Flickr user Kodak Agfa
Flickr user Kodak Agfa
People Power: The Real Force behind the "Bad Year for the Bad Guys"

It has been a bad year for bad guys. The events and political changes that marked 2011 were previously thought to be impossible. Yet, before July 1, 2011, Egyptian President Husni Mubarak and Tunisian President Zine el-‘Abidine Ben ‘Ali were out of power and prosecuted, Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Qadhafi and Yemeni President ‘Ali ‘Abdullah Salih were on their knees, Syrian President Bashar al-Asad was seriously challenged, and, unrelated but equally significant: Usama bin Ladin dead and Ratko Mladic in jail.

In what has come to be known as the “Arab Spring,” a wave of protests washed away the regimes of Tunisia and Egypt. Inspired by these events, demonstrators across the region stood up against and seriously challenged the strongmen of Morocco, Algeria, Jordan, Bahrain, Syria, Libya, and Yemen. The results have been inconceivable; once ruthless rulers, the leaders of numerous Arab countries have been promising reforms, reshuffling governments, and entering into dialogues with opposition groups they once banned. A lot has been written about the Arab Spring but careful analysis of situational environments and focus on the most important issue — how political and social power actually works — have been lost in the shuffle of the fast-paced events.

Conventional wisdom has it that whoever controls the military, police, and media (“pillars of support”) is the one who holds power. However, Gandhi’s efforts to end British rule in India, the drive to defeat Pinochet at the polls in Chile, the Civil Rights Movement under Martin Luther King Jr. in the US, Lech Walesa’s leadership of the Solidarity Labor Movement in Poland, the overthrow of Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia, and recently the Arab Spring all prove that governments, no matter how brutal, ultimately rely on the consent of the people. A united movement, committed to nonviolence, with a thorough plan to achieve its goals is capable of momentous achievements. A strategic movement is the worst nightmare for every autocrat. It can pull the pillars of support out of government control and force the strongmen to make concessions once considered impossible.

As major powers struggle to make sense of the changing landscape while preserving their interests, the Arab Spring has been sending shockwaves around the world. The question is what the common denominator was. The answer is “People Power,” the power of non-partisan youth movements.

How was Everyone Surprised?

The first response to the early phases of Arab Spring was surprise from all parties involved: autocratic regimes in Middle East challenged for the first time by their “obedient” citizens; world media outlets failing to understand the idea of a “leaderless revolution out of nowhere;” decision makers in Western countries always catching up to events as they unfold; and the intelligence services that were constantly missing the point. The confusion resulted from the failure of the parties listed above to correctly understand the reality of what they were witnessing.

For decades, misconceptions about the situations in North Africa and the Middle East were deeply rooted in people’s minds. The international community saw the region as incapable of change, let alone transitioning to democracy. The two possible scenarios were either an “Egyptian/Tunisian model” — a military-supported secular dictatorship — or a “Tehran model” — a dictatorial, corrupted, more or less military-run theocracy. As Falkenrath of the Brookings Institute described the situation, “[…] the Middle East in particular will remain fertile ground for anti-American radicalism for the foreseeable future. As a result, for years and perhaps decades to come, Americans must be ready to live with the risk of large-scale terrorist violence.”[1]

However, recent events of the Arab Spring proved just the opposite; the “frozen region” appeared to be anything but that. New generations of young people with a strong drive for change, born mostly after the rule of leaders “whose legitimacy has clearly expired”[2] and whose systems of rule were established decades ago, turned the picture of the frozen Middle East into the one of a dynamic player in the global arena capable of a democratic change. After the events in Tunisia, the young people of the Arab world have awakened to the understanding that they have the power to make the necessary transformation. The newspaper articles read: “The evaluations were obviously false. More than half of the people in almost every Arab country is younger than 30. They […] like freedom more than political autocracy or religious conservativism. Last year’s research conducted in 9 different Arab countries […] showed that young people rank democracy as a higher priority than qualitative construction infrastructure or good education.”[3]

It is strategy, stupid!

Despite many reports using words such as “spontaneous uprising” and “leaderless revolutions,” the history of nonviolent movements clearly demonstrates that there is absolutely no such thing as a simultaneously spontaneous and successful nonviolent revolution. In Egyptian, Middle Eastern, or any other nonviolent struggle for democracy, the crucial matters which shaped the strategy were “universal principles for success:” unity, planning, and nonviolent discipline.

Since Gandhi, unity has been the main principle of success in nonviolent struggle. Whether it means uniting white people with an oppressed black majority as in the Civil Rights and anti-apartheid movements or, as with the Serbian Otpor! [Resistance!] movement, bringing together 18 opposition parties behind one anti-Milosevic candidate, the principle remains equally crucial. The history of global non-violent struggle contains a number of failed attempts due to unity matters (e.g. Zimbabwe, Belarus). Before the elections in Belarus, the opposition was not only divided, but also had completely opposite goals, which evidently resulted in the failure to overthrow President Alexander Lukashenko. As written in a Jamestown Foundation report, “Mikhalevich’s announcement reflects the diverse positions of the Belarusian opposition [emphasis added], which to date have failed to undermine the influence and authority of President Alyaksandr Lukshenka […].[4]

However, Egyptians realized the importance of unity. They understood that they had to be united under the same symbols. Individual groups met on Tahrir Square and agreed to abolish different symbols (including the clenched fist — a symbol used by the leading April 6th movement) appearing only under the Egyptian flag. Choosing the national flag as a unifying symbol sent a powerful message to Mubarak. From the very beginning the government marked the protestors as traitors for foreign mercenaries, a common “recipe” of challenged strongmen. Therefore, the united Egyptians that overtook state symbols were sending a perfect message to the government: “We are Egypt. This is our country. We stay, you go.”

Furthermore, their unity shifted the pillar of international community, particularly with regard to the US Department of State and US President Barack Obama, traditional supporters of Mubarak`s regime. The images of Copts and Muslims protecting each other serve as evidence of a strong feeling of unity among the oppressed people against the oppressor, the government, despite their religious differences. The images opened up the eyes of Western audiences, who were aggressively spooked when “analysts warn […] Hamas and Hezbollah — along with such Islamist regimes as Iran — will try to suppress [democracy].”[5] Most importantly, the unity among Egyptians was, up to now, strong enough to disperse the fear of failed revolution, and reinsure the international community that the Egyptian people wanted and were fighting for democracy. According to Tina Rosenberg,

“The protests were a model of unity, tolerance, and nonviolent discipline. The different groups put aside their individual flags and symbols to show only the Egyptian flag and to speak, as much as possible, with one voice. […] Coptic Christians in Tahrir Square formed ranks to protect the Muslims while they prayed; when the Christians celebrated Mass, the Muslims formed a ring around them. Together they embraced soldiers and faced the police with roses.”[6]

The second important principle of a successful nonviolent strategy is planning. In order to run a successful nonviolent revolution, movements from Gandhi to Valensa and Aquino planned strategies for predicting the opponent’s next move and pulled people out of institutions which supported the status quo.

Egyptians had a clear plan to fraternize with military from the very beginning. Mubarak unwittingly aided in this by making series of mistakes. At a certain point autocrats become predictable. Similarly to Chilean strongman Pinochet’s famous quote “Yo o el caos” [“Me or chaos”], Mubarak insisted that stability depended on his rule.[7] At first, he tried to play tough, mostly using police. When he realized that tear gas would not disperse the crowds on the streets, Mubarak created a chaotic and lawless situation, pulling the police from the streets and leaving them to the looters and violence. “In the several-hour gap between the police withdrawal and the army’s deployment, chaos reigned.”[8] His goal was clear: to provoke the military into taking control to end the protests. However, the movement predicted Mubarak’s moves. The people fraternized with the military and organized neighborhood watches with them. Civilians, in partnership with the military, organized checkpoints that tried to ensure that no one brought any weapons to Tahrir Square. They also wrote a new chapter in the development of this type of tactic, with the Tahrir Square movement even employing women to search other women. This was not spontaneous. It required planning, logistics, and training.

The third principle of a successful strategy is nonviolent discipline. Use of humor and low-risk “dilemma actions” (an effective nonviolent weapon) recently appeared again in Eastern Europe where “clapping protests” against Lukashenko gained the sympathies of outsiders and enraged security forces. Such actions “[…] force the authorities to choose between two equally distasteful alternatives: to stand back and allow such activities to continue, taking the risk that they will build into something significant; or to impose harsh punishment on people who are engaged in a seemingly benign activity.”[9] Similar actions took place in Egypt. Egyptians made an exhibition of funny hats which were originally intended protect a revolutionary from stones, brought children to the square, made the atmosphere cheerful, and limited the level of aggression on the square. Everything was a part of the “we are nonviolent” message. They sustained clear provocations, used humor as a powerful means of diffusing fear, and most importantly maintained nonviolent discipline (the primary reason why the Egyptian revolution was successful and why, for instance, the Libyan revolt has thus far failed).

People Power Works

In the past 35 years, 50 out of 67 transitions from dictatorship to democracy have been nonviolent. It is hard to identify a case where military intervention led to a stable, functioning democracy. In other words, nonviolent struggle is the driving force behind democratic change. A rising number of people around the world see what is happening in places like Egypt and Tunisia and recognize the power of nonviolent struggle. CANVAS receives appeals for help for nonviolent struggles from around the world every day.[10] Still, policymakers tend to overlook the strategic value of supporting nonviolent movements.

Consider what would happen if just 1% of the billions of dollars that have been spent in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, instead went to help nonviolent pro-democracy movements through education, book and video translations, development of innovative uses for new media like Facebook or Twitter, and trainings in nonviolent, civic mobilization. Recognizing the power and potential of nonviolent struggle as the real force behind the “fourth wave of democratization” and committing these kinds of resources to such efforts would send a powerful message around the world, reminding millions of oppressed people in places like Burma, Zimbabwe, or Iran that power ultimately belongs to the people. Moreover, it would repudiate extremist arguments that violence is the only way to make a change. In the Middle East, where disparities between the haves and have-nots grow greater every day, providing fertile recruiting ground for extremists, such a message can hardly be more timely. Furthermore, it can help ensure that more “bad guys” do not make it to 2012.

 

[1]. Richard A. Falkenrath, Grading the War on Terrorism http://www.brookings.edu/articles/2006/01terrorism_falkenrath.aspx.

 

[2]. Ghassan Michel Rubeiz, “Threats to Arab Spring are both Domestic and International,” January 7, 2011, http://www.arabisto.com/article/Blogs/Dr_Ghassan_Michel_Rubeiz/The_threa....

 

[3]. “The Making of New Arab World: “The Wonder Generation” is Making the Change,” Politika Online, February 20, 2011.

 

[4]. “Belarusian Opposition Prepares for Local and Presidential Elections,” Jamestown Foundation, Eurasia Daily Monitor,Volume 7, Issue 23 (February 3, 2010), http://www.jamestown.org/single/?no_cache=1&tx_ttnews%5Btt_news%5D=35999.

 

[5]. Aarthun, Sarah, “Islamist Groups, Democratic Nations Cast Watchful Eye on Egypt,” CNN, February 12, 2011, http://edition.cnn.com/2011/WORLD/africa/02/11/egypt.crossroads/index.ht....

 

[6]. Rosenberg, Tina, “Revolution U: What Egypt Learned from the Students Who Overthrew Milosevic,” Council on Foreign Relations, February 16, 2011, http://www.cfr.org/africa/fp-revolution-u-egypt-learned-students-overthr....

 

[7]. Domenech, Rossend, Antonio Skármeta: “La Política de Pinochet fue, con todas las Letras, Terrorismo de Estado,” June 13, 2011, http://www.elperiodicodearagon.com/noticias/noticia.asp?pkid=679292.

 

[8]. Levinson, Charles, Margaret Coker, and Jay Solomon, “How Cairo, U.S. Were Blindsided by Revolution,” The Wall Street Journal, February 2, 2011 http://policy.house.gov/must-read-2211.

 

[9]. Barry, Ellen, “Sound of Post-Soviet Protest: Claps and Beeps,” The New York Times, 14/07/2011, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/15/world/europe/15belarus.html?_r=1&pagew....

 

[10]. Center for Applied Non Violent Actions and Strategies, Belgrade, Serbia (ex Otpor!), www.canvasopedia.org.

 

The events and political changes that marked 2011 were previously thought to be impossible.