How protests take down dictatorships

The Takeaway

This story was originally covered by PRI’s The Takeaway. For more, listen to the audio above.

At first blush, it looks like a group of unarmed protesters in a public square managed to depose an entrenched dictator in Egypt. But the actual story is a bit more complicated. “The image of the single omnipotent leader sitting in the presidential palace controlling the whole country and all the people in it is a myth,” according to Graeme Robertson, an assistant professor of Political Science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “It’s an old myth, but it’s one that’s particularly strong.”

Buying into the myth obscures the reality of what’s happening in places like Egypt, Libya, and the rest of the Middle East. “Any government requires the cooperation of a whole range of different players, businessmen bureaucrats, labor unions, those kinds of things,” Robertson points out, “but above all specialists in coercion like the military or the security forces.”

The Egyptian protests succeeded because they were able to convince military elites to go against the Mubarak regime, according to Robertson. Whenever a dictator is overthrown, Robertson says, “what’s usually happening is that the opposition has been able to convince key members of the incumbent dictator’s coalition that they’re going to be better off by jumping ship and working with someone else.”

The protests themselves serve an important function in convincing a country’s elites. Information is often spotty in authoritarian regimes. “Rumor, innuendo, these kinds of things play a huge role,” Robertson says. Protests get around the rumors to show elites that there is an alternative to dictatorship.

Protests in the United States, like the ones in Wisconsin, serve a very different function. They’re more common in democracies, Robertson says, more symbolic, and more targeted against a specific grievance, rather than against the system as a whole. ” They’re contained and they’re institutionalized,” Roberson says. “The conflicts get channeled through the institutions of the democracy,” meaning they can have an effect without taking down the country as a whole.


The Takeaway” is a national morning news program, delivering the news and analysis you need to catch up, start your day, and prepare for what’s ahead. The show is a co-production of WNYC and PRI, in editorial collaboration with the BBC, The New York Times Radio, and WGBH.

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