands killed, mass displacement, and a near collapse of state institutions. Despite this trauma, ordinary Yemenis have filled the streets by the hundreds, thousands, and even tens of thousands in an unrelenting series of nonviolent mass protests since the onset of the war in March 2015. According to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data, Yemen experienced 162 popular protests and riots between January 1, 2017, and May 1, 2018, alone.

The largest popular protests have been organized by the Houthis – who now control most of the capital, Sanaa – with messages centering on condemning the Saudi-led bombing campaign conducted in support of the internationally recognized and exiled government of Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi.[2] Many who were not necessarily sympathetic to the Houthis appear to have joined the rallies to voice opposition to the air campaign.[3] Many other protests, however, were grassroots events: Yemenis gathering to oppose al Qaeda presence in their town, express outrage over persistent power shortages caused by wartime instability, appeal to the United Nations to take greater action to end the war, slam the Houthis for their inability to provide fuel, call for the release of detained and disappeared individuals, and demand the secession of south Yemen.[4]

Such nonviolent mass action in the midst of conflict is not unique to Yemen. During the Liberian Civil War, female activists mobilized thousands of women from across the country to demand an end to the 14-year long conflict in a movement that is now widely credited as having propelled the warring sides to peace talks and bringing the war to a conclusion. Likewise, the Nepalese Civil War inspired major nonviolent reformist movements in the capital, culminating in massive demonstrations that forced the ruling monarchy’s capitulation. In these and many other cases, people collectively used their “voice” amidst the war violence rather than simply flee or submit to a warring side.

The tactics used in these events, equally wide-ranging, have included demonstrations, marches, the issuing of statements, designating weekly days of civil disobedience, women’s protests, gas station sit-ins, and the creation of mass street art. Conflict scholarship has largely missed the occurrence and significance of such wartime nonviolent social mobilization, focused as it is overwhelmingly on violent politics during conflict. Studies of post-conflict reconstruction have similarly missed the continuity of such nonviolent mass activism.


Political Apathy is a Peacetime Luxury

Why do ordinary people take extraordinary risks to raise their voices in the midst of conflict? After all, rational choice theory asserts collective action is costly and rational individuals should free ride on the efforts of others instead of participate in collective endeavors.[5] If this logic holds in open societies in peacetime, individuals should experience the collective action dilemma far more acutely in autocratic contexts in wartime, when the cost of participation is not mere time and effort, but potentially severe repression.

They take such risks because war embodies the radicalization and intensification of politics such that ordinary citizens, by virtue of their presence in the country at war, become almost inescapably embroiled in the politics of the war.[6] Large-scale warfare permeates politics and society, becoming a part of life for many individuals and even a way of life for those living in areas of active conflict. The politicizing and mobilizing effects are not limited to areas of active conflict. War and war propaganda by both the state and its opponents dominate news headlines, and symbols of the warring parties– flags, songs, slogans, statues, and iconography– may proliferate in public spaces, above and beyond any such displays in times of peace.

In particular, by living with, and through, a civil war, people become further aware of the presence of political alternatives and the possibility of departures from the status quo. Citizens gain a sense of the vulnerability of the regime as well as the pervasiveness of discontent within society.[7] Increased political awareness, in turn, motivates action: once politically informed, people are more likely to become politically mobilized. By capturing popular attention and imagination and becoming a center of civic discussion, war has the effect of collectively increasing ordinary people’s political awareness and driving mass action.


Voice vs. Silence

Why, then, does war catalyze mass contentious politics in some places but not others? Assuming the potential benefits of successful popular protest are significant for participants, two factors make wartime nonviolent mass contention more likely.[8] First, to take to the streets civilians must be able to locate temporal or geographical pockets of perceived relative safety, pockets that nonetheless allow for the visibility and relevance needed for effective nonviolent contention. Such permissible pockets may be sustained in areas free of active war fighting within the capital or other major towns, in territories controlled or protected by powerful local or international actors, or during credible ceasefire periods. Activism may still be risky, and yet, having been politically mobilized in the war, people are powerfully compelled by some combination of grievance, frustration, anger, and lingering hope to pursue radical changes– so long as they can locate times and spaces of relative safety in which to do so.[9] Perhaps the only instance in which we might observe masses of people taking extraordinarily high risks to protest amidst potentially massive and targeted violence against them is when they have reasons to believe radical change is imminently attainable. Otherwise, even politically mobilized citizens are unlikely to take to the streets if they anticipated direct repression.

Second, nonviolent popular contention is more likely where perceived space for action combines with a history of political liberalization or effective nonviolent contentious action in the conflict state, one that is salient in the people’s collective memory. In these cases, such forms of contention will have become part of a “strong repertoire” – a form of contention that has “meaning in popular memory and continue to have purchase in popular politics.”[10] Even if circumstances had changed, earlier episodes of successful nonviolent contention can continue to drive the popular imagination, reinforcing the belief that the same forms of contention can once again be effective. In contrast, absent a positive historical precedent, or where national historical memory of nonviolent collective action features severe repression by regime forces, people are less likely to risk open protest in the dangerous wartime context.

Participation in mass action in wartime Yemen can be highly risky. Participants have been killed or detained by the state’s security forces or by the Houthis at some of these events, while at others warplanes flew directly above the rallying crowds as part of the air campaign by the Saudi-led coalition. Nevertheless, there is little evidence that nonviolent mass contentious events are regular targets of attack by various belligerent groups. The Saudi-led coalition, for instance, has routinely bombed civilian infrastructure but has refrained from attacking masses of anti-Saudi protestors. The Houthis have detained or disappeared scores of opposition activists, but appears not to inflict violence on mass protests. Militant groups are active in the secessionist south, but nonviolent pro-secession events are generally not targets of armed attacks. Nonviolent contentious gatherings, in fact, emerge in this analysis as an entrenched and even protected practice of mass politics within Yemeni society, even through a staggeringly destructive war.

Yemen, furthermore, has a recent history of political liberalization that enabled nonviolent mass action to become embedded in the society’s contentious repertoire. The unification of North and South Yemen in 1990 opened a new chapter in which diverse political parties contested in several rounds of competitive elections. Though the democratic experiment proved short-lived as former President Ali Abdullah Saleh strengthened his grip on power after the 1994 north-south war, social forces pressing for democracy never retreated. In the decade leading up to the 2011 uprisings, political parties organized mass rallies around election campaigns, people founded new protest movements, and, despite serious pressures from the regime, the Yemeni press remained vibrant.[11]

Even in Syria, where the regime of Bashar al Assad violently repressed the 2011 uprisings, Syrians have not been silent during the ongoing war. To the contrary, they have filled the streets in protest whenever opportunity– that is, pockets of perceived safety– presented itself. For instance, despite the war’s devastating tolls thousands of Syrians took advantage of a brief ceasefire in March 2016 to stage the largest anti-regime demonstrations since war onset, using the slogan “The Revolution Continues” as if to suggest they were awaiting a break in the fighting to inundate the streets once again.[12] Likewise, against all odds Syrians have engaged in wartime protests in other relatively secure places, such as during other ceasefires; in territories under firm rebel control; under the protection of an “anti-government police;” and outside the UN offices in Damascus.[13] As argued, people will continue to tolerate risks to engage in nonviolent contentious action so long as the certainty of repression is lifted, however minimally, temporarily, or tenuously. Syria’s wartime protests, indeed, may be an indication that nonviolent mass activism has become a strong repertoire in Syria since 2011 despite the astoundingly violent repression on the part of the regime.


War, Mobilization, and Postwar Politics

While fascinating on its own, the rise of mass activism during conflict carries important implications for post-conflict politics. First, while wars end, civic activism does not. People are well aware that the transition from war to peace provides a rare window of opportunity for a major reconstitution of politics and society via changes in regimes, institutions, and policies. War termination also creates widespread expectations of a clear break from the past and the delivery of peace dividends. Where the war had fomented substantial nonviolent mass action, postwar political leaders can count on continued public scrutiny of their decisions and readiness on the part of citizens to continue to take to the streets to demand reforms. To ensure postwar stability and shore up popular support, leaders will thus be impelled to strategically and judiciously deliver concessions, be they in the form of increased political rights, greater political representation, or improved access to welfare. Having raised their voices during war, people will sustain their demands for a significant stake in politics in the war’s aftermath.

Relatedly, where war has generated popular mobilization, it will also have created a new repertoire of contention as well as masses of people who are trained in its methods. In Yemen, the idea of taking to the streets, even under substantial risk, is now conventional, making it more than likely people will continue to use nonviolent protest in the post-conflict context to hold political elites to account. Even in Syria, the uprisings of 2011, though violently crushed, may have led many to believe in the viability of nonviolent popular contention whenever a political opening presents itself. If some political space for civic activism opens up in postwar Syria, we can expect Syrians to revive calls for fundamental change, calls postwar elites will be hard pressed to ignore.

War devastates, but ironically it can also motivate nonviolent mass action. In such cases, the upshot is that war may in fact have sown the seeds of later democratization.[14] Political elites rarely, if ever, democratize for democracy’s sake. Democratization, rather, is a strategy of elite power maintenance – a series of reluctant concessions to the masses– in the face of persistent threats from below.[15] In places such as Yemen where war has generated robust new social forces, postwar elites may be compelled to accommodate popular demands through measured pro-social concessions. The extent to which social forces will in fact be able to pressure postwar elites will depend to a significant degree on how conflict ends; negotiated endings typically open up far more political space for state-society bargaining than if one side wins a clear military victory. Either way, for scholars these various possibilities reinforce the importance of studying wartime social dynamics to understand postwar politics, as well as war’s diverging, and not merely its destructive, effects.

[1] E.g. Kalyvas, Stathis and Matthew Kocher, “How ‘Free’ is Free Riding in Civil Wars? Violence, Insurgency, and the Collective Action Problem,” World Politics 59.2 (2007): 177-216.

[2] E.g. al-Mujahed, A. & Raghavan, S., “Massive Protests in Sanaa Mark the Anniversary of Yemen’s Civil War,” The Washington Post, March 26, 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/massive-protests-in-sanaa-mark-first-anniversary-of-yemens-civil-war/2016/03/26/71816892-f297-11e5-a2a3-d4e9697917d1_story.html.

[3] “Watch: Hundreds of Thousands of Yemenis March in Support of Rebels, Saudi-led Coalition Bombs Presidential Palace,” Salon, August 21, 2016, https://www.salon.com/2016/08/21/watch-hundreds-of-thousands-of-yemenis-march-in-support-of-rebels-saudi-led-coalition-bombs-presidential-palace/.

[4] “Hundreds Protest Against Qaeda Control of Yemen City,” Agence France Press—English, May 4, 2015; “Yemen Police Kill One in Aden Protests over Power Cuts,” Agence France Presse—English, May 22, 2016; “Yemeni Women Protest Saudi Airstrikes,” The Washington Post, October 5, 2015, https://www.washingtonpost.com/video/world/yemeni-women-protest-saudi-airstrikes/2015/10/05/a475c10c-6b1b-11e5-91eb-27ad15c2b723_video.html?utm_term=.9e0dafad36f5; Sarah Caspari, “How Women in Yemen Adopted the Art of Protest,” The Christian Science Monitor, August 14, 2015, https://www.csmonitor.com/World/Global-News/2015/0814/How-women-in-Yemen-adopted-the-art-of-protest; Ruth Sherlock, “In Yemen, Mothers of Detained Won’t Stop Protests Till their Sons are Freed,” NPR, November 26, 2017,  https://www.npr.org/sections/parallels/2017/11/26/566377498/in-yemen-mothers-of-detained-wont-stop-protests-till-their-sons-are-freed.

[5] Olson, Mancur, The Logic of Collective Action, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1965.

[6] Huang, Reyko, The Wartime Origins of Democratization: Civil War, Rebel Governance, and Political Regimes, Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2016.

[7] Kuran, Timur, “Now Out of Never: The Element of Surprise in the East European Revolution of 1989,” World Politics 44.1 (1991): 7-48; Bunce, Valerie, “Rethinking Recent Democratization: Lessons from the Postcommunist Experience,” World Politics 55.2 (2003): 167-192.

[8] This analysis is based on my working paper, “Nonviolent Mass Activism During Conflict,” prepared for presentation at the International Studies Association Annual Conference, San Francisco, 2018.

[9] Aminzade, Ron and Doug McAdam, “Emotions and Contentious Politics,” in Silence and Voice in the Study of Contentious Politics, 14-50.

[10] Tarrow, Sidney, Power in Movement, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011, p. 114.

[11] Heibach, Jens and Mareike Transfeld, “Opposition Dynamism under Authoritarianism: The Case of Yemen, 1994-2011,” Democratization, 2017; Wedeen 2008; Schwedler 2002; also http://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/menasource/the-yemen-war-media-and-propaganda.

[12] Barnard, Anne, “Syria Protesters Take to Streets as Airstrikes Ease,” The New York Times, March 4, 2016, https://nyti.ms/2nJ1kJ7.

[13] “Wave of Anti-Assad Protests across Syria in Wake of Fragile Ceasefire,” The Telegraph, April 13, 2012, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/middleeast/syria/9203143/Wave-of-anti-Assad-protests-across-Syria-in-wake-of-fragile-ceasefire.html; “Protests across Syria’s Rebel-Held Areas in Solidarity with Aleppo, BBC Monitoring Middle East, December 2016; “Protests in Northern Syria under Protection of ‘Free Police,’” BBC Monitoring Middle East, March 11, 2017; “Hundreds in Syria Capital Protest US Strike,” Agence France Presse. April 11, 2017.

[14] See Huang (2016); Wood, Elisabeth Jean. Forging Democracy from Below: Insurgent Transitions in South Africa and El Salvador. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000; Kadivar, Mohammad Ali and Neal Caren, “Disruptive Democratization: Contentious Events and Liberalizing Outcomes Globally, 1990-2004,” Social Forces 94.3 (2016): 975-996.

[15] E.g. Boix, Carles. Democracy and Redistribution. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003.