Should Egyptians Use Violence? A Response to Cambanis

1 Aug

In yesterday’s Boston Globe, Thanassis Cambanis writes an article arguing that violence is necessary for revolutions to succeed. Tom Hastings has a nice piece that challenges a number of the claims Cambanis makes on empirical and logical grounds. In making his argument, Cambanis cites several academic studies by Maria Stephan and Erica Chenoweth, Ivan Arreguín-Toft, and Robert Pape to support his point.

Unfortunately, Mr. Cambanis misreads these studies. First, the only one that explicitly compares the success rates of nonviolent and violent revolutions is the study by Maria Stephan and myself. This study, published as an article in 2008 and as a book in 2011, examines all known major nonviolent and violent insurrections from 1900 to 2006 and finds that nonviolent resistance campaigns were more than twice as likely to succeed as violent resistance campaigns—a finding that directly contradicts Cambanis’s thesis.

Second, Mr. Cambanis writes

Robert Pape…studied terrorist attacks, aerial bombing, and other forms of coercion, and concluded that violence achieves strategic goals far more effectively than peaceful means. Ivan Arreguín-Toft…makes a similar argument about the critical role of violence for opposition movements in his book.

However, neither Pape nor Arreguín-Toft compares the effectiveness of violence with that of nonviolence or “peaceful means.” Pape’s 1996 book, Bombing to Win, compared the use of aerial bombing compared with conventional types of interstate military conflict. His 2005 book, Dying to Win: The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism, argued that suicide terrorism campaigns tend to succeed when they target democratic regimes that are occupying foreign territories with different religious orientations.

In his book, How the Weak Win Wars, Ivan Arreguín-Toft looked at how the use of unconventional methods of conflict–such as guerrilla warfare–could succeed against militarily superior opponents who resorted to conventional battle techniques (he also argues that states can use “barbarism” to be victorious over weaker opponents using guerrilla warfare). However, his study is limited to inter-state conflict.

Neither of these scholars is comparing the effectiveness of violence with nonviolent resistance. Civil resistance is well outside the scope of their studies, which compare which types of violence—suicide terrorism, guerrilla warfare, strategic bombings, indiscriminate repression, etc.—are more effective when confronting other types of violence—such as non-suicidal terrorism, conventional warfare, or selective repression. In fact, Arreguín-Toft explicitly excludes comparisons with nonviolent resistance, writing that his study is limited to comparisons and cannot speak to its effectiveness.

Third, Mr. Cambanis argues that

these gentle revolutions, it turns out, might be exceptions rather than the rule. There’s a backlash among some historians and political scientists that echoes the gut feeling of Egypt’s frustrated revolutionaries. They suggest, sometimes reluctantly, that regimes that insist on ruling by the gun, so to speak, might only be pushed aside by the gun.

He then cites the Pape and Arreguín-Toft studies as evidence of this backlash.

However, his depiction of the “backlash” mistakes the sequencing of the literature. Pape’s books were published in 1996 and 2005, and Arreguín-Toft’s book was published in 2005. Our study, which argues that nonviolent resistance is more effective than violence, was first published in 2008 (the book just came out in July 2011). In fact, we explicitly critique Pape and Arreguín-Toft for excluding comparisons of nonviolent methods of conflict from their comparisons. Their studies weren’t a “backlash” against the argument that nonviolent resistance works. If anything, our argument is the one challenging their conventional wisdom that violence works. The subtitle of our book, “The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict,” is meant to challenge Pape directly (the subtitle to his book is “The Strategic Logic of Suicide Terrorism”). Although it may seem like splitting hairs to point out that Pape and Arreguín-Toft’s works came first, Cambanis’s claim that these scholars are “reluctantly suggesting” that violence is necessary after viewing all of the historical evidence is inaccurate. The historical evidence had not yet been published when they wrote their books.

Contrary to Cambanis’s argument, the historical record reveals rather dramatically that nonviolent resistance is strategically superior, and, in the end, often leads to much more democratic and stable societies than violent insurgency. Although Egyptians may be rightly frustrated with the pace and direction of the transition, they need only look to other recent cases—such as Libya or Yemen—to see the risks of using violence to attempt to improve their strategic positions. Our research indicates that if Egyptians resort to violence, their chances of success will drop by about half, the risk of civil war will steeply rise, and the chances for democracy in the foreseeable future will be considerably reduced.

7 Responses to “Should Egyptians Use Violence? A Response to Cambanis”

  1. Shaazka August 2, 2011 at 1:21 am #

    Erica, have you thought of sending in an op-ed submission in response to Cambanis? Or at the very least, a letter to the editor?

    • rationalinsurgent August 2, 2011 at 1:27 am #

      Hi Shaazka, Yes, I sent them a shorter version of this letter on Sunday. Unfortunately, as far as I can tell, they did not accept it.

  2. Boaz August 2, 2011 at 2:24 am #

    Well argued!

  3. Cynthia Boaz August 2, 2011 at 5:43 pm #

    Rock on, sister!


  1. Would the Boston Globe prefer violence in Egypt? / Waging Nonviolence - People-Powered News and Analysis - August 4, 2011

    […] actually more effective than nonviolence. Erica Chenoweth herself clarifies the matter in a sharp response to Cambanis: [N]either Pape nor Arreguín-Toft compares the effectiveness of violence with that of […]

  2. Thanassis Cambanis , Archive » Non-violence vs. Violence - August 5, 2011

    […] than a century of uprisings and found that nonviolence is twice as likely to succeed as violence. In a post on Rational Insurgent, Chenoweth says I misread the literature. She’s right that I somewhat sloppily described the work […]

  3. Cambanis Replies « rationalinsurgent - August 5, 2011

    […] Should Egyptians Use Violence? A Response to Cambanis […]

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