Brett Daniel Shehadey
Special Contributor for In Homeland Security
The world has entered a decade of demonstrations against existing power structures since 2010. Major causes of this civil protest explosion are the result of increasing: authoritarianism, Islamic fundamentalism, secessionism, legitimacy of concept, political influence and eliciting international sympathy and support.
A secondary cause is the copy-cat approach to political empowerment; and what seemed at the time, successes of a potential democratic wave in North Africa and Central Asia. But many of these were eventually stalled, overturned or dispersed. If an authoritarian model was replaced, the massive power transfer was quickly undermined with the same vertical, authoritarian methods as the last- or even ousted, as in Egypt. The names and groups would change only to retaliate or offer little if anything in the way of progress. There were however, considerable political and economic concessions offered and made by strong central governments where these demonstrations were taking place.
A key factor for the incredible rise in the number of civil state protests and demonstrations in general, is the legitimization of peaceful demonstrations around the world and their gradual long-term effectiveness. One might say that they are so effective, when properly timed, that they leave a sudden unstable power vacuum within the domestic politics of a state. In Ramadi, Iraq, tribal leaders held a year-long, mostly non-violent, protest camp against the Nouri al-Maliki regime for such things as inequality, abuse and autonomy. This was so effective that the national Iraqi military pulled their forces out- only to be replaced by nefarious terrorists- al Qaeda. Success sometimes breeds wicked failure in such efforts.
Peaceful political demonstrations are clearly seen in revolutionary historic movements that included the overturning of policies or the overthrow of governments. Often times they spread throughout an entire nation. These passive measures are the gathering of both cunning and desperate individuals and may even be combined with other questionable tactics to achieve an organizing stated objective or larger strategy.
Also there are the demonstrations as a matter of social expression. Spontaneous sit-ins and protest events that are non-violent are often an aggravated body of diverse peoples united by common cause which might lead to rioting, vandalism and violence.
Either the militant or the pacifist can and does use civil protests. This does not mean they share common objectives or methods. Thus, one burdensome requirement is to determine the scope of the protests in light of other groups, events and larger objectives, intentions, and the consequential aftermath.
Is the protest a new movement? If so, what is it? Is the protest just a rowdy group of citizens? Who are they? Could they be foreigners or have foreign ties? What do they demand exactly? And so on.
Such analyses are made more complicated by incomplete information and any missing gaps. Protests often turn into riots through social hijacking. Thus more radical groups can easily prey on the most liberal universal marches. A defeated original peaceful intention might quickly become random gatherings of masses leading to a more unstable nature and led only by a cumulative impulse. Thus, controlling and manipulating demonstrations becomes increasingly difficult for any interested party or foreign state.
One of the only defenses available for peaceful resistance political demonstrations is non-interference by more violent groups. Framing the original organizers by a government willing to incite violence and then trying scapegoats becomes as easy as swatting flies with minimal collateral damage.
Clear and open channels of information and news reporting are the only ally. Still, authoritarian governments manipulate and prevent the airwaves with total news dominance. Individual reporters and intelligence agencies must then face-off with state authorities, keeping in mind the diplomatic concerns of their respective bilateral relations.
The immediate goals of the peaceful demonstrator are to: raise awareness, build tolerance and gain critical mass in the streets at the grass-roots level. However, with social media and real-time communications available to everyone, it is possible to broadcast a protest or the abuse of a government instantly. And with this capability may allow for greater access to a national or international audience. It may also be possible for them to gain sympathizers on each block if witnesses there have visible and personable experience of the government conducting the abuses on innocents. They must appear as doves and completely faultless for the tactic to propel them some kind of political power.
Interestingly enough, historically, the early Christians held to similar tactics in mass martyrdom. Not only was their religious movement illegal in the Roman Empire for the first three hundred years of existence but it went through periods of large crackdowns that made it stronger through endurance, patience and innocence.
The modern operational art of protest and civil movements, however, is a one of global image. One side is armed without weapons and the other must appear to have an incriminating number of arms and forces- the more the better. It is for this reason, as in the past, that secret police and their informants would roam the streets and weed out the undesirables via counterrevolutionary measures or counterintelligence operations. This is like an iceberg; especially the larger and long-lasting protests. Such are political movements whose main struggle is found below the surface or kept from visible light. In the shadows, a government may act coercively to infiltrate, decapitate, disrupt, intimidate torture and dissolve the demonstration’s participants.
The conflict of power here must be seen by outsiders as the narrative of a group of people challenging the legitimacy of stolen power or the equivalent of a philosophical, broken, social contract between a people and state leadership. The burden of proof is then on them to show the rest of the people and potential the world. They must shine as much light on the inhumane abuses or brutal acts of the government as they can; often baiting the government to commit further atrocities or politically yield to their demands and reach some type of bargain, replacement or power-sharing agreement.
At other times, protests are just social devices by special interest groups rather than a campaign in search of universal rights. They can be desperate measures but are likely results of opportunity windows for their cause to advance. These types may exist within the schema of an organization or may be disorganized and random. Either the well planned or the whimsical public protests can make the ruling authorities in power appear too brutal or in the wrong.
First and second world governments may disperse the crowds using the virtue of patience and then more justifiably clear the streets. After all, political protests will increasingly be subject to self-humiliating acts; and having to do more reprehensible things to gain attention and publicity for a cause is often unavoidable. They may use state-sponsored counter demonstrators at the start of an anti-government passive protest. This tactic may offer them public validation, as well as a stage to launch a pro-state media campaign.
Terrorism by deed was a common practice by anarchists, even when such expositions did not target or intend to harm anyone but were added pyrotechnics to elicit shock and fear around the issue. Such acts, being more aggressive, are still considered violent. Environmental activist groups in 1990s America might engage in eco-terrorism and then jump into the Sunday environmental awareness march. The same might be said of moderate and fundamentalist Islamic protests, where certain participants are militants but travel in and out of crowd activism and awareness.
But there is almost always the case that the longer a demonstration movement lingers the more crime will be placed on them and the more acts of impulse will lead them off to the gallows. In Turkey, it was defecation, vandalism and littering all over the Gezi Park area that they were allegedly trying to protect from the government.
Yet some peaceful protests turn into large movements, to revolutions, civilizations and superpowers.