Last year was one of the most dramatic years of nonviolent action in recent memory, with millions taking to the streets to push for greater economic equality, democratic representation, and social justice. Some of the most dramatic uprisings took place in Africa, where longstanding repressive political regimes were forced from power in Sudan and Algeria, and protests over fuel prices in Zimbabwe led to a government crackdown. The recent almost entirely bloodless coup Mali, in which soldiers abducted President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita and forced him to resign capped a similar uprising, but is complicated by the role of the military in the president’s ouster and the COVID-19 pandemic.
Recent weeks have seen a massive outpouring of peaceful public protest in Belarus after an election widely believed to be fraudulent. Hundreds of thousands of Belarusians have taken to the streets to demand that longtime authoritarian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka step down and another democratic election be held.
Coronavirus has led to a 70 percent decline in public protests worldwide compared to last year—but this doesn’t mean social movements are going away. “There are literally hundreds of other tactics … to express dissent while still following social distancing guidelines,” says USIP’s Jonathan Pinckney.
As the COVID-19 pandemic expands, many social movements have had to drastically rethink their strategies. Movements that previously relied on the visibility and disruption of street protests have either been forced off the streets by quarantine restrictions or have voluntarily ended public protests to protect public health. Yet, this significant reduction in public protests does not mean that movements have gone away.
Last year saw a wave of nonviolent action movements, mostly relying on tactics of large public protests and sit-ins as people took to the streets from Hong Kong to Chile to demand greater democracy, economic equality, and social justice. Some of these movements, like the revolution that successfully ousted Sudan’s longtime authoritarian ruler Omar al-Bashir, achieved many of their goals. Others, like the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong, were still seeking major demands from the government when news of the rapid spread of a novel coronavirus began coming out of central China.
Maria Stephan, senior policy fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace, testified before the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission on March 21, 2017 on "Responding to the Global Threat of Closing Civic Space: Policy Options."