Wearing high-intensity yellow vests, protesters demonstrated for weeks in Paris and other French cities against a planned fuel tax increase and other economic issues. Protesters in Iraq, Bulgaria, Israel, Taiwan and other countries recently took to the streets in yellow vests as well. Fearing similar protests the Egyptian government in December banned the sale of yellow vests.
Egypt’s decision was probably fueled by memories of the so-called Arab Spring, when Tunisia’s massive anti-government protests spread to similar protests in 10 other countries in the Middle East and North Africa in 2010. In Egypt, the protesters forced the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak after almost 30 years in power.
Should Egypt’s government and other governments worry about France’s yellow vest protests triggering similar protests in their countries?
Our forthcoming research on the diffusion of democracy protests suggests they should not. Protests about domestic issues, we find, do not generally spread from one country to its neighbors. But here’s what can spread: the symbols and approaches that highly visible protests use. Let us explain.
Here’s how we did our research
We collected daily data from newspapers, NGO reports and so forth on the specific dates in which a democracy protest began and ended in every country around the world between 1989 and 2011. We then examined whether a protest beginning in one country made it more likely that a similar protest would begin in a neighboring country (i.e., one within 30 to 500 miles of its borders) within the next 30, 45, 90, 120 or 360 days.
We found no evidence these protests spread. When a protest occurred in one country in this period, it did not significantly increase the likelihood of similar protests taking place in neighboring countries. This was true not just of democracy protests, whose primary demand is open and competitive elections, but also for other forms of anti-government protests, such as the yellow vest protests.
Why are protests unlikely to spread?
Democracy protests do not tend to spread, we argue, because they are about domestic issues that are generally unrelated to what is happening in other countries. Democracy protests tend to arise when elections, economic crises and other events within the country focus the public’s existing anger about political, social or economic grievances, prompting collective action.
In general, protests in neighboring countries do not provoke new discontent in other countries [remind citizens of their own discontent]; nor do they bring people together on behalf of existing [that] discontent. In fact, most democracy protests are small, short-lived, repressed and unsuccessful — and are thus poor models for protests in other countries.
Like democracy protests, the French yellow vest protests are not good models for protests in Egypt and other countries where fuel prices are high. That is because France is a Western democracy where freedom of speech is not only protected but also extolled. It is also known for its protest culture; its citizens and voters could reasonably expect their government to make concessions, as indeed happened.
Egypt, in contrast, is an authoritarian state known for being increasingly repressive toward dissenters. Last year, an Egyptian court sentenced 75 people to death for protesting the 2013 coup d’etat that brought the current president, Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, to power.
So why do protests appear to trigger demonstrations in other countries?
Neighboring countries tend to be similar in many ways. The domestic forces that set off protests in one country may well exist in its neighbors as well. What’s more, it is much easier for academics and the news media to take note of protests that happen soon after one other than it is to track all the protests that were not followed by similar events in neighboring countries.
Between 1989 and 2011, 24 democracy protests began in countries within 45 days of a similar protest in countries within 30 miles of them. But 258 protests — more than 10 times as many — began even though there had not been a similar protest in a neighboring country within the previous 45 days. For instance, in May 2018, Brazilian truck drivers staged massive — and eventually successful — protests against increased fuel prices. Yet we have not seen similar protests in other Latin American countries.
Even if protests do not spread, their symbols and strategies might
Although democracy protests and anti-government protests do not spread to other countries in general, their symbols, strategies and tactics can. By wearing yellow vests, activists outside France have been able to make their protests appear to be part of a larger movement, attracting more international and domestic media attention. The Egyptian government’s decision to ban yellow vests may not be absurd after all.
But many of these protesters have made demands, including anti-Muslim demands in Germany, that are very different from those seen in France. These non-French protests were often triggered by events within their own countries and sometimes even began before their French counterparts. In Bulgaria, the so-called yellow vest protests against fuel prices began a week before those in France; protesters only began wearing yellow vests after they had become iconic in France. In Iraq, protests against unemployment, corruption and poor public services had been going on for months before Iraqi protesters began sporting yellow vests last December.
If we are witnessing a yellow vest wave, it is not a wave of unified protests; rather, it is a spread of the symbols.
Dawn Brancati is visiting scholar at the Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies, Columbia University. She is also the author of “Democracy Protests: Origins, Features, and Significance.”