A breakthrough year for nonviolence

The most electrifying event of the year, for me, was the Egyptian revolution. I’d long had an interest in Gandhian-style struggles. Here was a nonviolent struggle unfolding in real-time against Hosni Mubarak’s repressive regime. Tens of millions of people were gaining their freedom.

The media coverage of the events in Tahrir Square focused on the Facebook revolution. But when I went to Cairo shortly after, I discovered that the use of social media was only part of the reason why the dictator had been toppled. Behind the protests was a cadre of activists who had been trained in the techniques of nonviolent struggle. This realization was a eureka moment. If it was possible to overthrow dictators with comparatively little bloodshed – less than a thousand died in Egypt’s revolution — many millions more elsewhere might be able to gain their freedom given proper planning and training.

2011 was a banner year for nonviolent struggle. Not only did it witness the successful Arab Spring revolutions against dictators in Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen; it also saw three Arab kings – in Morocco, Jordan and Kuwait — liberalize their political systems to head off similar protests. And the brave people of Syria went out on the streets again and again, despite being arrested, tortured and killed in their thousands.

Further afield, the Burmese regime started to reach an accommodation with pro-democracy activist, Aung San Suu Kyi, after two decades of nonviolent opposition; China experienced increasing stirrings of protest, for example when citizens posted nude photos of themselves on the internet after the authorities ruled that a photo of Ai Weiwei, the dissident artist, was pornographic; and even Vladimir Putin had to face demonstrations after seemingly widespread vote-rigging in Russia’s parliamentary elections.

The techniques of nonviolent struggle have also been used for purposes other than bringing down dictatorships. A man called Anna Hazare led a successful campaign against corruption in India. Meanwhile, the West had to contend with the Indignant anti-austerity movements in Spain, Greece and Italy as well as the anti-banker Occupy movements in the United States and Britain.

And don’t forget Leymah Gbowee, one of the winners of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize. She helped end Liberia’s civil war in 2003 by getting women from Christian and Muslim communities to go on a sex strike until their men stopped fighting. The technique has a long pedigree, at least in literature. Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, first performed in 411 BC, is a comedy about how women used sexual abstinence to force peace talks between Athens and Sparta in the long-running Peloponnesian War.

2011 was the most successful year for nonviolent struggle since 1989 when peaceful revolutions led by the likes of Poland’s Lech Walesa and Czechoslovakia’s Vaclav Havel, who died at the weekend, swept away the old communist regimes of Eastern Europe. But nonviolent struggle hasn’t mown down everything in its path this year. The Occupy movements haven’t achieved much apart from raising consciousness. The transition to democracy in Egypt is still uncertain. Pro-democracy protests in Bahrain were snuffed out with the help of Saudi tanks. Bashar Assad is still in power in Damascus. And Libya’s Colonel Muammar Gaddafi was brought down by a bloody civil war and foreign military intervention, not by unarmed protesters.

The Gandhi network

Over the past year, whenever I could tear myself away from the unfolding drama in the euro zone, I turned my attention to nonviolent struggle. How were these movements organized? Did they draw inspiration from common sources? And what were the ingredients of success?

The trail began in early January, several weeks before the Tahrir Square demonstrations. I was in Delhi meeting Kiran Bedi, a key member of Hazare’s anti-corruption campaign. I wanted to know whether Mohandas Gandhi, the leader of India’s independence struggle against the British in the first half of the 20th Century, was still relevant today. Of course, she replied, explaining that they had chosen January 30, the anniversary of Gandhi’s assassination, to hold their anti-corruption demonstration.

It wasn’t until August, though, that the campaign gathered momentum. The decisive moment came when Hazare announced he would go on a public hunger strike, a classic Gandhian technique, until the government agreed to create a tough anti-corruption watchdog. This posed a dilemma for the authorities. Either they would let the 74-year-old man go on strike and they would look weak; or they wouldn’t and they would look brutal. The police chose the latter option, arresting Hazare and over a thousand of his supporters on the grounds that they were holding an illegal demonstration. Indians came out in their millions in protest. Some kids in an orphanage even staged a hunger strike in sympathy.

The so-called dilemma action was perfected by Gandhi in his salt march in 1930. At the time, salt-making was a British government monopoly. Gandhi declared he was going to march to the sea and make his own salt, daring the authorities either to arrest him or display their impotence. After weeks of dithering, the British arrested Gandhi — triggering a massive civil disobedience campaign which led to over 80,000 people being put behind bars and paved the way for the end of British rule. Today’s Indian authorities made the same mistake as their British predecessors.

But this is moving too fast. Long before Hazare’s victory, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali had fled Tunisia and Mubarak had resigned in Egypt. When I went to Cairo a month later, I met Saad Bahaar, a former engineer who had been training activists in the techniques of nonviolent struggle for six years. I was stunned. How had he learned what to do? He pointed, among other things, to the work of Gene Sharp, a frail 83-year-old Boston-based academic who has been studying and proselytizing this type of warfare for about 60 years.

I’d never heard of Sharp, who runs a small think-tank called the Albert Einstein Institution. But I sought him out and devoured a clutch of his books, including his classic treatise, The Politics of Nonviolent Action. Sharp had analyzed how the pillars on which dictators’ power rests could be undermined systematically by nonviolent struggle. He also listed 198 tactics that could be used. Sharp had taken the insights of Gandhi and others and developed them into a quasi-science.

One of Sharp’s concepts – political jujitsu – is particularly powerful. This is the idea that violence inflicted by a dictatorship on peaceful protesters could boomerang on the regime and destroy it. Bystanders would abandon their neutrality; the regime’s pillars of support would become shaky; if the activists had the courage to maintain their struggle, the tyrant would ultimately collapse. But – and this was a crucial “but” – the revolutionaries had to maintain their nonviolent discipline, according to Sharp. Otherwise, they would lose the active support of the masses and, in a trial of strength, the regime would overwhelm them.

Boston is one node in a loose network of activists involved in nonviolent struggle. Another is Belgrade, home of Srdja Popovic, a 38-year-old Serb who was a founder of the resistance movement which helped bring down Slobodan Milosevic in 2000. Popovic now runs Canvas, a group that trains activists around the world in nonviolent struggle. The tall angular Serb has simplified and popularized Sharp’s work, adding a huge dose of energy and humor as well as real-life experience.

Then there are academics who have helped refine the techniques of nonviolent warfare by studying past campaigns. For example, Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan studied 323 liberation struggles between 1900 and 2006 in their new book Why Civil Resistance Works. They discovered that 53 percent of the nonviolent campaigns succeeded in bringing about regime change, roughly double the 26 percent success rate for violent ones. The nonviolent struggles were also faster – taking on average three years to reach their goal rather than nine. And such campaigns had a good chance of ushering in democracies whereas regime changes brought about through violence tended to lead to new dictatorships.

Ingredients of success

The overall message of these activists and academics can be boiled down to several simple points. Success comes from having a clear and powerful goal, unity among the opposition, good strategic planning, tactical innovation and nonviolent discipline.

The first point can be illustrated by comparing Hazare’s anti-corruption campaign to the less successful Occupy movements. Hazare had a precise goal that resonated with a huge swathe of Indian society. The Occupy movements and their close relations, the Indignant movements, haven’t yet articulated clear goals nor have they yet achieved anything concrete.

The perils of abandoning nonviolent discipline are also shown by Italy’s Indignati and Greece’s Aganaktismenoi. In the former case, protests were hijacked by a group of anarchists called the Black Bloc; in the latter by demonstrators throwing Molotov cocktails. Almost all the media coverage focused on the fringe violent elements rather than the peaceful masses.

Colonel Gaddafi’s bloody overthrow is, of course, the supposed counter-example from 2011 to the merits of pursuing a nonviolent struggle. It seems to suggest that violence pays. As such, some members of the Syrian opposition are advocating it as a model they should follow – although the main umbrella body, the Syrian National Council, is still pushing the nonviolent approach.

But the lessons from the Libyan revolution aren’t clear-cut. For a start, it’s unknowable what would have happened if the people had pursued a nonviolent campaign: they might eventually have got their way with less bloodshed. Although estimates of the Libyan death toll vary widely, the Transitional National Council has used a number of 25,000. If the same proportion of Syria’s larger population was killed in a conflict, its death toll would be 89,000 – much higher than the 5,000 so far estimated by the United Nations.

The Libyan campaign also relied on France, Britain, America and other countries attacking Gaddafi’s forces from the air. That can’t easily be repeated in Syria. Foreign powers aren’t always willing to play the role of global policeman – and, when they are, they typically want something in return such as control of a country’s natural resources.

How the Syrian conflict plays out will determine many people’s perceptions of the value of nonviolent struggle. At the moment, it looks like there is a significant risk of it descending into civil war. But even if such a tragedy unfolds this won’t prove that Gandhian-style campaigns are worthless. 2011 has already shown the power of the technique in other countries. As more people learn the strategy and tactics of nonviolent struggle, it will become more powerful still.

A breakthrough year for nonviolence | Hugo Dixon.

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