Born Weak, Growing Strong: Anti‐Government Protests as a Signal of Rebel Strength in the Context of Civil Wars

Author Summary by Bahar Leventoğlu and Nils W. Metternich


Born Weak, Growing Strong: Anti‐Government Protests as a Signal of Rebel Strength in the Context of Civil WarsProtests during civil wars have received little attention in political science literature. This is surprising since protests are common in the context of civil wars and seem to be associated with the emergence of peace agreements. In our recent article we explore how strong rebel organizations can trigger larger anti-government movements by exposing weakness of the government, which in turn allows them to attain favorable civil conflict outcomes. We propose that urban middle-class individuals, who are less likely to express their discontent through joining rebel organizations, demonstrate their anti-government sentiments through protest and strikes. Based on cascade models (Granovetter, 1978; Kuran, 1989; Lohmann, 1993; Yin, 1998), we provide a theoretical argument demonstrating that governments faced with protest in the context of civil wars are more likely to enter peace agreements and negotiations.

Our article relates to a prominent debate in the social movement literature (Goodwin and Skocpol, 1989), namely the link between rebel organizations that operate on the periphery of the state and the middle-class that tends to organize in urban areas. In fact, Skocpol (1979: p.113) argues that: “Without peasant revolts, urban radicalism in predominantly agrarian countries has not in the end been able to accomplish social-revolutionary transformations.” This literature also suggests that supporters in urban areas can be involved in fighting (Gugler, 1982), but don’t necessarily engage in most costly forms of anti-government behavior (Almeida, 2003). Instead, they engage in protest and demonstrations to express their dissatisfaction with the state.  Our theoretical argument is inspired by this literature and highlights how wars expose the weakness of the state and create opportunities that can be exploited by social movements (Skocpol, 1979; Tarrow, 2011).

Current civil conflict research is realizing that battle related fighting is not the only factor that determines conflict outcomes. In particular, the recent literature on non-violent campaigns (e.g. Chenoweth and Stephan, 2011; Chenoweth and Cunningham, 2013) and earlier work on collective sentiments (e.g. Kuran, 1989) demonstrates that conflict dynamics are not simply a function of military strength. We contribute to this literature by arguing that political behavior short of fighting (e.g. demonstrations or strikes) can be the consequence of successful rebel organizations, which signal government weakness and enable larger spread anti-government behavior.

About the Authors: Bahar Leventoglu is Associate Professor of Political Science and Economics at Duke University. Nils W. Metternich is Reader in International Relations at the School of Public Policy at the University College London. Their research, “Born Weak, Growing Strong: Anti‐Government Protests as a Signal of Rebel Strength in the Context of Civil Wars” is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science.



Almeida, Paul D. 2003. “Opportunity Organizations and Threat-Induced Contention: Protest Waves in Authoritarian Settings.” American Journal of Sociology 109(2):345–400.

Chenoweth, Erica and Kathleen Gallagher Cunningham. 2013. “Understanding nonviolent resistance: An introduction.” Journal of Peace Research 50(3):271–276.

Chenoweth, Erica and Maria J Stephan. 2011. Why civil resistance works: The strategic logic of nonviolent conflict. New York: Columbia University Press.

Diaz, John. 2010. “Liberia: Women key to uneasy peace forged in 2003.” San Francisco Chronicle (12/12/2010) .

Goodwin, Jeff and Theda Skocpol. 1989. “Explaining Revolutions in the Contemporary Third World.” Politics & Society 17(4):489–509.

Granovetter, Mark. 1978. “Threshold models of collective behavior.” American Journal of Sociology 83(6):1420– 1443.

Gugler, Josef. 1982. “The urban character of contemporary revolutions.” Studies in Comparative International Development 17(2):60–73.

Hayward, Susan. 2015. Women, Religion, and Peacebuilding. In The Oxford Handbook of Religion, Conflict, and Peacebuilding, ed. Atalia Omer, R. Scott Appleby and David Little. Oxford: Oxford University Press pp. 307–332. Kuran, Timur. 1989. “Sparks and prairie fires: A theory of unanticipated political revolution.” Public Choice 61(1):41–74.

Lohmann, Susanne. 1993. “A Signaling Model of Informative and Manipulative Political Action.” American Political Science Review 87(2):319–333.

Pedersen, Jennifer. 2016. In the rain and in the sun: women?s peace activism in Liberia. In Handbook on Gender and War, ed. Simona Sharoni, Julia Welland, Linda Steiner and Jennifer Pedersen. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar Publishing pp. 400–418.

Sengupta, Somini. 2003. “In the Mud, Liberia’s Gentlest Rebels Pray for Peace.” New York Times (07/01/2003). Skocpol, Theda. 1979. States and social revolutions: A comparative analysis of France, Russia and China. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Tarrow, Sidney G. 2011. Power in Movement: Social Movements and Contentious Politics. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Yin, Chien-Chung. 1998. “Equilibria of collective action in different distributions of protest thresholds.” Public Choice 97(4):535–567.

Speak Your Mind



The American Journal of Political Science (AJPS) is the flagship journal of the Midwest Political Science Association and is published by Wiley.