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.

You may subscribe to WAMMToday from this blog website and “Follow” us.  WAMMToday is now on Facebook!   Check the WAMMToday page for posts from this blog and more! “Like” our page today.

 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.

Article image

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.

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

Share This Story, Choose Your Platform!

Subscribe via email
Enter your email address to follow Rise Up Times and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 3,899 other followers

Loading

VIDEO: Militarism, Climate Chaos, and the Environment

BLACK LIVES MATTER

Archive

Categories