Regime Change by the People

The popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt pose the fundamental question of how best to analyze regime change driven by the power of the people. This article explores dynamic patterns of behavior both on part of civil protest movements and targeted autocratic regimes. These patterns of interaction rule the confrontation and its ultimate outcome, and are of strategic importance not only for the antagonistic parties in conflict, but also for the international community trying to influence the events, and for invested business seeking to manage the political risks stemming from this kind of regime change.

Types of regime change

Historically, there have been various ways to end autocratic regimes, such as war and foreign military intervention, armed non-international conflict (‘civil war’) and armed revolutions. Different from these occurrences is ‘regime change by the people’ as currently being witnessed in Tunisia and Egypt, and unfolding in other Arab countries. Generally, civil insurrections against autocratic governments are not based on the organized use of armed force. This is their major characteristic. Unfortunately, violence often occurs, also claiming lives, due to the use of armed force by the regime, and escalating clashes in the streets.

Given the asymmetric power yielded by the opponents in a struggle for regime change, is it possible to know what the outcome will be? Experience from a formidable number of precedents suggests that there are indeed particular patterns of collective action that can be observed as the confrontation evolves and might indicate what the ‘endgame’ will be like.


Some former cases of regime change with non-armed civil or labor movements as important drivers include countries in South Europe in the 1970s (Greece, Spain, Portugal) and Latin America in the 1980s (Brazil, Argentina, Chile). Examples in Asia comprise the Philippines (1986), South-Korea (1987) and, later, Indonesia (1998). In most of these cases, military dictatorships were brought down. At the end of the 1980s, people power was turning against communist regimes in Eastern Europe, with Poland leading as an example. In former communist East-Germany, a peaceful revolution paved the way to unification with West-Germany in 1990. Another remarkable example consists of the ending of the apartheid regime in South Africa (1992).

Regime change has, however, also failed in a number of instances. Either the regime managed to suppress the civil movement by force; or, the regime change did not lead to the establishment of a democracy. In the former case, the military clampdown in China in 1989 (Tianmen Square, Beijing) remains unforgotten; in Myanmar, social protesters were brutally subdued twice (1988 and 2007); recent examples include, Uzbekistan (2005) Iran (2009) and Thailand (2010). Disappointing, with respect to the objective of sustained democratization, remained the regime changes in Serbia (2000), Georgia (2003), Ukraine (2004), and Kyrgyzstan (see riots in 2010).

From that non-exhaustive list one can already see, that civil uprisings against dictatorships have occurred across the world; and there was never a serious reason to believe that the same could not happen in the Arab countries – as if the Muslim population was not fit for democracy. Second, the outcome is painfully open, depending on the brutality of the regime and its readiness to kill its own people in larger numbers. Resolve and resilience of the opponents are the major variables to watch, and the following section will look more deeply into that. Third, toppling a regime with people power only comprises the very first phase of regime change, since some transitional agreement about a constitutional process and free elections must ultimately be negotiated between representatives of the opposition and the regime.

Conditions and triggers

Why is it so difficult for outsiders to anticipate civil insurrections against an autocratic regime? There are three components that need to come together in order to build an explosive mixture, only the first of which can be determined beforehand. The first component concerns the living conditions of the population in a country causing deep dissatisfaction and frustration with their regime. Degrees of political oppression, economic disparity and social discrimination, as well as an angry public mood are recorded by appropriate quantitative indices.

Next, a trigger is needed to really upset the people; then, they will take to the streets. Obviously, what kind of trigger that is in each case, cannot be said in advance. Some typical triggers, though, are fraudulent elections, severe incidents of kleptocracy and corruption, a rise in food or fuel prices, or symbolic events, such as the death of pre-eminent individuals, by regime murder or self-sacrifice, that gives the public a face to identify with. Regime change movements are also contagious, as could be observed after the beginning of the protests in Tunisia, because the population in other countries feel encouraged to follow the example.

The third component is added by the regime’s initial reaction. In the beginning, public protests often pursue short-term goals, addressing the immediate grievances and demanding more freedom, justice and socio-economic equality from the regime. However, even if ousting a regime is not on the protestors’ original agenda, dictators still feel that their very existence is being challenged. Anger and fear make them send out their ‘security’ forces, police, intelligence agents, or thugs in plainclothes in order to nip the protests in the bud. Brutal repression aims to intimidate the protesters, but more often it only increases the popular anger, broadens the civil movement and eventually strengthens its resolve to finish off the regime completely.

The psychology of the critical mass

The social movement must keep momentum in order to gain a critical mass. That is crucial for success, and not as easy as it might seem. Fear is also a strong sentiment among the individual protesters, for good reasons, because they might be injured or killed by the state security. To cope with fear, individuals need to develop the expectation that collective action will provide some protection within a growing and solid protest community. A civil movement gains a critical mass when successively more people take part in risky rallies than individually expected. That defines the psychological nature of collective action, because even reluctant bystanders are then ready to join in, further enlarging the critical mass.

Building a critical mass is, however, not necessarily a fast and linear process. Dictators instinctively try to disrupt collective action by increasing the risks to individual activists and by deterring others from joining. In the face of severe beatings, detention and torture, or open killings, a social movement might never be able to gain critical mass. However, evidence form empirical cases suggest a variety of factors that improve the chances of success.

The protest movement ideally includes a broad coalition of students, trade unions, both urban middle-class and rural population, churches and other associations. Although, it is better to run a decentralized network structure for the movement, it needs to be able to coordinate diverse protest actions in various places. Mobile phones and  internet platforms are helpful in that regard. Since regime repression works best against mass concentrations, in particular on the central square of the capital, a civil movement will increase its resilience, if it applies protest methods of risk dispersion, such as marches and rallies in numerous cities at the same time, civil disobedience and passive resistance, boycotts and strikes, undermining the legitimacy of the state (see K. Schock: Unarmed Insurrections). Depending on the role of trade unions, a general strike has proven to be a very effective measure, since it can threaten the economic viability of a regime. It is key to retain the non-violent nature of the protest movement in order to win international support, from the media and influential states, as well as from corporate business, all interested in a peaceful and swift change for a new system. Various organizations, such as the Washington-based, International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, engage in studying and teaching  civil strategies.

Ultimately, the protest activities aim to evoke divisions within the regime, separating hard-liners from soft-liners, who might be willing to compromise. On the part of the regime members, a game of expectations is now unfolding, too. It includes expectations towards the resolve and closeness of the social movement, towards probable international sanctions, and towards deepening cracks in the regime’s unity. The ‘tipping point’ towards regime change is reached with increasing disagreement within the ‘security’ forces, particularly, when relevant parts of the military refuse to shoot their own people.

This might not happen out of altruistic motives, but for opportunistic considerations. Avoiding charges of human rights crimes can be one reason. Moreover, the police and the military might realize that they will be needed for restoring order after the regime change and therefore might prefer to secure their future role via negotiations. In the past the international community has played a vital role in isolating the hard-liners and encouraging the soft-liner to enter negotiations. International envoys can also act as mediators between soft-liners and representatives of the social movement in order to organize the transitional process.

Depending on the harshness of the confrontation with the regime, the social movement might have become radicalized and include extremist groups. Moderation on part of the opposition and control of the extremists, is very important at that point. This is the time, when intellectuals and legitimate leaders need to take over from the activists. If they represent a broad coalition amongst the protest groups, talks with the regime’s soft-liners can follow. In fact, the transition to a new governmental system, including constitutional reforms and free elections, will very often be negotiated among the elites.

The events in Tunisia and Egypt are consistent with the dynamic patterns of collective action described above. It is a proven scheme for analyzing regime change by the people. Regarding other Arab countries, such as Yemen or Jordan, where, at the time of writing, the regimes have reacted more conciliatory towards the protests, the patterns suggest that concessions are usually the beginning of the end, too. In fact, authoritarian regimes face a dilemma in choosing between concessions that will ultimately increase the appetite for free democratic elections, and repression that will radicalize the movement for the same goal.