Arab Revolutions and the Power of Nonviolent Action

Stephen Zunes   Sunday 4 December 2011    Nation of Change

“This has not come, in most cases, from a moral or spiritual commitment to nonviolence per se, but simply because it works.”

While sit­ting in a Cairo café just a cou­ple blocks from Tahrir Square a cou­ple months ago, I couldn’t help but no­tice the tele­vi­sion in the cor­ner broad­cast­ing the evening news. Tra­di­tion­ally, TV news in Egypt and other Arab coun­tries has con­sisted of the pres­i­dent (or king) giv­ing a speech, greet­ing a for­eign vis­i­tor, vis­it­ing a fac­tory, or en­gag­ing in some other of­fi­cial func­tion. This evening, how­ever, the news was about a labor strike in Alexan­dria, rel­a­tives of those killed dur­ing the Feb­ru­ary rev­o­lu­tion protest­ing out­side the In­te­rior Min­istry, and on­go­ing de­vel­op­ments in the pro-democ­racy strug­gles in Yemen and Syria.

Noth­ing could bet­ter il­lus­trate the pro­found change in the Arab world over the past year: It is no longer sim­ply the lead­ers who were the news­mak­ers. It is Arab peo­ples them­selves.

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 The ini­tial op­ti­mism that un­armed civil in­sur­rec­tions, like those that ousted the Tunisian and Egypt­ian dic­ta­tors ear­lier this year, would soon sweep the Arab world in a man­ner that brought down East­ern Eu­rope’s com­mu­nist regimes in 1989 has faded. The on­go­ing re­pres­sion by the U.S.-backed mil­i­tary junta in Egypt serves as a re­minder that over­throw­ing a dic­ta­tor is only the first step in a tran­si­tion to democ­racy. And the NATO-backed armed rev­o­lu­tion in Libya and sub­se­quent ex­tra­ju­di­cial killings of Muam­mar Gaddafi and his sup­port­ers has cast a pall on what had been a largely non­vi­o­lent re­gional phe­nom­e­non.

How­ever, there are still rea­sons to be hope­ful that the so-called “Arab Spring” will trans­form the Mid­dle East for the bet­ter.

Major po­lit­i­cal change takes time. It took nearly a decade be­tween the first strikes in the Gdansk Ship­yard and the fall of communism in Poland. Chile’s de­mo­c­ra­tic strug­gle against the Pinochet regime took three years be­tween the first major protests and the ref­er­en­dum that forced the dic­ta­tor from power. The 1986 Peo­ple Power move­ment that over­threw Fer­di­nand Mar­cos in the Philip­pines was a cul­mi­na­tion of sev­eral years of pop­u­lar strug­gle against the mar­tial law regime. Even re­form move­ments within in­dus­tri­al­ized democ­ra­cies can take years of strug­gle, such as the civil rights move­ment in the U.S. South.

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In­deed, being right and hav­ing the ma­jor­ity of the pop­u­la­tion on your side is not enough. There needs to be long-range strate­gic plan­ning, a log­i­cal se­quenc­ing of tac­tics, and an abil­ity to take ad­van­tage of one’s strengths and tar­get the op­po­nent’s weak­nesses. In coun­tries where civil so­ci­ety has tra­di­tion­ally been weak and the re­pres­sive ap­pa­ra­tus of the state is strong, quick vic­to­ries are rare.

 Yet the dra­matic events of this past year have served as a re­minder of where power ul­ti­mately rests: Even if a gov­ern­ment has a mo­nop­oly of mil­i­tary force and the sup­port of the world’s one re­main­ing su­per­power, it is still ul­ti­mately pow­er­less if the peo­ple refuse to rec­og­nize its au­thor­ity. Through gen­eral strikes, fill­ing the streets, mass re­fusal to obey of­fi­cial or­ders, and other forms of non­vi­o­lent re­sis­tance, even the most au­to­cratic regime can­not sur­vive.

Free­dom House, in its 2005 study “How Free­dom Is Won: From Civic Re­sis­tance to Durable Democ­racy,” ob­served that, of the nearly 70 coun­tries that had made the tran­si­tion from dic­ta­tor­ship to vary­ing de­grees of democ­racy in the pre­vi­ous 30 years, only a small mi­nor­ity did so through armed strug­gle from below or re­form in­sti­gated from above. Hardly any new democ­ra­cies re­sulted from for­eign in­va­sion. In nearly three-quar­ters of the tran­si­tions, change was rooted in de­mo­c­ra­tic civil-so­ci­ety or­ga­ni­za­tions that em­ployed non­vi­o­lent meth­ods.

Sim­i­larly, in the re­cently re­leased book Why Civil Re­sis­tance Works: The Strate­gic Logic of Non­vi­o­lent Con­flict, au­thors Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan use an ex­panded data­base an­a­lyz­ing 323 major in­sur­rec­tions in sup­port of self-de­ter­mi­na­tion and de­mo­c­ra­tic rule since 1900. They found that vi­o­lent re­sis­tance was suc­cess­ful only 26 per­cent of the time, whereas non­vi­o­lent cam­paigns had a 53 per­cent rate of suc­cess.

From the poor­est na­tions of Africa to the rel­a­tively af­flu­ent coun­tries of East­ern Eu­rope; from com­mu­nist regimes to right-wing mil­i­tary dic­ta­tor­ships; from across the cul­tural, ge­o­graphic and ide­o­log­i­cal spec­trum, de­mo­c­ra­tic and pro­gres­sive forces have rec­og­nized the power of non­vi­o­lent ac­tion to free them from op­pres­sion. This has not come, in most cases, from a moral or spir­i­tual com­mit­ment to non­vi­o­lence per se, but sim­ply be­cause it works.

There is a long his­tory of non­vi­o­lent re­sis­tance in the Mid­dle East, from Egypt’s 1919 in­de­pen­dence strug­gle against the British to the 2006 Cedar Rev­o­lu­tion in Lebanon that ended years of Syr­ian dom­i­na­tion of that coun­try. Iran has a long his­tory of such up­ris­ings, in­clud­ing the To­bacco Strike of the 1890s, the Con­sti­tu­tional Rev­o­lu­tion of 1906, the over­throw of the Shah in 1979, and the aborted Green Rev­o­lu­tion of 2009.

Pales­tine has wit­nessed the gen­eral strike of the 1930s, the first in­tifada in the late 1980s, and more re­cent cam­paigns against Is­rael’s sep­a­ra­tion wall and set­tle­ment ex­pan­sion in the West Bank. In Sudan, un­armed in­sur­rec­tions ousted mil­i­tary dic­ta­tor­ships in both 1964 and 1985 (though the de­mo­c­ra­tic gov­ern­ments that fol­lowed were even­tu­ally over­thrown in mil­i­tary coups). There has also been an on­go­ing non­vi­o­lent re­sis­tance cam­paign in the na­tion of West­ern Sa­hara against the il­le­gal Mo­roc­can oc­cu­pa­tion.

The dra­matic events of the past year mark a new and ex­cit­ing es­ca­la­tion of a phe­nom­e­non that has been grow­ing through­out the re­gion and across the globe in re­cent decades. It is a re­minder that, for democ­racy to come to the Arab world, it will not be through armed strug­gle, for­eign in­ter­ven­tion or sanc­ti­mo­nious state­ments from Wash­ing­ton, but from Arab peo­ples uti­liz­ing the power of strate­gic non­vi­o­lent ac­tion.

By Published On: December 8th, 2011Comments Off on Arab Revolutions and the Power of Nonviolent Action

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