June 2011, Week 2


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Mon, 13 Jun 2011 21:22:28 -0400
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People Power

From Cairo, Egypt, to Madison, Wisconsin, civil society
is fighting back through massive nonviolent resistance.
But what makes for a successful campaign? The data is

By Erica Chenoweth



On Jan. 25, 2011, mass protests erupted in Egypt, with
cries of "Enough is enough!" and "Wake up, wake up, son
of my country. Come down Egyptians!" Although there
were violent crackdowns by the Egyptian government, the
overwhelming majority of protest activism was
nonviolent. Eighteen days later, President Mubarak, a
dictator who held power for 30 years, stepped down.

A decade into the 21st century, successful "people
power" revolutions in places such as Tunisia, Egypt,
Lebanon, Georgia, Ukraine, Nepal, and the Maldives have
forced major changes to entrenched power by relying on
"civil" resistance, a method of resistance in which
civilians withdraw cooperation from oppressive regimes,
often using a mixture of strikes, boycotts, sit-ins,
stay-aways, and other acts of civil disobedience.

Civil resistance is not always the same as
"nonviolence" -- a practice that often evokes images of
Gandhi as its main advocate. Gandhi's approach to using
mass civil resistance to oppose British dominion in the
South Asian subcontinent possessed a strong moral
dimension -- a principled aversion to using violence.
But the history of nonviolent resistance reveals that
many people have relied on civil resistance not for
moral reasons, but because they thought it would be an
effective alternative to violence in achieving their

To find out whether civil resistance is generally a
more effective option than violent resistance, between
2006 to 2008 I collected data from books,
encyclopedias, news reports, archives, data sets, and
scholarly journals to develop a new database of mass
nonviolent resistance campaigns that involved demands
for regime change or territorial independence. I looked
at where and when the campaigns emerged,
characteristics of the opponents they faced, and
whether the campaigns succeeded or failed. I then
compared these findings with data on the success rates
of violent insurgencies.

The results were stunning. Among 323 major violent
insurgencies and nonviolent mass movements that
occurred from 1900 to 2006, nonviolent campaigns were
twice as effective as violent insurgencies, succeeding
more than 55 percent of the time. In fact, successful
nonviolent mass action has occurred in countries as
diverse as Serbia, Poland, Madagascar, South Africa,
Chile, Venezuela, Georgia, Ukraine, Lebanon, and Nepal.

How do nonviolent civilian-led revolutions disrupt some
of the most repressive dictatorships of our time?
First, nonviolent campaigns typically attract far more
participants than violent campaigns. The average
nonviolent campaign has more than four times as many
active participants (with about 200,000) as the average
violent campaign (with about 50,000). This is because
nonviolent campaigns appeal to a broader section of
society than violent campaigns. Tactics such as
strikes, boycotts, and go-slows are available to a
diverse cross section of society, including young and
elderly, men and women, rich and poor, and a variety of
religious and political ideologies. There are fewer
moral barriers to participating in a protest or
demonstration that insists on peaceful (albeit
forceful) methods. Moreover, participation in civil
resistance does not require a person to go underground
or sacrifice one's daily life. Although often
high-risk, participation in civil resistance can be
more spontaneous and anonymous because of the numbers
of people involved. On the other hand, violent
campaigns typically require physical strength,
endurance, and agility; the willingness to sacrifice
one's day-to-day life; and the removal of any
reluctance to take another life for the cause -- all
qualifications that exclude a large proportion of any

Second, when large numbers of people peacefully
mobilize against repressive regimes, they often
neutralize major sources of power -- civilian
bureaucrats, economic elites, and even the security

For example, on June 5, 1989, half a dozen Chinese
tanks rolled toward Beijing's Tiananmen Square to
continue a days-long crackdown on thousands of
protesters who were demanding economic and political
reforms in the country's authoritarian regime. But as
they approached Tiananmen, an unknown man stood, alone,
in their path, holding a shopping bag in his hand. When
it became clear that the man did not intend to step
aside, the lead tank lurched to a stop just a few yards
from the man. After a pause, the tank pitched to the
right to pass the man; but the man sprang to his left,
blocking its path. The tanks that trailed also stopped,
and for a few moments, the man and the tanks stood
motionless in the street, facing one another in an
iconic image of civil resistance. Before Tank Man's act
of noncooperation was cut short, his unarmed resolve
confounded the military in ways that armed insurgents
do not.

Nonviolent resistance campaigns are especially skilled
at convincing security forces to stop their repression
and -- in some cases -- to join the resistance. Because
civil resistance typically includes a larger base of
participants that represent a more diverse
cross-section of society, security forces often
identify with campaign participants through ethnic,
religious, class-based, cultural, or even familial
ties. Security force defections occurred in 54 percent
of successful nonviolent campaigns.

Violent campaigns do not have a very good track record
at convincing security forces to defect. The reason is
intuitive enough. When security forces perceive a
physical threat, they tend to unify to defend
themselves. Imagine that Tank Man had procured a weapon
from the shopping bag he was holding and fired upon the
tanks as they began to move around him. No longer would
Tank Man's image represent the legitimacy and courage
of the pro-democracy cause in China. Instead, he would
have confronted the military on its own terms, using a
method in which the military has a decided advantage.
He would have been just another anonymous rebel
confronting violence with violence.

The ability to divide the regime depends on careful
planning, organization, training, and unity within the
opposition. But once the security forces refuse to
repress peaceful demonstrators, regimes tend to
accommodate protesters' demands. Note that this is not
because of the moral superiority of nonviolent
resistance. The reason people power works is not
because the "good guys" always win. Instead, carefully
planned civil resistance campaigns are able to leverage
their broad participation to disrupt the regime in ways
that are unavailable to smaller, violent insurgencies.

A common question that often arises is: Can civil
resistance succeed even against brutal opponents? What
about the Nazis? There are numerous examples of
nonviolent resistance against the brutal genocidal
methods of the Nazi regime during World War II. One
example is the Rosenstrasse protest in Berlin in March
1943. Following Hitler's military defeat in the battle
of Stalingrad, the Nazis accelerated their "final
solution," hastening the deportation and killing of
millions of Jews, Gypsies, prisoners of war, and
others. In Berlin, SS paramilitary troops detained
nearly 2,000 Jewish men who had previously been spared
because their wives were non-Jewish Germans. Their
wives began to gather outside of the building on
Rosenstrasse where the men were detained. Day and
night, the women occupied the streets and chanted "Give
us our husbands back." Ultimately, hundreds -- if not
thousands -- of people joined the protest, even as SS
guards mounted machine guns and threatened to fire upon
the protesters. The protest lasted a week. At the end
of the week, the SS released the men. Almost all of the
men lived to see the end of the war.

This remarkable event demonstrates the power of
organized, nonviolent direct action -- even against the
most brutal dictatorships. A simple inscription on the
"Block der Frauen" ("Block of Women") memorial in
Berlin bears witness: "The strength of civil
disobedience, the vigor of love overcomes the violence
of dictatorship. Give us our men back. Women were
standing here, defeating death. Jewish men were free."

And, in fact, the overall trend suggests that even in
situations where regimes used violence to crack down on
resistance campaigns, 46 percent of nonviolent
campaigns have prevailed, whereas only 20 percent of
violent campaigns succeeded against these violently
repressive states.

The data tells us a few things that we didn't know
before. First, there is little truth to the claim that
insurgents must use violence in order to get what they
want. Many observers maintain that people resort to
violence when they are forced to do so -- by overly
repressive circumstances, by injustices they can no
longer tolerate -- and after exhausting all other means
of political influence.

One hears this claim quite a lot from insurgents,
scholars, and pundits, who argue that Sunni insurgents
in Iraq, the Afghan Mujahideen, or even El Salvador's
Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front had to choose
violence to wage their struggles because it was the
only way they had a chance to succeed. Gandhi himself
-- the quintessential pacifist -- once articulated that
"It is better to be violent, if there is violence in
our hearts, than to put on the cloak of nonviolence to
cover impotence." Contrary to these assumptions,
nonviolent resistance has proved to be a much more
powerful way to achieve political goals, even in
brutally repressive environments.

Second, civilian-led nonviolent resistance can divide
and topple regimes as security forces grow weary of
repressing their unarmed compatriots. The more diverse
the campaign, the more likely it is to produce security
force defections. Any campaign that is overly
homogenous (for example, relying on a strong religious
component without wider appeal) will have difficulty
succeeding because it will not attract a wide enough
portion of the population to provide varied points of
access to potential allies within the regime. For
instance, an urban revolution often will gain little
sympathy from regime functionaries who come from the

Third, and perhaps most surprising, material support
from foreign states has little effect on the success of
nonviolent campaigns. Only 10 percent of nonviolent
campaigns have received direct material support from
foreign governments, and in those cases, it may have
caused disunity within the campaign or undermined the
movement's legitimacy in the eyes of potential
grassroots supporters. As national security expert
Richard K. Betts said recently in response to how the
U.S. security establishment should react to the
protests in Egypt, "Popular revolutions can hardly ever
be contained or channeled effectively by foreign
forces." But moral support -- such as naming and
shaming the oppressive regime's abuses, cutting off
financial or military support to the regime, and making
diplomatic statements in support of the movement -- can
encourage participants to maintain enthusiasm and

Overall, the data provides hard evidence that
nonviolent resistance is anything but passive or weak.
Gandhi was right when he said,  "Nonviolence is a
weapon of the strong." As we watch events unfold in the
Arab world and elsewhere, we should keep in mind that
calls to use violence to confront oppressive regimes
are almost never justified by necessity. Skillful
applications of "people power" have been the most
robust and reliable forces for change in the world
since World War II, and this trend is likely to
continue well into the 21st century.

Erica Chenoweth is an assistant professor of government
at Wesleyan University and co-author with Maria J.
Stephan of the forthcoming book Why Civil Resistance
Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict.

People Power . By Erica Chenoweth. Sojourners Magazine,
May 2011 (Vol. 40, No. 5, pp. 16). Cover.

www.sojo.net Sojourners Magazine * 3333 14th Street NW,
Suite 200 * Washington DC 20010 Phone: (202) 328-8842 *
Fax: (202) 328-8757


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