An activist tweeted the other day that we should ‘celebrate world revolution.’ Certainly the social upheaval sweeping through Egypt, Tunisia, and other countries in the Middle East is one of the most dramatic expressions of ‘people power’ in history. Never before have the people of the region mobilized in such vast numbers to shake off the chains of autocracy. We can’t help but cheer when corrupt dictatorships crumble and oppressed people courageously resist illegitimate authority.
But will these momentous events lead to genuine democracy and a more peaceful future for the region? It’s impossible to say at this early date, but here are some observations.
While the revolutions in Egypt, Tunisia, and other countries have been mostly nonviolent, they do not fit the classic Gandhian model or follow the principles of strategic nonviolent conflict. Most of the people taking to the streets have faced repression with remarkable restraint and bravery, but some protestors have attacked military and police forces. Hundreds of demonstrators have been killed by state security forces, but casualties have been inflicted on the other side as well.
Retaliation may be a natural instinct, but it is contrary to the strategy of effective resistance. Gandhi, King, and other pioneers of social transformation emphasized the necessity of nonviolent discipline, not merely as a moral choice but as a practical requirement for winning the sympathy of bystanders and encouraging loyalty shifts within the military and police. Empirical studies confirm that nonviolent revolutions are twice as likely to succeed as those that resort to violent means. In the velvet revolutions of eastern Europe and the ‘colored revolutions’ of Ukraine and other former Soviet republics, resisters won in part by convincing the military to remain neutral or side with the people.
That lesson is evident in Tunisia, where the police openly joined the ranks of the resisters. In Egypt, demonstrators are being urged to ‘hug a soldier’– as a way of saying that the struggle is against the dictatorship not rank and file soldiers. The more the protestors can assure rather than attack the military, the more successful they will be in building a better future.