‘Hug a Soldier’ in Egypt and Beyond

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.

6 thoughts on “‘Hug a Soldier’ in Egypt and Beyond

  1. “Successful” revolutions that are carried out without violence is not a clear indicator that nonviolence was the key. It is that there was much consensus among the people. Intellectuals frequently refer to people like Ghandi as evidence that peaceful protest effectively carry out revolutions, yet they never point out that the British empire was weakened after WWII and that the general consensus among British citizens was for independence. When consensus doesn’t exist, violence is increasingly probable.

    No peaceful demonstration rescued Jews from concentration camps. Too many Nazi’s Germans thought they should remain in them. Olive branch petitions did not help the United States gain independence from a England. Too many and even some Americans loyal to them thought we should remain under British rule And calls for human rights did not remove Saddam Hussein from power. Too many supporters of the Baath party thought he should remain in power. In all of these cases, there was not enough consensus among policy.

    What caused changes in the above examples was not the work of appeals to Kant, Locke, or Rousseau. It was the work of tough men and women in unfirorm who said we will not tolerate this.

    Armchair scientists are somewhat oblivious to physical realities. They paint a beautiful utopian world in which problems are reolved through talk, dialogue and appeals to human rights. We are silly to think that “human rights” exist outisde of our imaginations. These armchair scientists have read too much Locke, Rousseau, and Kant! You show me a country where “human rights” are strongly held and protected and I will show you a stable government and a resilient military ready to defend them. Most importantly, however, I will show you a general consensus among the population that those rights should be upheld. I don’t care what anyone says (and several liberal intellectuals will undoubtedly disagree), nowhere do you see these things more in the world than in the United States.

    Given the lack of government stability, disorganized military and police forces, and the ever so frequent disagreement we see in the Middle East, do we REALLY think this situation will transition so smoothly and with little violence? And if so, do we attribute it to nonviolent protest or general consensus that change needed to be made? I am quite inclined to select the latter (of course assuming that there is even consensus as to WHO shoult take over, but that is even another extremely challenging task).

    1. In response to the comment, I agree that a number of factors will determine the outcome of any struggle against oppression. The relative economic and military strength of the regime, it’s commitment to remaining in power, the level of consensus among the citizenry, and the amount of international and third party support are all key elements. I think that Jeff is correct to specifically point out the importance of broad consensus. If only two million people among Egypt’s 80 million actually desired change, then it is unlikely that the protests would have become so widespread. However, when looking at the history of nonviolent social movements, we can see that it is possible for a relatively small number of people to tap into the popular consciousness and ultimately influence the heretofore silent masses to change their minds and even take action (whether on the streets or at the polls). The willingness of nonviolent protestors to stand firm in the face of physical violence takes courage, and it has been proven in many cases to change minds.

      One needs to look no further than civil rights history to see the power of nonviolence. There was nothing to indicate that the majority of white Americans desired more egalitarian policies in the mid-twentieth century (we’d spent 100 years tolerating Jim Crow and ignoring the basic tenets of freedom espoused by our founding documents), but Dr. King and many other leaders – through the deft use of nonviolent strategies – influenced the opinions of many people including key decision makers. Other nonviolent campaigns have done the same. It has been proven that nonviolence can actually win sympathy, change hearts and minds, and produce consensus. Violent methods do not tend to change the opinions of a populace. In fact, they are likely to create further polarization.

      The other effect of nonviolent resistance is a strengthening of civil society. Nonviolent campaigns produce leaders and organizational structures that can help a society transition from authoritarian rule to democracy. This is not to say that the transition will be smooth. In Egypt we are likely to see a lot suffering before stability returns and democracy fully functions, but imagine the chaos that would result from a violent revolution, which would likely not be successful anyway. The process of nonviolent resistance can generate leaders, structures, and official institutions for dealing with messy transitions. Nonviolence is socially productive in a way that violence can never be.

      For these reasons nonviolence has proven to be a far more effective strategy for achieving a lasting victory against an entrenched power. David points out that nonviolent resistance is roughly twice as effective as violent resistance (a 53 percent success rate versus a 26 percent success rate). So all moral philosophy aside, history tells us that it is more practical to pick up a sign than a weapon.

    2. To say that nonviolence is key to success in Egypt is not to suggest that nonviolence can work everywhere. It did not and could not work for the Jews of Europe in the Nazi era. Martin Buber, Judah Magnes and other Jewish leaders took Gandhi to task for suggesting otherwise. In Burma today the democracy movement has not won freedom yet, despite waves of mass resistance and broad public support for the cause. Sometimes even an overwhelming consensus, such as in Burma, is not sufficient.

      Effective strategy is the most important variable, and that requires disciplined commitment to nonviolence, and a willingness to engage in dialogue with the military and government forces, to show respect and win their loyalty.

      Empirical analysis by Stephan and Chenoweth shows that nonviolence is twice as effective as armed struggle in bringing about significant political change. Freedom House did a similar study showing that nonviolent revolutions are more likely to produce a society that is freer and more democratic.

      This is demonstrated fact, not arm chair utopianism.

      None of this implies any disrespect for our ‘tough men and women in uniform.’ Sometimes they like to be hugged, though. It’s better than having to shoot people.

  2. I have to respectfully disagree a little with David Cortright. While I agree that nonviolence may not work everywhere, I think that we have to keep in mind and believe that it can work anywhere. There are many factors involved, and nonviolence must be creatively and innovatively shaped and employed depending on those factors.

    Also, it does appear that nonviolence worked in at least two cases against the Nazis. The first is the Rosenstrasse Protest, where German-gentile women went to an office building in downtown Berlin, where the Nazis were detaining their Jewish husbands until they could be transported to concentration camps, and these women publicly protested until their husbands were released. It even appears that the protest was successful in having Jewish husbands who were already on their way to the camps brought back to Berlin.

    Another example of successful protest appears to have involved mentally impaired Germans. When families found out that the Hitler regime was murdering or euthanizing their family members, they protested and challenged the government, which, for a time, at least, halted the program.

    And had nonviolent protest been used by even a small percentage of German church members and leaders, particularly early on, there is a chance that things could have turned out differently. I believe that nonviolence could have not only prevented the Holocaust, but could have made Hitler’s tenure a short one.

    What if the Jews had used nonviolence–open, public and strategic nonviolence while still in the German cities? That’s hard to answer. But I believe that while there would have been, tragically, loss of life and suffering, it just may have ignited enough German sympathy and support to prevent the horrific loss of life and suffering that occurred in the Holocaust.

  3. I agree with Nicholas that it is important to believe that nonviolence can work anywhere. Nonviolence may not give the same results as violent action, or be effective in the same time frame, but nonviolent action leaves a completely different footprint on the Earth and its inhabitants, both physically and psychologically, and it is that footprint that, in the long run, always works.
    Gandhi can be taken to task regarding his views on Nazi Germany, and still it will always remain a mystery whether or not nonviolent action in mass, and at an earlier date, would have changed anything – as it did not take place.
    As for Burma and other countries in the world where more freedom is desired, the seeds sown by nonviolent actions cannot be uprooted.

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