Archive | August, 2011

Julia Bacha’s TED Talk

31 Aug

Julia Bacha talks about nonviolent conflict in the Palestinian Territories. A must-see (h/t to Mary King). Check out Julia’s award-winning film “Budrus” here.

Wednesday Roll Call: Rational Stuff I Like

30 Aug

Navid Hassanpour finds that you can Tweet your way to a failed revolution.

The Syrian Revolution News Round-Up provides daily updates with news, protester videos, official statements, etc., of the ongoing Syrian conflict.

Maria Stephan argues that Libya is no “model” for the region.

Stephan Zunes looks at lessons learned and lessons to avoid in Libya.

Iran tells Bashar al-Assad to tone it down.

In an editorial, the Christian Science Monitor mentions the research in Why Civil Resistance Works.

Chibli Mallat weighs in on designing democracy after revolution.

Syrian businessmen show their dissatisfaction with Assad.

Anna Hazare gets the Indian government to budge on his proposed corruption law.

Over a dozen papers on nonviolent resistance (or some variation on that theme) will be delivered at the American Political Science Association‘s annual meeting this week.

How Do People Learn to Resist?

29 Aug

Here’s one way (h/t to Peter Rutland):


Must-Reads for Rational Insurgents

27 Aug

In my various travels, people have asked me outright how they can overthrow their respective governments (I’m not naming names). My answer is always the same: I have no idea how they might go about this, and I have some pretty strong ethical reasons for not wanting to make suggestions either. However, I’d be happy to recommend some readings.

Here is my current top-ten list of must-reads for those wanting to become rational insurgents:

On War, Carl von Clausewitz.

The quintessential guide to strategy, and origin of the famed dictum: “War is politics by other means.” Nonviolent resistance is politics by other means too, and, although Clausewitz doesn’t really go there, lots of the same principles apply.

From Dictatorship to Democracy, Gene Sharp.

This is the handbook for how to proceed with a nonviolent campaign. Sharp explains the fundamentals of power, strategy, and tactical choice; details the hundreds of methods of nonviolent action available to ordinary civilians; and describes lessons learned from previous conflicts.

A Force More Powerful: A Century of Nonviolent Conflict, Peter Ackerman and Jack DuVall.

The authors explore how twelve historical campaigns  — from Nashville to the Ruhr Valley to Burma — have employed nonviolent methods to separate regimes from their main sources of power. Easy-to-read, and full of useful details, this book’s descriptions of the various conflicts are highly instructive. For those tired of reading, there is also a documentary film. See also Bringing Down a Dictator and Orange Revolution.

Unarmed Insurrections: People Power Movements in Nondemocracies, Kurt Schock.

An accessible primer on why some nonviolent uprisings succeed whereas others fail. Schock finds that successful campaigns are more resilient and tactically innovative, and he describes various case studies of how campaigns that shifted between concentrated and dispersed methods were able to avoid regime repression.

The Marketing of Rebellion: Insurgents, Media, and International Activism, Clifford Bob.

While not exactly a handbook for insurgents, this book explains the reasons by some rebels get international support while others don’t. Bottom line: framing and marketing are key.

The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom, Evgeny Morozov.

A sobering account of the ways that authoritarian regimes can exploit the internet to crack down on pro-democracy uprisings. A must-read, given how generally optimistic people are about the potential for social media to be a “game-changer.”

Justice Ignited: The Dynamics of Backfire, Brian Martin.

Martin looks at why government repression sometimes backfires and other times doesn’t. Very instructive.

Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Resistance, Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan.

I don’t care if it’s tacky to list my own book. Sometimes nonviolent campaigns need a little encouragement — and a good reason to avoid using violence. This book will give hope (and ammunition) to people relying on civil resistance to get what they want. We find that compelling evidence that while nonviolent resistance doesn’t always succeed, it has a much better chance at succeeding than violence.

“Spoiling Inside and Out: Internal Political Contestation and the Middle East Peace Process,” Wendy Pearlman.

In this article, Pearlman details one of the major shortcomings of many resistance campaigns: the failure to achieve unity. The article contains lessons from the Palestinian conflict on why social movement organizations should avoid fragmentation.

Why Terrorism Does Not Work, Max Abrahms.

A cautionary tale for why adopting terrorism as a strategy will be counterproductive. The main point: people misinterpret the violence. Instead of hearing you say “I want political change,” they hear “I want to kill you.” Not the best way to convince people you have an attractive vision for their future.

What are your favorite readings on strategy? Feel free to post below.


For more information, see Carter, Clark, and Randle’s online bibliography of nonviolent conflict. See also the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict’s website and the the online video game People Power, which helps activists plan, implement, and reflect on their strategic choices against hypothetical dictators. You know these sites are worth checking out, because they are blocked in China.

Divide and Rule: How Dictators Hold onto Power

25 Aug

Gregory Berger and the folks over at the School for Authentic Journalism created another fantastic video about the Egyptian revolution. This one features a former member of the Muslim Brotherhood, Mohammed Abbas, who intimates that part of Mubarak’s strategy of maintaining power was sowing seeds of sectarian strife among the population. Watch it here:

My co-author, Maria Stephan, is fond of saying that whichever side (opposition or regime) that succeeds at dividing and ruling will ultimately win the conflict. The opposition succeeds by dividing the regime from its main pillars of support — like the army, security forces, or economic elites. The regime succeeds by dividing the opposition and causing separate factions to turn on one another.

There is empirical support for this among separatist movements too. Kathleen Cunningham had a recent article in the May 2011 issue of the American Political Science Review that finds that countries tend to offer concessions when movements are internally divided (as opposed to internally united), suggesting that regimes distribute carrots selectively and in ways that turn different factions against one another.

The lesson: dictators are afraid of united campaigns, and they will go to great lengths to sow divisions among them.

Just to Clarify: I’m Not a Pacifist

24 Aug

I have gotten some interesting feedback about my article called “Think Again: Nonviolent Resistance,” which was posted in Foreign Policy magazine’s August 24, 2011 online edition. The strongest reaction has been related to the assertion that “nonviolent resistance is the moral thing to do,” which is contained in the (somewhat unfortunate) tagline below the article’s title.

I say it’s unfortunate because it distracts people from the overall point I’m making, which is that historically, nonviolent resistance has been a more effective strategic choice than armed insurrection against authoritarian regimes. People think I’m saying that using violence is immoral, whereas nonviolent resistance is moral. The question I took on in the Think Again piece wasn’t whether using violence against Qaddafi’s thugs was moral or immoral. In fact, I don’t know if using nonviolent resistance is always the moral thing to do, and I am not very interested in that question in the first place.

Because of the tagline, I am afraid that I come across as a pacifist who looked for evidence that nonviolent resistance worked where it actually didn’t. It’s the exact reverse. I’m a utilitarian who spent four years developing a research design so that I could scientifically test the hypothesis that nonviolent resistance is more effective than violence. I was a skeptic. And I was surprised by what I found. Hence the “Think Again” part of the title.

I will go on record here as saying that I am not a pacifist. I am interested in what works. At times, I think that violence is both necessary and justified. However, based on my own research, these times seem to be extremely rare, very complex, and highly contingent.

As for whether nonviolent resistance could have succeeded in Libya, well, we’ll never know. But here are three points worth considering.

1). As I mentioned, the movement was fairly spontaneous, unlike the highly coordinated campaign in Egypt. As Peter Ackerman consistently points out, planning is an essential element to a successful nonviolent revolution. As with any battlefield, a nonviolent campaign requires extensive preparation. But as far as I can tell from news reports, Libyans began protesting in earnest around Feburary 15, perhaps inspired by events in neighboring Egypt and Tunisia. By February 19th, the movement became violent in response to bloody crackdowns by Qaddafi’s regime. Four days of civil resistance doesn’t give it a very long time to work. Just ask any Egyptian activist, who struggled for years before seeing Mubarak fall, or a Syrian oppositionist who has trudged along in dangerous uncertainty for the past six months. Again, I don’t fault Libyan fighters for using violence, and I do not call into question their bravery or moral fiber for doing so. I am just arguing that they did not fully exhaust nonviolent options before they resorted to violence.

2). The peaceful part of the Libyan campaign primarily consisted of protest activity. Such tactics are visible and disruptive, but also vulnerable to repression. There are a wide variety of tactics available to such movements that are lower-risk yet irritating to the regime, as I detail here. So almost always, nonviolent movements have options when faced with repression that do not involve selecting violence. The down side is that they take time to plan and coordinate. But choosing violence carries major risks to the movement’s ability to attract wide participation, which in turn can undermine the its ability to achieve sufficient noncooperation to disrupt the regime.

3). The success of the Libyan uprising will no doubt go down in history as a success for violent insurgency. But my point #2 notwithstanding, Juan Cole has argued that there was considerable civil resistance prior to the opposition’s overtaking of Tripoli. In an August 22 interview on Democracy Now, he said:

We’re seeing a revolution coming to its final phase. We’re seeing yet another popular cascade. The reason for which the freedom fighters could enter the capital so easily—many of them just walked in or drove in and came relatively quickly to the center of the city—was because the city had already overthrown the regime. Beginning Saturday night, working-class districts rose up, in the hundreds of thousands, and just threw off the regime. So they softened up the situation for the fighters to come in. And we’ve seen this picture before. This is like what happened in Tunisia and Egypt towards the final phases of those regimes: the capital city throws hundreds of thousands of people into the downtown area to demand that the dictator depart.

h/t to Stephen Zunes for this source.

Khaled Darwish’s op-ed in the New York Times today seems to corroborate this somewhat, although the sequence of events is a bit fuzzy. I have bolded potential evidence of noncooperation in the following passage:

I saw cars filled with families from the surrounding areas stream thickly toward the Souq al-Juma area and the Tajoura neighborhood east of it, over which the rebels’ flag of independence had been raised. Rebels had flocked there from Misurata, the western mountains and other liberated towns. Around noon, a convoy of Red Cross cars drove through the city, their flags raised.

I settled into an apartment in one of the buildings, to make sure that a sniper could not come in and get up to the roof. The night before last, young men had discovered a sniper in a recently abandoned apartment in the building across the street. He hadn’t hit anyone, but they made out where he was, then climbed up there. They locked the large iron safety door, with its chains and giant locks, and left him to his fate.

Around 1 p.m., I watched pickup trucks loaded with young men as they cradled the body of a martyr — God bless his soul — and called on people to pray for him. They headed toward the Sidi Buker cemetery, or maybe the Hani one. Those cemeteries used to be monopolized by Colonel Qaddafi and his dead; now they have been put to a different use.

Just as the rebels of Tripoli have broken the Qaddafi hold on the city, they have also broken the chains of the past. Our martyrs’ names will be written in bright letters on the record book of Libya’s unbroken history.

I heard the chants of “God is great” from children and women in the mosques as I flipped between radio stations like Radio Free Misurata and Radio Free Tripoli, now in our hands after fierce fighting. I was looking for the state-controlled station, which poisoned the minds of a generation that graduated not from college, but from the nightclubs of Bab al-Aziziya, the Qaddafi compound, to sing the blasphemous praises of that unholy exterminator of his people.

The shelling continued. I heard voices and saw plumes of smoke. I heard the planes high above, and some artillery from a direction I couldn’t identify. I heard that Al Sarim Street was full of the bodies of the dead, including women and children who had fallen to snipers’ bullets and were left in the street because no one dared approach.

I haven’t been able to find any additional corroborating evidence of mass civil resistance yet in the media, but if this is true, then nonviolent resistance had a pretty important part in the “endgame” of the Libyan revolution, and as such, deserves at least some credit for the opposition’s victory. You don’t hear that too much on the news these days.

Once more, for the record: I’m a guns and bombs scholar who found a fascinating and counter-intuitive relationship between the use of nonviolent resistance and the success of mass uprisings.

I am making a utilitarian argument, not a pacifist one.


I cross-posted some of these ideas about Libya at Waging Nonviolence today. Check out the post here.

Think Again: Nonviolent Resistance

24 Aug

Check out my Think Again piece at Foreign Policy magazine.

Who’s Next? Does Longevity Equal Vulnerability?

24 Aug

Joshua Keating looks at the world’s longest-ruling dictators. From his post:

Barring a truly remarkable turn of events, Muammar al-Qaddafi’s rule appears to have come to an end. Having taken power 41 years and 357 days ago, Qaddafi had been the world’s longest-ruling sitting leader (not counting royals). He fell short of the all-time record of 49 years set by Fidel Castro, as well as those of Chiang Kai-shek (46 years) and Kim Il Sung (45 years.) So who takes the crown now?

According to Wikipedia, it’s Cameroonian President Paul Biya, at 36 years. However, that’s disputable since Biya was actually prime minister for the first seven of those years and only assumed the office of the presidency when the sitting president died in 1982.

Going down the list, there’s Mohamed Abdelaziz, president of Western Sahara –which is not a generally recognized country — at 34 years. Then there’s Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh at 33 years, though his grip on power is tenuous to say the least.

That leaves Equatorial Guinea’s kleptocratic President Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo as the world’s longest-serving undisputed ruler at 32 years and 21 days. Jose Eduardo dos Santos of Angola and Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe are close behind him, both at 31 years.

Given that Obiang and dos Santos are both 71 and Mugabe is 87, Castro’s all-time dictator longevity record appears to be pretty safe.

Some hypotheses worth testing someday:

1). As the leader’s health dwindles, movements may see new opportunities for mobilization. This was true in Iran when the Shah got some bad health news, and it seems true in Egypt and Yemen as well. Wild cards may include countries where succession is clear (like in Saudi Arabia or North Korea) versus countries where the next leader is contested (like in Zimbabwe).

2). The longer the leader’s tenure, the stronger the population’s grievances. I’m not sure whether this holds in Cuba, but it seems like people get more and more irritated with corrupt leaders the longer they are in power. Hence, the longer you rule, the more vulnerable you become.


Wednesday Roll Call: Rational Stuff I Like

23 Aug

Joshua Goldstein argues war is on the decline for good.

Verizon employees continue to strike, making Verizon start to sweat.

Juan Cole dispels myths about the rebels’ success in Libya.

Chilean students conduct thousands-strong protests to demand fair education policies.

Mary King analyzes security force defections (or the lack thereof) in Syria.

Anna Hazare continues hunger strike against corruption in India, prompting the government to offer talks.

Jay Ulfelder lays out the prospects for democracy in the Arab world.

China continues to witness country-wide protests against environmental abuses (among other things).

Gene Sharp weighs in on Syria.

Rational Insurgent gives an interview on Portland’s KBOO radio.

What Now in Syria?

23 Aug

Reuters reports the following:

Some opposition figures expressed fears that Libya’s endgame might encourage voices among the opposition calling for the arming of a hitherto largely peaceful movement in Syria.

“I fear that some in the opposition who are in a hurry to end the regime, who we have always warned against repeating the Libyan example, will say now it has been successful and resort to arms,” said Hussein, who was detained during the uprising.

“But we will resist such proposals, regardless of where they are coming from.”

Good on you, Hussein.

According to my research with Maria Stephan, resorting to violence will reduce the odds of success for the Syrian uprising by over 30%–even if a hypothetical violent Syrian uprising gets military backing from the international community (which it won’t).

Resorting to violence will also reduce the odds for democracy by about 40%.

Some movements have found it useful to make repression even more costly by switching to unpredictable methods like strikes, boycotts, go-slows, and stay-aways. These are low-risk for opposition activists, yet they keep the momentum moving. Strikes are particularly crippling and agitate the economic elites. If the security forces remain more or less united, the economic elites might be vulnerable to coercion. Apparently, the Syrian uprising is now a well-developed, national, coordinated campaign. Check out some of the innovations the campaign has implemented.