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PORTSIDE  December 2011, Week 1

PORTSIDE December 2011, Week 1

Subject:

Arab Revolutions and the Power of Nonviolent Action

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Date:

Mon, 5 Dec 2011 21:41:39 -0500

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Arab Revolutions and the Power of Nonviolent Action 

by Stephen Zunes

Sunday, December 4, 2011

The National Catholic Reporter 

http://ncronline.org/news/global/arab-revolutions-and-power-nonviolent-action

While sitting in a Cairo cafe just a couple blocks from
Tahrir Square recently, 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.

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 a transition to democracy. And the
NATO-backed armed revolution in Libya and subsequent
extrajudicial killings of Muammar al-Qaddafi 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.

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.
===

Stephen Zunes is a professor of politics and chair of
Middle Eastern studies at the University of San
Francisco and serves as a contributing editor of
Tikkun. His most recent book, co-authored with Jacob
Mundy, is Western Sahara: War, Nationalism, and
Conflict Irresolution (Syracuse University Press,
2010.)

___________________________________________

Portside aims to provide material of interest to people
on the left that will help them to interpret the world
and to change it.

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