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A Skeptic’s Guide to Nonviolent Resistance

31 Jul

In anticipation of a variety of critiques concerning my op-ed, “Give Peaceful Resistance a Chance,” New York Times (March 10, 2011), I have assembled a set of 15 Frequently Asked Questions by civil resistance skeptics. I can empathize with these concerns, because I once shared them myself—before I embarked on this project and was surprised by what I found. I would have included more caveats and more detail in the op-ed itself, but the (excellent) editorial staff at the Times had to limit the content for space. Furthermore, I wasn’t able to reference the many different authors whose ideas have inspired me on this subject, but a quick look at any of my published works or blog posts on nonviolent resistance will show that my research builds on a wide range of previous scholarship.

1. What do you mean by nonviolent resistance? How is it different from nonviolence?

Nonviolent (or “civil”) resistance is a method of coercion in which unarmed civilians actively apply sanctions or withdraw cooperation from their governments. Not all participants in civil resistance are pacifists, and nonviolent resistance does not succeed simply because of the moral high ground. Nonviolent resistance includes diverse tactics such as strikes, protests, go-slows, stay-aways, sit-ins, demonstrations, and other forms of civil disobedience. Nonviolence, by contrast, is a philosophical position that rejects the use of violence on moral grounds. For more information, check out this site.

2. Aren’t arguments in favor of nonviolent resistance hopelessly naïve?

They would be naïve if the argument was based on the proposition that nonviolent campaigns succeed because the “good guys always win.” That is certainly not the case, and suggesting as much would be both misleading and dangerous. That said, historical evidence from 1900 to 2006 suggests that once nonviolent campaigns have achieved a critical mass of supporters, civil resistance campaigns have worked more often than they have failed. This is true even in brutal regimes. 30 of the nonviolent campaigns we studied took place in countries that rank as autocracies (between -7 and -10 on the POLITY IV scale). All 30 of these nonviolent campaigns faced massive repression from their opponent regimes, yet 21 of them (70 percent) succeeded. That success rate is higher than average for nonviolent campaigns facing other types of regimes.

3. How can you call the Egyptian revolution a success? Didn’t it usher in a military government?

I would call it a success (for now), because the campaign had a direct and discernable impact on Mubarak’s stepping down—an outcome that few would have imagined before the uprising took place. The post-Mubarak era is still shaping up, but two things are especially important to remember. First, the nonviolent resistance is still going on, with pro-democracy activists remaining committed to seeing through reforms. Second, the military and security forces were willingly repressing pro-democracy movements in Egypt for years; it was the mass, nonviolent demonstrations that created cracks in the military, both among senior leadership and within the ranks. According to reports, one Egyptian demonstrator said that he did not see the military intervention as a coup, but rather that “This is them consenting to the people’s demand.”

4. The Middle East has more violent conflicts than almost any other region in the world. Can nonviolent resistance really work there?

Just look to the recent past, and you’ll see that the answer is yes. The Iranian Revolution is the most striking example. Although many associate the revolution with Ayatollah Khomenei’s bloody purges of the non-Islamist elements in the post-revolutionary regime, the campaign that brought Khomenei to power was a nonviolent, mass movement involving more than two million members of Iranian society. Palestinians have made the most progress toward self-determination and lasting peace with Israel when they have relied on mass, nonviolent, civil disobedience, such as the demonstrations, strikes, boycotts, and protests that dominated the First Intifada from 1987-1992. If there is a lesson from these two cases, it is that the victories of these nonviolent campaigns were cut short by violent infighting, which ultimately bloodied their legacies. For those who remain skeptical, I recommend the book Civilian Jihad: Nonviolent Struggle, Democratization, and Governance in the Middle East, in which Maria Stephan and her co-authors detail the numerous civil resistance campaigns that have existed in the Middle East and Arab world.

5. Why did the nonviolent revolution in Libya fail? Could it have ever succeeded?

First, the nonviolent movement may have over-relied on a single tactic—protests—to pursue their aims. In Unarmed Insurrections, Kurt Schock argues that when movements rely too much on rallies or protests, they become extremely predictable—in other words, they become 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, only for the workers to work at half pace before staging another walk-out. This type of repression is untenable because it requires a massive coordination of regime resources and effort.

Second, the campaign did not have adequate leverage over the security forces. Part of this may have been due to the spontaneity of the movement. But Col. Qaddafi also recognized what was going on in Egypt and Tunisia, and so he relied on foreign mercenaries to crack down on the nonviolent protests, knowing that mercenaries would not hesitate to shoot unarmed Libyan civilians. Moreover, even his regular military is deliberately decentralized in a way that doesn’t allow for overconcentration of power (presumably to avoid coups). This foreclosed the possibility that the military could confront Qaddafi and demand that he leave the country, as happened in Egypt. In this case, Qaddafi had a pretty savvy response. I don’t know whether this precluded the possibility that the people could have won using nonviolent resistance, but items #6, #7, and #10 deal more directly with that.

6. Doesn’t the failure of the nonviolent resistance in Libya disprove your argument that nonviolent resistance works? And aren’t the Libyan rebels justified in using violence given the circumstances?

All of the arguments I make are based on probability, not certainty. Here’s what I know: a campaign doesn’t succeed simply because it is nonviolent. Nevertheless, note how the largest gains the Libyan opposition made were during the nonviolent struggle, which involved massive protests that shut down the country, numerous defections from key regime functionaries, and even the nonviolent overtaking of Benghazi. For several days, it seemed as though Qaddafi’s fall was imminent, before the campaign reacted to Qaddafi’s repression with violence. So, I certainly wouldn’t argue that Libya disproves my point.

Currently, the rebels are at a major force disadvantage and probably won’t succeed without foreign intervention. Whether or not they are “justified” in using violence is beside the point, and I am not faulting them or blaming them for doing so. But my overall claim is that their resort to violence greatly reduces the probability that they will succeed, if the historical record extends to this case. To put it more concretely, their chances of success are probably somewhere between 0% and 20%.

7. Many campaigns start out as nonviolent, but become violent after their opponent regimes crack down on them. Aren’t some campaigns forced to use violence?

In most cases, I don’t think so, although I could be wrong. Ralph Summy took up this question in a 1994 article called “Nonviolence and the Case of the Extremely Ruthless Opponent.” Basically, there is almost always a way to circumvent regime repression, if the movement organizes and commits itself to a patient strategy (see Gene Sharp’s various publications on different types of nonviolent strategies). Almost all major civil resistance campaigns have faced violent repression in one form or another. Although campaigns should obviously avoid being targeted by repression whenever possible, some campaigns are able to exploit such repression to raise awareness for their cause, a dynamic that Brian Martin calls “backfire.” The bottom line is that even totalitarian regimes have to rely on agents to implement their repression.

The Serbian student movement Otpor (several of whom have developed an online resource for other nonviolent movements) faced terrible repression from the Milosevic regime, but the campaign maintained nonviolent methods and, because of that, ultimately created loyalty shifts among security forces that allowed the movement to succeed. As Michael Walzer puts it: “It is not so easy to reach the last resort. To get there, one must indeed try everything (which is a lot of things)—and not just once, as if a political party or movement might organize a single demonstration, fail to win immediate victory, and claim that it is now justified in moving on to murder….It is by no means clear when they run out of options….What exactly did they try when they were trying everything?”

8. How can you say these nonviolent movements will usher in a new wave of Middle Eastern democracies? Couldn’t they just as easily usher in a new era of military dictatorships, or populist theocracies?

I don’t share the cynicism about the prospects for democracy in the Middle East, but my assertion about the likely onset of democracy in the Middle East is, too, based on the historical record. In Chapter 8 of our forthcoming book, Maria Stephan and I looked at the cases of nonviolent and violent resistance from 1900-2006. Using data from the POLITY IV dataset, we find a high correlation between the presence of nonviolent campaigns (versus violent campaigns) and the presence of democracy five years after the campaign ends. In our study, we control for a variety of other factors that make countries likely to become democratic. If you are familiar with Robert Putnam’s book Making Democracy Work, these results may not surprise you. The bottom line is that higher levels of political participation and civil society organizing lead to higher levels of democracy.

Importantly, though, if the Middle Eastern revolutions turn into violent conflicts like Libya, then the prospects that democracy will spread are nil. Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the Burmese pro-democracy movement, put it well: “It is never easy to convince those who have acquired power forcibly of the wis­dom of peaceful change.”

9. Aren’t dictators afraid of mass nonviolent movements because they fear that the movements will turn violent?

Hardly. They’re afraid of these movements because they don’t know how to deal with the massive withdrawal of cooperation. The typical tool they use is repression. But you can’t repress all of the people all of the time—especially if they engage in nonviolent methods of dispersion—because you have to rely on security forces’ and footsoldiers’ sustained obedience to do so. Most dictators sense a real dilemma when facing nonviolent campaigns, and will use all kinds of propaganda to try to undermine them, to make them start obeying again, or to make them feel like they have to resort to violence. A great irony is that most dictators would have an easier time dealing with an armed insurgency (where anything goes) than with a mass nonviolent campaign (where anything the dictator does could backfire).

10. But what can campaigns do when they face brutally repressive opponents like Qaddafi?

First, they could respond to regime violence by switching tactics—from more concentrated tactics like protests to more dispersed tactics like stay-aways or strikes. Second, they could appeal to the widest possible base of participants so as to attract as much participation as possible. This may help them to forge those indispensible links with regime elites. Third, they could maintain discipline and avoid the temptation to respond to regime provocations with violence, because resorting to violence may undermine their domestic bases of participation and support, and it may also make security forces more likely to obey orders to repress the movement.

Take the case of Chile under Pinochet. In a country where political opposition was often met with torture and disappearances, engaging in visible mass protest would have been highly risky for those opposing the Pinochet government. However, in 1983, civilians began to signal their discontent by coordinating the banging of pots and pans—a simple act that demonstrated the widespread support behind the civilians’ demands, and that Pinochet would not be able to suppress with the repressive tools at his disposal (incidentally, this tactic was replicated from a campaign in the early 1970s, when the middle class was protesting then-president Allende’s economic policies). People also walked through the streets singing songs about Pinochet’s impending demise—a practice that so irked Pinochet that he banned singing. Such a move only demonstrated his weakness, not his strength. Ultimately, Pinochet held a referendum in 1988 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. The coalition was extremely successful on all counts, mobilizing extremely diverse sectors of Chilean society to vote. When it was clear that Pinochet had lost, the military ultimately sided with the people, and Pinochet stepped aside after a new president was elected the following year. For a fuller account, see Peter Ackerman and Jack DuVall’s chapter on Chile in A Force More Powerful.

11. Don’t nonviolent resistance campaigns only succeed when armed wings support them?

Generally, no. Some cite the African National Congress as an example of a group whose use of urban guerrilla tactics improved the bargaining position of the nonviolent antiapartheid movement, thereby improving the overall cause. However, I am skeptical that armed wings help. Instead, they simply give regimes a pretext to crack down on the nonviolent movements. Moreover, having an armed wing will dissuade many potential participants from joining. And, it will reduce the likelihood that the regime divides in its fight against the campaign.

12. Don’t nonviolent campaigns only work when they have support from outside?

Decidedly no—at least not if this refers to direct material support to opposition groups. Our data from 1900-2006 show that less than 10% of all nonviolent resistance movements received material support from outside states, and that among those that did, the aid did nothing to further their cause. Although direct foreign assistance can help violent revolutions, foreign aid to a nonviolent campaign may undermine its critical source of strength—participation. Foreign aid can dissuade activists from participating because they perceive the campaign to be a puppet of a foreign power, thus making it appear less legitimate, or because they feel that because the campaign has become rich, it no longer needs the support of the people. However, there are many legitimate ways for foreign governments to support nonviolent activists and human rights defenders, and certain forms of external assistance during critical phases of nonviolent movements proved to be very useful. My co-author, Maria Stephan, likes to recommend A Diplomat’s Handbook for Democracy Development Support as a source on this subject. Violent campaigns, on the other hand, benefit tremendously from foreign state support: it increases their chances of success by nearly 20% in most cases.

13. Are you arguing that the Obama administration should be actively supporting these nonviolent movements?

That depends on the type of support. The Obama administration has taken considerable criticism for avoiding a more active role in supporting these pro-democracy movements. This criticism may be misplaced, because our research shows that direct foreign aid can undermine a nonviolent campaign (see #12). While it does not seem that massive amounts of outside money have helped nonviolent campaigns achieve success, Western governments should instead use diplomatic leverage to pressure the regimes to reform, keep the countries open to foreign media, name and shame human rights violations, support independent media and civil society capacity-building, provide “moral support” to the opposition through verbal encouragement, and threaten to withdraw economic and security aid from regimes that refuse reforms. The Diplomat’s Handbook includes cases where different forms of external support have been used, but our study does not systematically test these types of strategies.

14. How do you measure nonviolent campaigns?

There’s a lot that goes into this answer, so I’ll simply refer you to my research page, where you’ll find the codebook and data set under “Strategic Nonviolent Resistance.” My book with Maria Stephan, Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict, is due out this summer with Columbia University Press, and I will provide extensive data and appendices on my website when the book is released.

15. I took a look at your research page and take issue with your coding decisions, data, and methods.

I encourage you to create your own study incorporating your criticisms. Let’s start a dialogue on the subject.