Resisting the temptation to take up arms against a dictator isn’t just the moral thing to do — it’s also the most effective way to win.
“Nonviolent Resistance Is Admirable but Ineffective.”
Hardly. In the current geopolitical moment, it may seem hard to argue that a nonviolent uprising is a better tool for uprooting a dictator than the violent kind. Armed rebels, backed by NATO air power, are on the verge of ending four decades of despotic rule by Muammar al-Qaddafi in Libya. Meanwhile to the east, Syria’s Bashar al-Assad has killed with impunity more than 2,200 members of a mostly nonviolent resistance to his family’s long-lived rule.
Arguing in favor of the Syrians’ tactics, and against the Libyans’, would seem counterintuitive — but for the evidence. The truth is that, from 1900 to 2006, major nonviolent resistance campaigns seeking to overthrow dictatorships, throw out foreign occupations, or achieve self-determination were more than twice as successful as violent insurgencies seeking the same goals. The recent past alone suggests as much; even before the Arab Spring, nonviolent campaigns in Serbia (2000), Madagascar (2002), Ukraine (2004), Lebanon (2005), and Nepal (2006) succeeded in ousting regimes from power.
The reason for this is that nonviolent campaigns typically appeal to a much broader and diverse constituency than violent insurgencies. For one thing, the bar to action is lower: Potential recruits to the resistance need to overcome fear, but not their moral qualms about using violence against others. Civil resistance offers a variety of lower-risk tactics — stay-aways (where people vacate typically populated areas), boycotts, and go-slows (where people move at half-pace at work and in the streets) — that encourage people to participate without making enormous personal sacrifices. This year’s peaceful uprising in Egypt saw the mobilization of men, women, children, the elderly, students, laborers, Islamists, Christians, rich, and poor — a level of participation that none of Egypt’s armed militant organizations in recent memory could claim.
“Nonviolent Resistance and Pacifism Are the Same Thing.”
Not at all. When people hear the word “nonviolent,” they often think of “peaceful” or “passive” resistance. For some, the word brings to mind pacifist groups or individuals, like Buddhist monks in Burma, who may prefer death to using violence to defend themselves against injustice. As such, they conflate “nonviolent” or “civil resistance” with the doctrine of “nonviolence” or “pacifism,” which is a philosophical position that rejects the use of violence on moral grounds. But in civil resistance campaigns like those occurring in the Arab Spring, very few participants are pacifists. Rather, they are ordinary civilians confronting intolerable circumstances by refusing to obey — a method available to anyone, pacifist or not. Even Mahatma Gandhi, the iconic pacifist, was a highly strategic thinker, recognizing that nonviolence would work not because it seized the moral high ground, but because massive noncooperation would ultimately make the British quit India: “We should meet abuse by forbearance,” he said. “Human nature is so constituted that if we take absolutely no notice of anger or abuse, the person indulging in it will soon weary of it and stop.”
“Nonviolent Resistance Works Better in Some Cultures Than Others.”
Wrong. Nonviolent movements have emerged and succeeded all over the world. In fact, the Middle East — routinely written off by people elsewhere as a hopeless cauldron of violence — can boast some of the biggest successes, even before the Arab Spring. The Iranian Revolution that took down Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi’s dictatorial regime and brought Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to power was a nonviolent mass movement involving more than 2 million members of Iranian society (though also a useful reminder that nonviolent uprisings, like the violent kind, don’t always produce the results one might hope for). Palestinians have made the most progress toward self-determination and lasting peace with Israel when they have relied on mass nonviolent civil disobedience, as they did in the demonstrations, strikes, boycotts, and protests that dominated the First Intifada from 1987 to 1992 — a campaign that forced Israel to hold talks with Palestinian leaders that led to the Oslo Accords, and convinced much of the world that Palestinians had the right to self-rule.
In the Americas, Venezuela, Chile, Argentina, and Brazil have all experienced nonviolent uprisings, ousting military juntas and at times replacing them with democratically elected leaders. South Africa’s nonviolent anti-apartheid campaign fundamentally altered the political, social, and economic landscape there, while the African National Congress’s forays into revolutionary violence yielded little. Europe, of course, can claim some of the most iconic examples: the 1989 Eastern European revolutions, for instance, and the Danish resistance to the Nazi occupation during World War II. And in Asia, successful nonviolent resistance has succeeded in casting off oppressive regimes in places as diverse as India, the Maldives, Thailand, Nepal, and Pakistan.
“Nonviolent Movements Succeed by Persuasion.”
Not always. The moral high ground is necessary, but hardly sufficient. Campaigns need to be extremely disruptive — and strategically so — to coerce entrenched dictators to abandon their posts. Nonviolent resistance does not necessarily succeed because the movement convinces or converts the opponent. It succeeds when the regime’s major sources of power — such as civilian bureaucrats, economic elites, and above all the security forces — stop obeying regime orders. The literary scholar Robert Inchausti put it well when he said, “Nonviolence is a wager — not so much on the goodness of humanity, as on its infinite complexity.” As in war, the key for a nonviolent campaign is to find and exploit the opponent’s weaknesses.
Take the recent uprising in Egypt. In the first days of the uprising, military and security forces cracked down heavily on protests. But the demonstrators were prepared: Activists — influenced by recent nonviolent revolutions elsewhere — circulated instructions to protesters detailing how to respond to the crackdown and began placing women, children, and the elderly on the front lines against the security forces. The handouts encouraged protesters to welcome the soldiers into the ranks of the movement and strongly forbade any violence against them. Movement leaders also made sure that repressive acts against peaceful protesters were caught on video and publicized.
Ultimately, the Egyptian Army refused orders to suppress the campaign — and Hosni Mubarak’s regime lost one of its key centers of power. Here again is an advantage that nonviolent groups have over armed guerrillas: Loyalty shifts among the security forces are difficult for small, clandestine, violent groups to achieve. Violent threats typically unite the security forces, who join together to defend against them (which is precisely why the Syrian regime insists it is fighting “armed groups” rather than unarmed civilians).
“Only Weak or Weak-Willed Regimes Fall to Nonviolent Uprisings.”
Not true. Many nonviolent campaigns have succeeded against some of the bloodiest regimes on Earth, at the height of their power. In fact, a vast majority of the major nonviolent campaigns in the 20th century were facing down regimes such as Gen. Muhammad Zia ul-Haq’s in Pakistan, Slobodan Milosevic’s in Serbia, Augusto Pinochet’s in Chile, Suharto’s in Indonesia, and various imperial rulers who were clearly invested in maintaining power over their colonies. During the famed Rosenstrasse incident in Berlin in 1943, for example, even the Nazis showed their vulnerability to nonviolent protests, when German women organized protests and faced down SS machine guns to demand the release of their Jewish husbands — a small victory against one of history’s most genocidal regimes, and an unthinkable one had the protesters taken up arms.
In fact, almost all major nonviolent campaigns of the 20th and early 21st centuries have faced massive and violent repression. In Pinochet’s Chile, for instance, the regime often used torture and disappearances to terrorize political opposition. In such circumstances, engaging in visible mass protest would have been highly risky for those opposing the government. So in 1983, civilians began to signal their discontent by coordinating the banging of pots and pans — a simple act that demonstrated the widespread support for the civilians’ demands and showed that Pinochet would not be able to suppress the movement with the tools at his disposal. People also walked through the streets singing songs about Pinochet’s impending demise — a practice that so irked the general that he banned singing. But such desperate measures demonstrated his weakness, not his strength. Ultimately, Pinochet caved and agreed to hold a 1988 referendum on the question of whether he would serve an additional eight years as president. Opposition leaders took the opportunity to organize nonviolent direct actions that focused on coordinating “no” votes, obtaining an independently verifiable vote count, and holding Pinochet accountable to the results. When it was clear that Pinochet had lost, the military ultimately sided with the Chilean people, and Pinochet stepped aside.
“Sometimes Rebels Have No Choice but to Take Up Arms.”
Not true. The current civil conflict in Libya, it’s easy to forget now, began with nonviolent protests in Benghazi around Feb. 15. The demonstrations were summarily crushed, and by Feb. 19, oppositionists had responded by taking up arms, killing or capturing hundreds of Qaddafi’s mercenaries and regime loyalists. In his infamous Feb. 22 speech, Qaddafi said, “Peaceful protest is one thing, but armed rebellion is another,” and threatened to go “house by house” in search of the rebel “rats.” Few civilians would be willing to participate in unarmed resistance after such threats, and what had begun as a peaceful movement unequivocally became an exclusively violent rebellion. It appears now to have been a success, but one that came at an enormous cost: Although an accurate death toll for the conflict is thus far impossible to come by, some counts midway through the war put the casualties as high as 13,000 deaths.
Could it have been otherwise? Hindsight is 20/20, of course, but if Libya’s activists had a chance to evaluate their experience, they may have recognized a few mistakes. First, the movement appeared to have been fairly spontaneous, unlike the well-planned, highly coordinated campaign in Egypt. Second, the nonviolent movement may have focused too much on a single tactic — protests — to pursue its aims. When movements rely exclusively on rallies or protests, they become extremely predictable: sitting ducks for regime repression. Successful movements will combine protests and demonstrations with well-timed strikes, boycotts, go-slows, stay-aways, and other actions that force the regime to disperse its repression in unsustainable ways. For example, during the Iranian Revolution, oil workers went on strike, threatening to cripple the Iranian economy. The shah’s security forces went to the oil workers’ homes and dragged them back to the refineries — at which point the workers worked at half-pace before staging another walkout. This level of repression required to force the masses to work against their will is untenable because it requires a massive coordination of regime resources and effort.
In fact, what we know from previous cases, such as Iran, is that the kind of violent reprisal Qaddafi used against the nonviolent uprising at the outset is often unsustainable against coordinated nonviolent movements over time. Moreover, the rebels’ nearly immediate turn to violent resistance evoked the strongest reaction from Qaddafi, and it immediately excluded large numbers of people who might have been willing to regroup and brave the streets against Qaddafi but who had no interest in joining what was sure to become a nasty fight. Before NATO lent its support, the largest gains the Libyan opposition made were during the nonviolent phase of the uprising, which involved massive protests that shut down the country, elicited numerous defections from key regime functionaries, and even led to the taking of Benghazi without significant bloodshed. But once the rebels reacted to Qaddafi’s repression by taking up arms, they required NATO intervention to stand a chance.
Or consider Syria, where the decision to use violence or not is similarly wrenching. In August, following months of peaceful mass protests, Assad ordered a full-scale military bombardment of Hama, a largely Sunni city known for an armed Islamist uprising that was even more brutally crushed in the 1980s, and other opposition strongholds across the country. Time to grab your gun, right?
Even in such cases, nonviolent movements have choices. They could respond to regime violence by switching tactics. In fact, Syrian activists have been doing this well, avoiding regime repression by using flash mobs and nighttime protests, which are more difficult to repress. Daytime protests are now well-planned, with multiple escape routes and mirrors to blind snipers trying to shoot protesters. Syrian activists have also so far largely avoided the temptation to respond to regime provocations with violence — a critical decision, not only because taking up arms may undermine their domestic bases of participation and support, but also because it makes security forces more likely to obey orders to repress the movement. Because the regime has expelled journalists and cut off electricity in cities under siege, Syrian activists charge their laptops using car batteries and make fake IDs to get close to security forces so they can document human rights abuses and share them online. The continued mobilization resulting from these acts may help the opposition forge indispensable links with regime elites.
Nonviolent resistance is, in effect, a form of asymmetric warfare. Dictators predictably rely on their perceived advantages in brute force to defeat challengers. It’s best to fight the enemy where you have an advantage — in this case, people power, unpredictability, adaptability, and creativity — rathe[b]r than where he does.
“Nonviolent Uprisings Lead to Democracy.”
Not necessarily. There is a strong empirical association between nonviolent campaigns and subsequent democratization, which shouldn’t be terribly surprising: Higher levels of political participation and civil society — factors that make a nonviolent uprising more likely to take root — tend to lead to higher levels of democracy. But there are important exceptions. The Iranian Revolution — one of the world’s largest and most participatory nonviolent uprisings — eventually ushered in a theocratic and repressive regime. The Philippines has endured several major nonviolent revolutions and continues to struggle with democratic consolidation and corruption. The largely successful Orange Revolution in Ukraine seemingly heralded a new era of political liberalization, but recent setbacks suggest the country is reversing course.
But none of these outcomes would likely have improved if the revolutions had been violent. In fact, in most countries where violent revolution has succeeded, the new regimes have been at least as brutal as their predecessors — as anyone who has lived in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution, the French Revolution, the Afghan civil war, or the Cuban Revolution could tell you. As Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the Burmese pro-democracy movement, put it, “It is never easy to convince those who have acquired power forcibly of the wisdom of peaceful change.”
The bottom line is that while nonviolent resistance doesn’t guarantee democracy, it does at least more or less guarantee the lesser of the various potential evils. The nature of the struggle can often give us a good idea of what the country will be like after the new regime takes shape. And few people want to live in a country where power is seized and maintained by force alone.