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Analyzing Protest Movements

Scott Stewart
VP of Tactical Analysis, Stratfor
10 MINS READDec 19, 2013 | 10:12 GMT

By Scott Stewart

It has been an interesting week in security events, especially in light of our recently concluded series, "Gauging the Jihadist Movement." On Dec. 13, the FBI arrested a Wichita, Kan., man who was a grassroots jihadist aspiring to conduct a suicide attack at the international airport in Wichita. On the same day, closed-circuit television footage was released of the Dec. 5 al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula attack on a Defense Ministry hospital in Sanaa, Yemen. Then on Dec. 14, a suicide bomber attacked a bank in Kidal, Mali, and a minibus was targeted in a grenade attack in Nairobi, Kenya.

Despite this flurry of events, all of the incidents fall well within the analytical forecasts outlined in the jihadist movement series. Because of this, I've decided not to address them in this Security Weekly. Instead I've decided to discuss another event that has been commanding a lot of our tactical analytical attention over the past few weeks: the demonstrations in Ukraine. These demonstrations provide a good opportunity to discuss how Stratfor analyzes protest movements.

Focus on Ukraine

First, it is important to understand that protests are something that occur daily in a variety of countries and contexts. We are currently monitoring protests in many countries, including Thailand, Egypt, Bahrain, Russia, Tunisia, Bangladesh, Italy, Spain, France, Greece, Mexico and Argentina, among others. Some protests are nonviolent, some — like those in Ukraine — employ civil disobedience, and still others, like those in Libya, can involve heavily armed militias that occupy oil facilities and kidnap government officials to make their demands heard.

With so many diverse protests occurring daily in so many different parts of the world, it is not possible for us to fully analyze every protest that crops up. Instead, we rely upon Stratfor's geopolitical global models and forecasts to direct our analytical efforts toward those protests and movements that are occurring in the most geopolitically significant places and times.

This is why we are focused specifically on the protests currently happening in Ukraine. The Russians view Ukraine as crucial for maintaining the integrity of their country, for moving energy to European markets and for maintaining Russia's link to the Mediterranean through the Black Sea. This is why they endeavor to have a pro-Russian (or at least neutral) regime in power in Kiev. The Europeans and Americans also understand the geopolitical significance of Ukraine, which is why they have attempted, through such things as the 2004 Orange Revolution and the European Union's Eastern Partnership Program, to steer Ukraine toward the West and weaken Russia. Indeed, the current protests in Ukraine began after the Ukrainian government decided not to move forward with key European Union agreements at the late November Eastern Partnership Summit, opting for deals with Russia instead.

There are well-established connections between the pro-European Union opposition groups staging these protests and non-governmental organizations in Germany and the United States. Meanwhile, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich, whose 2004 election victory was overturned by the Orange Revolution, is known to have strong connections to Russia, including ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin, and Russia can use trade, energy supplies and ties to Ukrainian oligarchs to put Kiev under considerable pressure.

Assessing Crowds

As the U.S. Park Police can testify, estimating crowd size is always difficult and almost always controversial. This is why the U.S. Park Police no longer publishes estimates of crowd size. The controversy over crowd size inevitably arises because supporters of a protest will nearly always inflate numbers in an attempt to give their cause more weight, and opponents of the protests nearly always seek to minimize numbers in an effort to discount the significance of the protest.

That said, while it is nearly impossible to get an exact count of a crowd, it is important to attempt to get a rough estimate of the number of protesters to help determine whether the organizers should be taken seriously. A protest claiming to have 100,000 people but drawing only a few thousand is far different from a protest claiming to have drawn 100,000 that really drew 70,000 or 80,000.

The ability to draw even a rough estimate of a crowd is largely dependent upon imagery available of the crowd, and even that can vary, with protest supporters pointing to photographs of the most densely packed areas while protest opponents tend to show sparsely packed areas on the edge of the protest. But in a best-case scenario, there will be aerial photos of the protest area. Then it is a matter of simple mathematics. The area where the protest is occurring can be measured and the crowd density estimated, to provide a rough estimate of the number of protesters. These rough estimates will never be exact, and they have a large margin of error, but they can at the very least be helpful in rapidly dismissing heavily inflated or diminished estimates.

Usually crowd density will vary from place to place within the protest. Crowd-counting researchers, such as Ray Watson of Melbourne University and Paul Yip of the University of Hong Kong, have published academic papers documenting that protest crowds can range from a mosh-pit closeness of one person per 2.5 square feet to a dense crowd of one person per 4.5 square feet to a light crowd with one person every 10 square feet. Because of this variable density, the total area of the protest must be broken into smaller blocks and the crowd density estimated block by block. Still, it is difficult to use a photograph taken at a particular point in time to count people who are moving and shifting, and estimates are always going to be quite inexact — far more art than science.

In the case of Ukraine, the protesters claimed that on Dec. 8 they amassed a crowd of 500,000 people at their demonstration. Reuters later estimated the total as 800,000. Our internal estimate was that Independence Square could hold maybe 125,000 at normal crowd levels and approximately 200,000 at mosh-pit tightness. (There were also substantial barricades and other objects taking up space in the square.) The streets around the square could hold tens of thousands more, but we were skeptical of the higher numbers, unless they were based on protesters at other locations, or upon photos and video we did not have access to, which is always a possibility. Still, there were likely at least 250,000 people demonstrating, and that is a sizable crowd, especially in the cold December temperatures. The protests were not to be dismissed too readily.

Consider Who Is Protesting

When assessing a crowd, the number of protesters is not the only thing to focus on. The composition of the crowd is just as significant. If the protest comprises only students or marginalized people, it is far easier to quash. However, if members of the military and police, bureaucrats, educators, clergy and business owners begin to participate in protests, it is a sign that the protest movement is much more serious, since these people constitute the pillars that provide power to a regime and have the institutional capacity to better organize a movement that employs sophisticated tactics. Because of this, it is the strategy of most protest movements to undercut the regime by recruiting from these classes of people. In the case of Ukraine, the protesters are mostly young people, though not just students, which meant the protests became significantly smaller during the work week when people had to return to their jobs.

While social media is often of limited use in determining numbers, following social media is an excellent way to judge the composition of the protest movement and to obtain details regarding protest tactics and organization, though even this must be done carefully. During Iran's 2009 "Green Revolution," a great number of social media reports claiming to be from people on the ground in Tehran were actually being created by opposition groups in the United States.

Read Their Manuals

As a young intelligence officer in the U.S. Army, I was trained to study Soviet military doctrine. By understanding the Soviets' military philosophy and how their troops were trained to fight, I was equipped to be able to predict how they would deploy and move on the battlefield. The same principle holds true for protest movements. It is very useful to read their training manuals.

Many groups, ranging from the April 6 Movement in Egypt to opposition movements in Ukraine, are working off the same basic playbooks for overthrowing their respective regimes. Influenced by the work of Gene Sharp of the Albert Einstein Institution, groups such as Freedom House, the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict and the Centre for Applied Nonviolent Conflict and Strategies, among many other organizations, have been busy propagating Sharp's strategies for nonviolent struggle through literature, videos and training seminars. They have conducted hundreds of seminars in scores of countries over the past decade. Sharp's most influential book, "From Dictatorship to Democracy," has influenced revolutionaries from Serbia's OTPOR to the Arab Spring and has been translated into 30 different languages. These strategies are employed in a number of different environments, but knowing the strategy makes it easier to judge how well a protest movement is employing it — and whether the protest movement is likely to produce a sustained and wide-ranging impact.

There are numerous questions to ask when examining protest movements. Are the protesters under a unified command, or are various groups involved in the protests? Do the protesters carry uniform, mass-produced signs? What languages are the signs in? Have they adopted a common symbol or color of clothing? Are their able to retain discipline and refrain from violence in the face of state brutality? Are they able to mock and undercut symbols of the regime's power? Are they attempting to lure the security forces onto their side of the conflict? Can the protesters grow their support base by recruiting classes of people belonging to the regime's power base? Is their media outreach intentional and sophisticated or ad hoc?

Obviously, not all protest movements are nonviolent or ascribe to Sharp's strategies. In fact, many subscribe to the Marxist, Maoist or Focoist philosophies we have discussed elsewhere. Still, having a solid understanding of the basics of struggle and regime power as laid out by Sharp provides a very good baseline for judging the status of a particular protest movement, even if it is based on a different operational philosophy.

As far as the current protest movement in Ukraine is concerned, it is very well organized. Indeed, many of the opposition leaders involved in organizing these demonstrations were also involved in Ukraine's Orange Revolution, and as they did in 2004 they are employing many of the strategies outlined by Sharp. (Opposition groups in Ukraine have also received training from foreign non-governmental organizations.) However, at the current time the opposition in Ukraine is fractured, and there is no central figure like Viktor Yushchenko, who was elected president after the Orange Revolution, or former Prime Minister Yulia Timoshenko, who is currently in jail, for them to rally around as they were able to do in 2004. That said, the protests have offered the opportunity for rising opposition figures — most notably Vitaly Klitschko — to emerge.

Moreover, as seen by Yanukovich's election in 2010, Ukraine is quite divided, with many Ukrainians wary of becoming too closely aligned with the European Union. Recent polls show that 37 percent of Ukrainians supported joining the European Union while 33 percent favored membership in the Russian-led Customs Union. This makes the formation of a united mass opposition very difficult. While the current protest movement can cause some political problems for Yanukovich, Ukraine's strategic realities dictate that any leader of Ukraine will have difficulty straying too far from Russia.

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