Peace Science Made Accessible, Understandable, and Useful.

How Domestic Protests Influence Coups

How Domestic Protests Influence Coups

Photo credit: Michael Fleshman

This analysis summarizes and reflects on the following research: Johnson, J. & Thyne, C. (2016) Squeaky Wheels and Troop Loyalty: How Domestic Protests Influence Coups d’état, 1951–2005. Journal of Conflict Resolution, 10.1177/0022002716654742

Talking Points

  • Nonviolent protests are six times more effective at bringing about a coup than violent protests.
  • When protests are nonviolent, post-coup restructuring is less likely to succumb to outside influence and more likely to bring about democratization.
  • Protests centered near a capital city have a higher chance of leading to a coup then protests elsewhere.
  • Nonviolent protests can push the military to intervene.


This study examines the effect of domestic protests before and during a coup attempt. The researchers gained new insights regarding the importance of the location of protests, the choice of nonviolence over violence, and the role of outside actors in the protests’ success.

Coups are high-stakes endeavors to overthrow existing governments. If the coup fails, its leaders face long prison sentences, exile or death. However, if successful, coup leaders have the opportunity to shape a new government. Therefore, it is important for ‘coup plotters’ to accurately judge political and social climates to ensure the best chance of successfully unseating the government. One of the largest indicators of a coup-ripe environment is perceived legitimacy – or lack thereof – of the current government in the eyes of the public. If grassroots, anti-government, protests involving common citizens are already underway, then a coup has a much higher chance of success. The authors also believe the geographical location and method of protests are important, leading to the following hypotheses:

Hypothesis 1: Protests centered near a capital city should have a stronger effect on the likelihood of coups.

Hypothesis 2: Nonviolent protests should have a stronger effect on the likelihood of coups.

The authors’ analysis of 403 coup attempts in 150 different countries between 1951 and 2005 provided insight into previously unknown factors behind successful coups. First, this research showed that ‘coup plotters’ have a higher likelihood of success and a favorable post-coup environment when the coup is planed during a period of public distrust or discontent towards the government, especially if there is public protest.

Second, the location of civilian protests is very important to the likelihood of a coup. When analyzing civilian protests, the research team found the likelihood of a coup increased by nearly 250% when the protest was near a capital city, compared to only a slight increase when protests took place away from capital cities.

Lastly, the methods used during civilian protest were found to be an important influence on the likelihood of coup attempts. Although the presence of both violent and nonviolent protests proves to be a catalyst for coup attempts, nonviolent protests hold a much more significant influence on the likelihood of a coup. This research shows that the presence of nonviolent protests increases the likelihood of a coup by nearly 75% compared to a 13% rise when protests are violent, suggesting that nonviolence is nearly six times more effective at bringing about change than the use of violence.

Contemporary Relevance

Since 1990, one in four countries have seen a coup attempt, making coups the world’s most common form of unconstitutional regime change (One Earth Future – CoupCast). Examining coups and their potential consequences in the global political context is important with regard to processes of democratization, but also civil wars and genocide. Coups inspired by nonviolent protests can support democratic transitions, but also undermine social movements. The findings of this research mirror the important work by Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan who, among other arguments on the effectiveness of nonviolence, highlight the importance of Egypt’s adherence to nonviolence during the overthrow of Mubarak: “had the Tahrir Square protests turned violent, the situation in Egypt might well have been far worse than it is today. Armed uprisings tend to reinforce the power of the military even more quickly, discouraging defections. Moreover, they tend to initiate mass atrocities against civilians on a scale much larger than nonviolent action does. Armed revolts rarely succeed, and when they do, they almost never bring about greater stability.”[1]

Practical Implications

The findings of this research point to a valuable predictor of when a coup may occur. By monitoring the level of domestic protest within a state, especially when the protests are concentrated around the capitol, practitioners and academics can predict with increased certainty the likelihood of an impending coup attempt. This research also illustrates the power common citizens hold to affect change. While coups are most often orchestrated by military and government elites or outside actors, citizens play a large role in the overall success of the coup and can drastically influence the creation of the proceeding government.

Continued Reading

Drop Your Weapons When and Why Civil Resistance Works by Erica Chenoweth & Maria J. Stephan. (com/articles/libya/2014-06-16/drop-your-weapons)

Nonviolent Action and Pro-Democracy Struggles by Stephen Zunes. (

CoupCast by One Earth Future Foundation (

Keywords: military coup, nonviolent protest


[1]Drop Your Weapons When and Why Civil Resistance Works. By Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan

The above analysis is from Volume 1, Issue 5, of the Peace Science Digest.

Next article Oil, Terrorism, and Insurgency in the Middle East and North Africa
Previous article Indigenous Civil Resistance and Treaty Rights