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Archive for the ‘Nonviolence’ Category

Many words of praise have been spoken and written about Nelson Mandela in recent days. Rightly so. He was one of the most transformational figures in modern history. A people’s hero who embodied the worldwide resistance to apartheid and a national leader who demonstrated the power of reconciliation.

When we honor Mandela we honor the anti-apartheid movement he led and are reminded again of the power of nonviolent resistance. It is ironic that Mandela went to jail in the 1960s refusing to condemn the armed struggle against apartheid, because his release from prison decades later and the success of the South African freedom struggle resulted almost entirely from nonviolent action.

The armed actions of the African National Congress’s military wing did not have a major impact in weakening the apartheid system. It was the intensifying civil resistance of the people that ultimately brought down the regime.

In the 1980s the United Democratic Front of anti-apartheid groups organized a massive campaign of noncooperation and political defiance that made the country ungovernable. People all over the country participated in rent boycotts, student strikes, consumer boycotts and worker ‘stayaways.’ By 1986 fifty-four townships and some half a million households were participating in rent boycotts. In 1988 the Congress of South African Trade Unions organized the most successful general strike in the country’s history. An estimated 70 per cent of the workforce participated in the three-day strike. During those years the regime faced a constant onslaught of political resistance and civil noncooperation that undermined its ability to maintain public order.[i]

Meanwhile the worldwide antiapartheid movement mounted a massive campaign for sanctions and economic divestment that undermined the financial viability of the regime. As South Africa became more turbulent and political pressures increased in many countries against support for the apartheid system, corporate investment began to dry up, and banks slowed and eventually stopped lending money to the regime. In the United States by the early 1990s an estimated 28 states and 92 cities had adopted divestment resolutions urging companies not to do business with firms linked to the apartheid system.[ii] In 1986 the U.S. Congress adopted the Comprehensive Apartheid Act, overriding a veto by President Reagan.

These external pressures combined with widespread domestic resistance to force the regime to release Mandela and opened the door to the creation of a nonracial democracy.

So as we offer homage to Mandela, let us also pay tribute to the many millions of people in South Africa and all over the world who participated with him in the historic campaign to end apartheid.


[i] See Robert M. Price, The Apartheid State in Crisis: Political Transformation in South Africa (Oxford University Press, 1991); and Jeremy Seekings, The UDF: A History of the United Democratic Front in South Africa, 1983-1991 (Ohio University press, 2000).

[ii] See Jennifer Davis, “Sanctions and Apartheid:  The Economic Challenge to Discrimination,” in Economic Sanctions: Panacea or Peacebuilding in a Post-Cold War World?, eds. David Cortright and George A. Lopez (Westview Press, 1995); and Richard Knight, State & Municipal Governments Take Aim at Apartheid (American Committee on Africa, 1991).

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In his statement condemning the violence in Egypt President Obama has asked his national security team to assess the implications of the military’s assault against its own people. There is no need for long deliberations. The likely consequences are uniformly grim.

This is a grave setback for the cause of democracy and the prospects for nonviolent change. From the blood of the many ‘martyrs’ killed by the military will grow seeds of revenge and retaliatory violence. Chaos and terror will likely spread in Egypt and beyond.

The military may be able to kill and imprison the leaders of the Islamic Brotherhood, but they will not be able to crush the broader Islamic movement, or alter the fact that Islam has been and remains the dominant political force in Egypt and most Arab countries.

The slaughter now underway undermines the hope for democratic politics in Egypt and most of the Arab world. No Islamic political leader in the region will be able to argue credibly that the methods of democracy are a viable path to progress.

The same is true for the use of nonviolent methods of change. The dreams of the youth who led the unarmed revolution have turned into a nightmare, their bright hopes shattered by mass killing in the streets. Few will believe any longer in the power of nonviolence.

President Obama should take more forceful action, joining with other nations to seek a quick end to military rule and a return to civilian rule.

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The Egyptian revolution is being crushed and I grieve for what is being lost. That glorious unarmed uprising that so inspired the world is now being gunned down by the armed forces. I grieve especially for the people of Egypt and the dangers that lie ahead unless something is to done to save the day.

The army’s massacre of dozens of people on July 28 was an unspeakable crime, equivalent to the horrors of the Mubarak era. It will go down in Egypt’s history as a day of infamy. I fear it could be one of those cruel turning points in history, when a gathering tide of lawlessness and instability burst into violence. The sense of foreboding is palpable.

The military’s brutality and lies are a grave menace to Egypt’s future. They make the incompetence and authoritarianism of the Morsi government seem mild by comparison. The Muslim Brothers are the main target of attack now, but all of free Egypt is in jeopardy.

Mohammed El Baradei and other liberals have finally criticized the military, but they must go further. I can imagine what Gandhi would say to them. Resign your posts. No one should continue to serve the military regime or follow any of their directives. Mass civil disobedience is the only solution in this emergency, not only in the streets but in pervasive refusal to accept military authority.

The military has gone beyond acceptable moral and legal bounds and must be forced to yield power. The Obama administration should work with the Arab League through the United Nations to support the creation of a broadly representative independent civilian authority in Egypt that guarantees the participation of all social forces, including the Brotherhood. Secular and liberal forces must work with the Brothers and the Salafists to establish an interim government and decide a road map to the future.

The international community should provide help to get such a political process started and must insist that the military turn over authority as soon as it is established. If the army refuses to yield power all U.S. and international assistance for the generals should cease.

Those who say the Muslim Brothers are not prepared or inclined for war do not understand the rage boiling over from the army’s repression. The deadly descending spiral of violence-begetting-violence is beginning, and may soon get out of hand as it did in Syria. Until now the Brothers have been very reluctant to use force, but there is likely a limit to their endurance, as for all people. Arms and materials for making bombs are readily available in the region.

The time to act is now, before it is too late.

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It’s a military coup, and it’s a tragedy for the Egyptian revolution. The Morsi government was certainly incompetent and increasingly authoritarian, but the army had no legal or constitutional authority to remove from office and arrest a legitimately elected president.

The Egypt revolution began in January 2011 with great promise and in 18 days overturned the Mubarak dictatorship through unarmed struggle that inspired the world. As a scholar and practitioner of nonviolent action I was eager to learn how the mostly young urban activists had sparked massive nonviolent protests across the country. I visited Egypt twice in the months after the revolution, helped to organize a conference at the University of Cairo on “lessons from the unarmed revolution,” interviewed dozens of young revolutionaries along with journalists and political observers, and wrote several chapters of a book trying to analyze and apply the lessons of Egypt to the study and practice of nonviolent civil resistance. Now I’m not sure what to write.

The military has taken power again, and we are staring into the abyss of a dangerous and uncertain future. The security forces brutally suppressed initial protests from Muslim Brotherhood members. So far the Brotherhood has remained officially committed to nonviolent methods. On Friday the Brotherhood organized massive occupation-style rallies and civil resistance actions.

The Brotherhood has said it will accept early presidential elections but it wants Morsi released and has rejected the military’s hurried and poorly planned outline for a new constitutional process, as have many other Egypt political parties, secular as well as religious.

If the Brotherhood is excluded from power after having won three straight elections, violence is likely to erupt. Already some angry voices have called for armed jihad. The scenario looks disturbingly like Algeria, where in 1992 the Islamist FLN coalition won an electoral victory but was prevented from taking office, prompting a bloody civil war that continued through the decade and took as many as 200,000 lives. Political strife has torn apart Syria.  Let’s hope Egypt does not suffer the same fate.

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I am encouraged by the nominations of Vietnam veterans Chuck Hagel and John Kerry to the top cabinet posts of Defense Secretary and Secretary of State. It feels like a long overdue acknowledgment and recognition of the experiences of our generation. Perhaps it will reflect and reinforce the deep skepticism toward war many of us learned from serving in the military during that time.

Our country is usually safer and less prone to sanctify military action when our decision-makers have experienced the suffering and horrors of war. Spare us the arm-chair warriors (‘chicken hawks’ the veterans derisively call them) sacrificing soldier lives for geopolitical fantasies.

When I saw the photos published in last week’s New York Times of Hagel and Kerry in their class A uniforms, so young and uncertain, I could see myself many years ago. Like Hagel, I was an enlisted man, never rising above the rank of Spec 4, the same as Hagel’s rank in the photo.

Hagel and Kerry were on the front lines of battle and were wounded in combat. I was stationed safely back in the States playing in the army band. But we were part of the same turbulent, perplexing experience of serving in an unpopular and unjust war.

Vietnam shaped our lives profoundly. As he was medevaced out of the country, Hagel vowed “to do everything I can to avoid needless, senseless war.” Kerry returned to civilian life to become a leader of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, testifying in 1971 before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?”

I spoke out against the war as an active duty soldier, part of the GI peace movement that spread through the military in those years. I spent my time when not on duty circulating petitions and organizing protests among fellow soldiers. When military commanders punished us for being ‘troublemakers,’ we filed a law suit in federal court to defend our First Amendment rights.

The Vietnam experience drove me to spend my life trying to prevent war and now to researching and teaching ways of building peace and resolving conflicts nonviolently.

I hope Hagel and Kerry will bring more realistic, less militaristic perspectives to U.S. military and foreign policy. Perhaps our nation can finally learn the lessons of Vietnam (and also of Iraq and Afghanistan), to avoid the temptation of war and focus on building peace through international cooperation.

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The remarkable political evolution of Burma in recent weeks has interesting parallels with events in Poland in 1989.

Aung San Suu Kyi is now free, and has been elected to parliament along with members of her party, the National League for Democracy. The NLD scored a stunning victory in the April 1 by-elections, winning 43 of the 45 contested seats in the national parliament and regional assemblies. Party candidates polled well even at military bases and in districts near the capital with large populations of civil servants. Some members of the democracy movement had cautioned against joining elections in which so few seats would be openly contested. Suu Kyi took a leap of faith in deciding to participate, and so far her decision has paid off. The NLD has gained significant national prestige and influence.

This calls to mind Solidarity’s unexpected ascent to power in Poland in 1989. When the beleaguered communist regime finally yielded to Solidarity’s demand for free elections in June of that year, they restricted the number of contested seats to just one third of the parliament. Some activists wanted to reject the deal, but Solidarity wisely decided to take advantage of the narrow opening, hoping to widen the movement’s clout and political legitimacy. Solidarity won 160 of the 161 parliamentary seats that were openly contested, defeating even top communist officials in their home districts. The regime unexpectedly capitulated and Solidarity took responsibility for governing.

What both of these stories have in common is their genesis in nonviolence. Nonviolent movements inspire public participation and dialogue and are far more likely than armed struggle to generate successful democratic transitions.

The drama in Burma is still in its early days, but already we have seen surprising progress. Let’s hope more will come in the months ahead as the democracy movement navigates the torturous path of persuading the military to go back to the barracks.

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This past Friday my wife (and fellow peace activist) Karen Jacob and I participated in a huge pro-democracy rally in Tahrir Square. The demonstration was completely peaceful and much larger than those we witnessed earlier in the week. The huge throng filled the entire Square and was reminiscent of the historic mass mobilizations in February that brought down the Mubarak dictatorship. The rally was announced as a ‘million man march’ and had the backing of a broad cross section of Egyptian activist groups, from liberal secularists to conservative Islamists. The Muslim Brotherhood did not support the march, although many of its youth members joined the crowd. The rally had a positive and hopeful spirit, in sharp contrast to the earlier violent clashes, which we witnessed on November 20.

courtesy of Karen Jacob

The atmosphere in the Square on Friday was almost festive. We saw families with children, vendors selling food and drinks, and everywhere the red, white and black stripes of the Egyptian flag, face-painted on children, and thanks to a group of laughing teenagers, also painted on our hands. It was a diverse crowd, young and old, women and men, middle class and the very poor. We were welcomed and greeted warmly by many.

courtesy of Karen Jacob

The crowd was friendly but determined in its commitment to fulfill the promise of the revolution. There were no speeches but constant chanting from groups throughout the Square, all with a similar message. Military rule must end. “How long will you stay in the Square,” we asked a young woman. “Until the generals leave power,” she replied. “The military should defend the nation not rule it,” said one of the many hand-written posters. An older man explained that the generals who took charge in February have lost their legitimacy and must step aside in favor of civilian democratic government.

Where the revolution goes from here is uncertain. The military council is digging in its heels and refuses to step down. It has appointed a new civilian Prime Minister, Kamal el-Ganzouri, a Mubarak-era apparatchik, but it refuses to accept independent civilian leadership. The generals have issued ‘guiding principles’ for the democratic transition that assert their right to veto constitutional provisions and exempt the military from parliament authority.

The democracy movement will not accept this. It has been reawakened by the events of the past week and will not relent until the military steps aside in favor of a fully empowered civilian interim government—one that can shepherd the country through the parliamentary elections that are now beginning, the constitution-writing process that will follow, and the presidential elections that all hope will complete the democratic transition and bring to power Egypt’s first popularly elected civilian leader.

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