Nonviolent Revolution

From the May 2012 PNL #814

Jorgen Johansen

The nonviolent revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt dominated international news in early 2011. Given their adherence to the principles of nonviolence and massive public participation, the international media tells us these revolutionary movements are unique and extraordinary. They are in fact continued examples of the successful nonviolent revolutions that have taken place in recent decades.

In the past 30 years, almost every successful revolution that forced the old regime to step down has used nonviolent means. They used massive mobilization of ordinary people on the streets, strikes, and demonstrations to remove unpopular authoritarian governments in country after country, while the many armed and violent guerrilla movements of the time remained unsuccessful. The wide-ranging coverage of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions misses this crucial fact.

The man who owned this house in Beijing, China refused to move when the government wanted to build the “Bird Nest-sport stadium” for the 2008 Olympic games. It takes true courage for an individual to stand up against the Chinese Government! Photo: unknownThe man who owned this house in Beijing, China refused to move when the government wanted to build the “Bird Nest-sport stadium” for the 2008 Olympic games. It takes true courage for an individual to stand up against the Chinese Government! Photo: unknownI have analyzed these nonviolent movements and divided them into six groups, based on the types of international support received from a wide array of foreign actors. While each of these cases is unique and has its own background and context, they have a level of kinship that makes it reasonable to group them.

Beginning with Solidarity
The first wave of popular nonviolent uprisings started with Poland and the trade union Solidarity. The fight against the one-party communist system started in 1980 and ended in a victory in 1989. Bolivia, Uruguay and the Philippines followed in 1982, 1984 and 1986, respectively. For those movements to succeed, support from the international network of trade unions and the Catholic Church was crucial.

From 1989-1991, we saw the next wave of peaceful revolutions in former Soviet republics and Eastern Europe. The fall of the Berlin wall became the symbol of those success stories. Relatively strong civil societies, access to Western media, and economic problems of the crumbling states enabled the dismantling of one-party communist systems.

During the same period (1989-1991), a number of countries in French-speaking sub-Saharan Africa went through similar processes of nonviolent regime change. It started with Benin and then spread to a handful of other countries: Burkina Faso, Guinea, Senegal, Mali, and Malawi.

A crucial element in these cases was the presence of broad-based coalitions in national assemblies to discuss and formulate the future of the states. Most former French colonies celebrated the 300-year anniversary of the French revolution. Conferences, books, and special editions of journals had the anniversary as a key topic. Strong civil societies that cherished the ideals of the 1789 French revolution were key actors in those movements of change.

From 2000 onwards the “colored revolutions” took place—starting in Serbia and then spreading to Georgia, Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan, and Lebanon, sparked by fraudulent national elections. Foreign support—monetary, strategical, and technical—played noteworthy roles in those revolutions.

The Arab Spring
The most recent wave of revolutions against authoritarian regimes started in Tunisia and then Egypt. The old regimes had to step down in the first months of 2011 and the complex and difficult processes of building of new states are continuing. Opposition movements call for regime change in Iran, Morocco, Bahrain, Djibouti, Qatar, Algeria, Syria, Jordan, Yemen, Oman, and Kuwait while Al Jazeera plays an important role as a source of information both inside and outside these countries. In most of these cases, little external support has been offered to opposition groups.

In Tunisia and Egypt, public anger and frustration reached a level where ordinary people had enough of poverty, emergency laws, censorship, police brutality and corruption. That was when they decided to confront the regime. In both these countries, Western support for the civil society and opposition groups was too little or none. It might well be the case that the lack of support from the outside world actually pushed the people to take desperate actions on the streets of Cairo and Tunis.

Revolutions take time. And when repressive regimes are successfully removed, serious problems arise as soon as the celebrations are over. The difficult task of replacing the old system is a crucial one. There are enormous differences between being in the opposition and being in power. That is why those who toppled the old regime may not be best prepared to run the country.

In the long run, a revolution is judged not on how the people celebrated the departure of the despots, but on how the new society functions months and years after the takeover. That is why we will have to wait for some time for a full-blown analysis on Tunisia and Egypt.

Jørgen is an academic, writer, and peace activist. This article was condensed and updated from a longer piece published in Seeds of New Hope: Pan-African Peace Studies for the Twenty-First Century. Check out a video of his recent presentation at Syracuse University on SPC’s YouTube channel.