Arab Revolutions and the Power of Nonviolent Action

By Zunes, Stephen | National Catholic Reporter, November 25, 2011 | Go to article overview

Arab Revolutions and the Power of Nonviolent Action


Zunes, Stephen, National Catholic Reporter


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. …

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