The Power of Strategic Nonviolent Action in Arab Revolutions

By Stephen Zunes | Chair of the Middle Eastern Studies Program - University of San Francisco | Aug 1, 2011
Flickr user Al Jazeera English
Flickr user Al Jazeera English
The Power of Strategic Nonviolent Action in Arab Revolutions

The largely nonviolent pro-democracy insurrections that have swept the Arab world in recent months have succeeded in toppling dictators in Tunisia and Egypt and have threatened the survival of autocratic regimes in Yemen, Bahrain, and Syria. While even in Tunisia and Egypt there will undoubtedly have to be additional popular struggle to ensure that the overthrows of these US-backed autocrats could lead to real democracy, these revolutions mark a major triumph for Arab peoples and serve as yet another example of the power of nonviolent action.

These remarkable events have changed Arab society. German anthropologist Samuli Schielke, who was present at the demonstrations in Egypt, observed that the sense of unity and power experienced by the protesters in Tahrir Square and elsewhere is necessarily transient. Negotiations, party politics, tactical decisions, and other processes that have subsequently taken place certainly don’t equal the incredible energy of coming together in the popular contestation of public space and saying “No!” However, he observed, “thanks to its utopian nature, it is also indestructible. Once it has been realised, it cannot be wiped out of people’s minds again. It will be an experience that, with different colourings and from different perspectives, will mark an entire generation.”[1]

Similarly, after covering both the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings, British journalist Peter Beaumont emphasized the significance of this shift in attitude: “A threshold of fear has been crossed. For what has happened in both countries is that the structures of a police state have been challenged and found, to the surprise of many, to be weaker than imagined.” Even before Mubarak was forced out, he noted that “a transition of power is already under way” — not as a result of formal negotiations or diplomatic efforts by the United States or the European Union, but from the people effectively seizing power for themselves. The bold actions by what were once relatively small bands of activists “have been embraced by a wider population no longer afraid to speak or to assemble.”[2]

In many respects, what we have witnessed in the Arab world in recent months is part of a global trend of the use of strategic nonviolent action in pro-democracy struggles which has played a significant role in the downfall of scores of dictatorships over the past three decades. In contrast to armed struggles, these nonviolent insurrections are movements of organized popular resistance to government authority which, either consciously or by necessity, eschew the use of weapons of modern warfare. Unlike conventional political movements, nonviolent campaigns usually employ tactics outside the mainstream political processes of electioneering and lobbying. These tactics may include strikes, boycotts, mass demonstrations, the popular contestation of public space, tax refusal, destruction of symbols of government authority (such as official identification cards), refusal to obey official orders (such as curfew restrictions), and the creation of alternative institutions for political legitimacy and social organization.

Freedom House recently produced a study that, after examining the 67 transitions from authoritarian regimes to varying degrees of democratic governments over the past few decades, concluded that the vast majority came about as a result of democratic civil society organizations using nonviolent action and other forms of civil resistance. Such transitions did not result from foreign invasion and came about only rarely through armed revolt or through voluntary, elite-driven reforms.[3] In another study on civil resistance of more than 300 struggles for self-determination against colonialism, military occupation, and colonial rule over the past century, Maria Stephan and Erica Chenowith noted that nonviolent struggles were more than twice as likely to succeed as armed struggles.[4]

The Middle East and North Africa have experienced this phenomenon at least as often as any place else in the world. In Iran, the tobacco strike in the 1890s and the constitutional revolution in 1906 were both cases of mass nonviolent resistance against neo-colonialism and authoritarian rule. In Egypt, the 1919 Revolution, consisting of many months of civil disobedience and strikes, eventually led to independence from Britain.

In addition to the most recent wave of uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East, there have been other recent successful unarmed insurrections against autocratic regimes. Civil insurrections in Sudan in 1964 and 1985 overthrew dictatorial regimes and led to brief periods of democratic governance. A popular nonviolent uprising toppled Mali’s repressive Traore regime in 1991, resulting in more than 20 years of stable democracy. In Iran, the largely unarmed insurrection against the Shah toppled the monarchy in 1979 and brought a brief hope for freedom prior to hard-line Islamists consolidating their power; the aborted 2009 uprising may mark the beginning of a more complete democratic revolution. In Lebanon, the 2004 Cedar Revolution forced Syria to withdraw its troops and end its domination of the Lebanese government. Recent years have also seen ongoing nonviolent popular struggles against foreign military occupation, including those by Palestinians in the West Bank, Syrian Druze in the Golan Heights, and Sahrawis in Western Sahara as well as significant pro-democracy protests in such countries as Kuwait, Bahrain, Niger, Azerbaijan, and elsewhere. While these have been chronicled in such books as Civilian Jihad: Nonviolent Struggle, Democratization and Governance in the Middle East,[5] there is little appreciation of this history in the West.

Despite Western stereotypes to the contrary, Islamic countries have been at least as prone to large-scale nonviolent struggles as other societies.  One of the great strengths in Islamic cultures which make unarmed insurrections possible is the implied social contract between a ruler and subject. Prophet Muhammad’s successor, Abu Bakr al-Siddiq, stated this explicitly: “Obey me as long as I obey God in my rule.  If I disobey him, you will owe me no obedience.” Such a pledge was reiterated by successive caliphs, including Imam ‘Ali, who said, “No obedience is allowed to any creature in his disobedience of the Creator.” Indeed, most Islamic scholars have firmly supported the right of the people to refuse allegiance to an unjust ruler. Such a willingness to refuse cooperation is a crucial step in building a nonviolent movement and is critical for any successful pro-democracy struggle.

Despite this impressive history, few could have predicted the wave of protests that have swept the Arab world, particularly the 18-day uprising in Egypt in which an estimated 12 million people — perhaps the largest such civil insurrection in history — took to the streets against the Mubarak regime. Ordinary Egyptians — men and women, Christian and Muslim, young and old, workers and intellectuals, poor and middle class, secular and religious – faced down the truncheons, tear gas, water cannons, bullets, and goon squads for their freedom.

It was not the military that was responsible for Mubarak’s downfall. While some top Army officers belatedly eased Mubarak aside on February 11, it was more of a coup de grace than a coup d’état. It was clear to the military brass, watching the popular reaction following his non-resignation speech the previous day, that if they did not ease him out, they would be taken down with him. The Army’s refusal to engage in a Tiananmen Square-style massacre in Tahrir Square came not because the generals were on the protesters’ side — indeed, they had long been the bedrock of Mubarak’s regime — but because they could not trust their own soldiers, disproportionately from the poor and disenfranchised sectors of society, to obey orders to fire on their own people.

Nor was it the internet. Social media did help expose the abuses of the regime and get around censorship prior to the uprising and, during the revolt, at times helped with tactical coordination for the protests. It is important to note, however, that less than 15% of the Egyptian population had access to the internet (mostly through cafes heavily policed by the regime) and, for five key days early in the struggle, it was shut down completely. Ironically, it may have helped the movement in some cases, as a number of residents in Cairo, Alexandria, and other cities decided to come out onto the streets to see what was happening first hand since they could not learn from the internet. In addition, worried parents, unable to reach their children by cell phone as a result of the regime cutting off service, also came out into the streets to look for them only to be swept up in the mass popular mobilization.

Nor was the successful, large-scale application of nonviolent tactics that succeeded in bringing down the dictator a result of assistance or training by outsiders. There were a couple of seminars organized by Egyptian pro-democracy groups which brought in veterans of popular unarmed insurrections in Serbia, South Africa, Palestine, and other countries along with some Western academics who have studied the phenomenon, but these seminars focused on generic information about the history and dynamics of strategic nonviolent action, not on how to overthrow Mubarak. Neither the foreign speakers nor their affiliated institutions provided any training, advice, money, or anything tangible to the small number of Egyptian activists that attended. (As one of the academics who lectured at one of these seminars, I can vouch that the Egyptians present were already very knowledgeable and sophisticated in terms of strategic thinking about their struggle. None of us foreigners can take credit for what later transpired.) The writings of Gene Sharp, the noted American academic who brought the study of strategic nonviolent action into the realm of serious social science, was studied by Egyptian activists, along with other theorists, but its application to the Egyptian situation was of their own making.

Nor was it a spontaneous reaction to the Tunisian Revolution, which had emerged victorious in its largely nonviolent uprising against the Zine El-‘Abidine Ben ‘Ali dictatorship two weeks earlier. While the unarmed insurrection in Tunisia certainly inspired and empowered many Egyptians who had long been sunk in fear, cynicism, and apathy, the Egyptian revolution was a long time coming. There was a dramatic growth in Egyptian civil society during the preceding years, with an increasing number of labor strikes and small, but ever-larger, demonstrations led by such youthful, secular pro-democracy groups as Kefaya (meaning “Enough!”) and the April 6 Movement (named after a nationwide strike and protest on that date in 2008). Rising government repression, deteriorating economic conditions, and parliamentary elections in November 2010 that were even more clearly fraudulent than most, led many of us to suspect that it was only a matter of time before Mubarak would be ousted in a popular uprising. (Indeed, my visits to Egypt and meetings with pro-democracy activists led me to predict in an article posted on the Foreign Policy in Focus web site in early December that “Egypt could very well be where the next unarmed popular pro-democracy insurrection takes place of the kind that brought down Marcos in the Philippines, Milosevic in Serbia and scores of other autocratic regimes in recent decades.”[6])

The choice of nonviolent means that the Arab revolutions, other than Libya, were not centered primarily on an ethical commitment to nonviolence as much as it was the recognition that nonviolent methods were most effective strategically. Even when Egyptian protesters in Tahrir Square were attacked by government-backed goon squads, they used only the minimal amount of physical force to disarm the attackers and detain them. In Syria, the violence from the anti-regime side appears to have come almost exclusively from dissident security forces, not the civilians.

Similarly in Yemen, with the exception of one tribal faction and some mutinous military groupings, the pro-democracy protests have been remarkably nonviolent, particularly given that Yemen is one of the most heavily-armed countries in the world in terms of individual gun ownership, with some estimates as high as three weapons per person. The fact that the millions of Yemenis who have taken to the streets have consciously left them at home and largely maintained a strict nonviolent discipline is nothing short of remarkable. At a demonstration in the tribal al-Bayda region in April, men brought guns only to throw them down on the ground shouting “silmiyya!” (“peacefully!”), a common chant of the protests.[7]

These uprisings have demonstrated to the world the true nature of political power: For even if a government has a monopoly of military force and even if a government has 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. Indeed, the dramatic events of recent months have demonstrated that the best hope for democratic change in the Arab world does not come from outside intervention, armed revolution, or top-down reform by elites, but rather from Arab peoples themselves.

[1]. Samuli Schielke, “You’ll Be Late for the Revolution,” February 6, 2011,


[2]. Peter Beaumont, “These are Uprisings with all the Energy and Optimism of a Rock Festival,” The Observer, February 6, 2011.


[3]. Adrian Karatnycky, How Freedom is Won: From Civic Resistance to Durable Democracy (Washington, DC: Freedom House, 2005).


[4]. Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan. Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, August 2011). pp. 7–44.


[5]. Maria J. Stephan, ed., Civilian Jihad: Nonviolent Struggle, Democratization and Governance in the Middle East (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).


[6]. Stephen Zunes, “Fraudulent Egyptian Election,” Washington, DC: Foreign Policy In Focus, December 7, 2010.


[7]. Sheila Carapico, “No Exit: Yemen’s Existential Crisis,” MERIP Online, May 3, 2011.


nonviolent insurrections are movements of organized popular resistance