The Power of Nonviolent Resistance

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Although the uprisings spreading across the Middle East are local phenomena in crucial respects, they share a set of ideas about nonviolent resistance

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A widely read New York Times story last week connected the nonviolent resistance in Egypt with the academic work of an American scholar, Gene Sharp. He is the author of the seminal 1973 three-volume study, The Politics of Nonviolent Action, as well as decades of further publications translated into thirty languages. 

What are Sharp's ideas, and how do they help us understand events in Egypt and elsewhere?

Professor Stephen Zunes, a political scientist and another leading figure in the field, noted in the New York Times piece, "[Sharp] is generally considered the father of the whole field of the study of strategic nonviolent action." Zunes is not exaggerating. Besides Gandhi, no one in the last century has more systematically laid out the theory of nonviolent power than Sharp.

The Times article used words like "shy" and "quiet" to describe Sharp. I have had the opportunity to speak with him on a couple of occasions, and while these adjectives are not inaccurate, he is hardly shrinking. In fact, he speaks with a certitude that reflects many decades of careful and unblinking study.

Of course, Sharp did not somehow orchestrate events in the Middle East from his base at the Albert Einstein Institution. The uprisings that have been spreading across the Middle East are local phenomena in crucial respects. Egyptians have been organizing for years. Landmarks in recent Egyptian reformist history include the emergence of the Kefaya movement in 2003, the national strike of April 6, 2008, and the online Khaled Said campaign in 2010. Besides, who could watch the courage and passion of millions of Egyptians and claim this was not their revolution, an expression of their issues, on their turf, in their language, dance, custom, song, and humor?

And the stories of resistance in Tunisia, Algeria, Yemen, Jordan, Bahrain, Iran, and Libya are also fundamentally local ones.

At the same time, these events are connected in important ways and underpinned by a shared set of ideas about nonviolent resistance, developed by Sharp and many others, including a new generation of scholars and advocates, such as Dr. Peter Ackerman of the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict.

Nonviolent resistance has been changing the world for at least a century since Gandhi began challenging British racism in South Africa. (Or is it centuries? George Lakey, a Peace and Conflict Studies colleague and expert on nonviolent action at Swarthmore College, told me last week that one of his students has been tracing nonviolent resistance back to at least 5 BCE, in the form of labor strikes in Egypt.)

Nonviolent resistance movements are increasingly exchanging ideas in transnational networks. A 1956 comic book published by the Fellowship of Reconciliation, Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story, was recently translated into Arabic. Egyptian activists traveled to Serbia to consult with veterans of the "Otpor" movement that overthrew Slobodan Milosevic in 2000. The Serbs shared their own hard-won experience, as well as fundamental lessons of popular nonviolent resistance.

What are these lessons?

First, successful nonviolent resistance is based on overcoming fear and obedience. Despotic regimes, rather than ruling through absolute violence, typically rely on a noxious mixture of propaganda, patronage, apathy, political legitimacy, and a calibrated use of public and covert violence to generate a blanket of fear.

However, it turns out that fear and apathy can be brittle. Dissidents can hammer the first cracks in the edifice by creating low-risk ways for citizens to signal solidarity with one another and see through a regime's subterfuge.

In 1983, for example, Chileans used public "slow-down strikes" to spread awareness of dissent against the Pinochet regime. As ordinary people, including taxi drivers and pedestrians, slowed their activities, they communicated the widespread nature of public dissatisfaction with Pinochet's rule. Through their participation, Chileans became empowered. 

Similarly, Facebook offered a relatively low-risk activity in which many Egyptians could participate, see their strength, and shed their fear.

Suddenly, the unimaginable seems possible -- and this transformation in attitudes can happen at incredible speed. As Ahmed Maher of the Egyptian April 6 movement commented: "When I looked around me and I saw all these unfamiliar faces in the protests, and they were more brave than us -- I knew that this was it for the regime."

Second, as Gene Sharp insists, following Gandhi, "Power always depends for its strength and existence upon a replenishment of its sources by the cooperation of numerous institutions and people -- cooperation that does not have to continue." 

Nonviolent resistance can leverage immense economic and political pressure because a regime relies on its citizens for labor and expertise. Targeted noncooperation can be devastating. It may be no accident that only three days after labor unions joined the protest movement in Egypt, and service workers at the Suez Canal went on strike, the military took the reins from Mubarak.

Third, nonviolent discipline can be one of the most critical strategies in the protester's playbook. We usually associate revolutions with bloody armed struggles and coups, but one of the most remarkable sights during the standoff in Tahrir Square was the widespread commitment to nonviolence, despite provocative infiltration by undercover police and attacks by Pro-Mubarak supporters.

Violence by protesters can undermine public support and give regime leaders an excuse for mass repression. In Egypt, it was the regime that was discredited by violence instead of the demonstrators. 

Similarly, in Bahrain, one organizer, Hussein Ramadan, declared, "The people are angry, but we will control our anger, we will not burn a single tire or throw a single rock. We will not go home until we succeed. They want us to be violent. We will not."

Gene Sharp's work makes it clear that strategic nonviolent resistance is no simple solution. As unrest spreads across the Middle East, some regimes may unleash withering repression. They may crush dissent-- at least if they can continue to command their military forces. (On Monday, two Libyan fighter pilots defected to Malta in their aircraft instead of following orders to bomb protesters.) Conversely, repression may backfire and fuel further opposition. Much will depend on the determination and skill of nonviolent protesters. 

But at least they've been comparing notes closely.

Photo by AP/Emilio Morenatti

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Lee Smithey is an assistant professor of sociology and coordinator of the Peace and Conflict Studies program at Swarthmore College.

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