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Do Anti-Government Protests Ever Work? Here Are 5 Recent Examples That Say Maybe Not

Ukrainians in Kiev protesting their government's decision to break off a deal with the E.U. / Ryan Anderson via Flickr

It seems like 90% of news these days is about protests against governments. In fact, it's probably the odd day when your Twitter feed isn't clogged with protest news. Today is no exception.

But does protesting your government ever work? Experts talk a lot about "timing" and "momentum" as if there was a secret formula that, when properly mixed, creates the perfect protest. Well, is there?

Probably not, but it's pretty clear that some protests work really well and others just fizzle out (or get crushed). In case you ever want to protest your government, take a look at some protests that worked and didn't work and plan accordingly.

1. Thailand

What are they protesting?

Demonstrators in the Thai capital of Bangkok want to get rid of the country's prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra.

Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra / itupictures via Flickr

Yingluck's brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, ran the country until he got kicked out by a military coup in 2006. People loyal to the king (mostly upper and middle class people) say Thaksin is still running the country from exile, using his sister as a pawn.

Protesters spent the week erecting street barricades and fighting police in the streets. Lots of people were injured and four died.

But at the same time, protesters have a lot of sympathy from the police, which is a big advantage.

But Thaksin has a lot of supporters in the countryside.

Did it work?

No one knows yet. The respected King Bhumibol Adulyadej asked everybody in the country to take a chill pill on his birthday, so the protesters agreed to a temporary truce and lit some fireworks in his honor.

If you're going to protest it helps to have a king on your side. The prime minister may be out of luck: Protesters have vowed to continue demonstrating against the government until the regime is gone. And they've got some leverage: Protesters still occupy some government buildings and the economy is in the toilet.

Then again, it might all come down to Thailand's military, which has been involved in 18 coups over the last 80 years. Now, the military has promised to just mediate talks, but you know the saying: Fool me 18 times, shame on you; fool me 19 times, shame on me!

2. Ukraine

A Ukrainian protester / Ivan Bandura via Flickr

What are they protesting?

Hundreds of thousands of young Ukrainians started a demonstration in the country's capital Kiev a few days ago to protest President Viktor Yanukovych's decision to not sign a trade deal with the EU because it would make Russia super jealous.

It's snowballed into a much bigger deal. Protesters are demanding new elections in parliament and for the president to step down. And as the demands have escalated, so has the violence.

Some people blame radical nationalists, who are glomming onto the massive protests and ratcheting up the fighting.

One big reason people are getting so worked up is that until 1991, Ukraine was a part of Soviet Russia, and they don't like Russian President Putin's strong influence.


Did it work?

It looks like it might. At least some of the protesters' demands are being met.

Some people are saying that if the president gives in to the trade demands and lets the protesters tire themselves out, the government will survive intact.

But the concessions may be too little too late. Lots of experts are comparing these protests to the Orange Revolution, which toppled the whole government in 2004.

3. Egypt

Protesters in Tahrir Square / Gigi Ibrahim via Flickr

What are they protesting?

Right now people are protesting a new constitution that is going to give the country's military a lot more political power.

Did it work?

These ones didn't, but Egypt is famous for its successful protests. During the so-called Arab Spring -- a recent revolutionary movement in the Arab world -- the much-loathed dictator Mubarak was kicked out of power after millions of people protested against his government in 2011. Shortly after that, the country installed its first democratically elected government.

But since then, things have taken a turn for the worse. First, people who disliked Morsi's Islamist and authoritarian tendencies egged the military into overthrowing him. Now, Egypt's government is effectively run by its military. And people are becoming increasingly alarmed that things are going in the wrong direction.

Islamists are frustrated with what they see as a coup and have been fighting anti-Morsi groups for months. Despite military crackdowns that have killed hundreds of civilians and jailed thousands of Muslim Brotherhood supporters, people continue to strike and protest against the military.

But protesting may get harder to organize because the government recently passed a law prohibiting people from protesting without letting the police know beforehand.

Protests in Egypt have worked when the government needs to change, but they don't guarantee a good replacement. Egypt lacks organized political parties (beside the Muslim Brotherhood).

4. Turkey

Graffiti from the 2013 Istanbul protests / Denis Bocuqet via Flickr

What were they protesting?

You may not remember the massive street protests in Istanbul from back in the summer. But it was over plans to construct new buildings in one of Istanbul's only parks.

The protest at Gezi Park blossomed into countrywide demonstrations against Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, who people accused of becoming increasingly tyrannical after a decade in power.

Did it work?

Although the Turkish protests were muted compared to the massive upheavals in Egypt and Syria, they did get what they wanted. Development on the park was stopped.

It's also inspired massive country-wide demonstrations about a bunch of different issues.

Turkish individuals are still comfortable protesting, which might have to do with the tangible goals of many protests.

5. Brazil

Massive street protests in Rio de Janeiro / Semilla Luz via Flickr

What were they protesting?

What started as a limited demonstration by trade unions demanding better work hours became a national protest -- #ChangeBrazil -- as huge numbers of Brazilians stormed the streets of Rio de Janeiro and other cities to protest the country's degrading public services -- especially transportation.

The protests extended throughout all of Brazil's 27 states and cut off many national highways.

Public service workers protested low wages, people in Rio protested the government forcibly clearing out slums (or favelas) to clean the city for the 2014 World Cup.

Did it work?

Not really, but that's because Brazil's problems can't be quickly fixed.

Brazil's economy is actually doing really well, and it's middle class has expanded by 40 million people in the last 10 years.

The problem is that even though people are making more money, their living conditions aren't getting much better. Infrastructure in Brazil is crummy, public education is still substandard, public transportation is overcrowded, and the police are widely seen as corrupt and inefficient. These are all complicated issues that will take years -- if not decades -- of systematic reform to fix.

But that won't stop people from protesting. Brazil's police are gearing up for demonstrations that will be staged next June during the opening of the World Cup.


Learn about nonviolent protest methods >>

Learn how to apply first aid at a protest >>

Learn your legal rights as a protester >>

Organize a protest >>

Images used under Creative Commons licensing.

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Do Anti-Government Protests Ever Work? Here Are 5 Recent Examples That Say Maybe Not

Eli Wolfe

Eli is a freelance writer and researcher in San Francisco and the larger Bay Area. He previously worked for the San Francisco Magazine as an intern and fellow. At UC Santa Cruz, Eli was the managing editor for City on a Hill Press, the student-run weekly newspaper. He’s an early riser who completes more crossword puzzles before 6 a.m. than most people attempt all day. Follow: @eliwolfe4.

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