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Which Non-Violent Revolutions Will Succeed?

20 September 2020

The old calculation was simple and brutal: if you want to overthrow a tyrant, you must use violence. There was an occasional exception, like Gandhi’s use of non-violent protest to gain India’s independence, but people wrote that off as being due to the fact that the British empire, being ruled by a democratic government, was too soft.

Tell that to the descendants of the tens of thousands of Irish, Kenyans, Malaysians, Yemenis, Iraqis, Egyptians, Afrikaners and sundry others who were killed for trying to leave the British empire. It would be truer to say that Ghandian non-violence obliged the British to avoid massive violence in India (and Pakistan and what eventually became Bangladesh got a free ride out on the same ticket.)

And then, after bubbling underneath for four decades with a few partial successes like the American civil rights movement, non-violent tactics exploded into a kaleidoscopic range of peaceful revolutions in the later 1980s. From south and southeast Asia (The Philippines, Taiwan, Thailand, South Korea, Bangladesh) to Iran and the Communist-ruled countries in Eastern Europe, the technique seemed unstoppable.

Peaceful protest was drowned in blood in China in 1989, but it kept notching up victories elsewhere: the Soviet Union itself, most of France’s sub-Saharan colonies, South Africa and Indonesia in the 1990s; Serbia, Philippines II, Georgia, Armenia, Ukraine and Lebanon in the 2000s; and Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, Ukraine II and Sudan in the 2010s.

But all the non-violent uprisings of the 2010-2011 ‘Arab Spring’ except Tunisia’s ended up being crushed by military coups or civil wars. And none of the current crop, in Belarus, Thailand and Algeria, are heading for a rapid or easy victory. Indeed, they might all fail. What is happening to this technique that once swept all before it?

It’s more than three decades since this new technique startled the world, and dictators are not usually fools. They see what happened to their former colleagues who got overthrown, and start working out counter-strategies that weaken the determination and cohesiveness of the protesters.

For example, all but the stupidest dictators now know that while violence can scare individuals and small groups into silence, it is almost always a mistake to use it against very large groups. It just makes them angry, and they’ll usually be back the next day in much larger numbers.

Your real objective, as a dictator, should be to trick the protesters into using violence themselves. Then the thugs who love a street-fight will rise to leadership positions in the protests while most other people withdraw, disgusted by the violence – and then you can use massive violence against the violent protesters who remain.

Dictators have also learned to block the internet and mobile phones at the first sign of protest, or to mine electronic communications between the protest organisers to stop small groups from uniting into an unstoppably big crowd. Keep that up long enough, and you may just wait them out.

Harvard politican scientist Erica Chenoweth is the go-to expert on this, and she has two very useful numbers for us. The first is that whereas non-violent movements to overthrow illegitimate regimes used to succeed half the time, now they win only one time in three. The other, more encouraging, is that if they can get 3.5% of the population out in the streets, they almost always win.

By this measure, the Belarus movement is still within reach of success. 3.5% of Belarus’s population is about 300,000 people, and the Sunday demonstrations since early August, including those in cities outside Minsk, probably come close to that figure most weekends. People are not yet bored, cowed, or in despair.

The protests in Thailand against former general and coup-leader Prayuth Chan-o-cha have not yet spread significantly beyond Bangkok, and the mostly student protesters are certainly not even 1% of the population. The movement continues to expand, but its long-term prospects are doubtful.

As for Algeria, the recent election of a new president closely linked to the last one (whom the protesters forced to resign last year) has brought the students back out into the streets in force. The Covid-19 lock-down robbed the movement of its momentum, however, and it is unlikely to regain it.

So maybe one success in three for regime change, just as Erica Chenoweth predicts. But her most important insight is that the 3.5% number probably applies to any popular protest movement, including those in democratic countries. The goals of those movements need not be limited to overthrowing dictators.

As she told the Harvard Gazette last year: “(3.5%) sounds like a really small number, but in absolute terms it’s really an impressive number of people…Can you imagine if 11.5 million (Americans) were doing something like mass non-cooperation in a sustained way for nine to 18 months? Things would be totally different in this country.”
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 9. (“Tell…ticket; and “Dictators…out”)

Algeria: Hope and Fear

One of the most popular slogans in the street protests in Algeria has been ‘Neither beard, nor kamis, nor police’. That needs a bit of translation.

‘Beard’ refers to male Muslims who want to demonstrate how devout they are, ‘kamis’ refers to the costume worn by Muslim females of the same persuasion (from shalwar kameez, the long shirt and baggy trousers worn by many Pakistani women), and ‘police’…well, that one is obvious.

After six weeks of peaceful demonstrations, the protesters are celebrating their first major victory. President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, the 82-year-old president with the world’s most spectacular comb-over, has been forced to resign. But this slogan is really about the next step.

The mostly youthful demonstrators are signaling that while they do want to get rid of the whole regime, not just its figurehead, they do not have anything to do with political Islam (beards and kamis). It’s a necessary reassurance for most older Algerians, who are haunted by the fact that the last time the regime nearly lost power, the opposition party was Islamist, and it ended in a ghastly ten-year civil war.

Islamism was very popular among opposition groups across the Arab world in the 1980s, and when the Algerian regime took the risk of holding an election in late 1991, the Islamist party won. Or rather, it was clearly going to win when ‘le pouvoir’ (The Power), as Algerians call the regime, cancelled the second round of the election and took back control.

The Islamists responded by launching an armed rebellion. It turned into a decade-long civil war in which both the Islamist rebels and the ‘le pouvoir’ used terror against the civilians caught in the middle. At least 100,000 Algerians were murdered, the regime finally won in 2002, and the population was so scarred by this experience that it has remained submissive – until now.

The current wave of protesters are on a roll, but getting rid of Bouteflika is just the first step. The interim leader who has to organise a new election within 90 days, Senate president Abdelkader Bensalah, is a regime loyalist and a close associate of Bouteflika. And the generals and powerful businessmen who really control the regime are still hoping that a change of leaders will be enough to send the protesters home.

It won’t. What’s really driving this youth-led revolt is desperation: one-third of the country’s under-30s are unemployed. The regime can no longer buy them off with cheap public housing and subsidised jobs because oil revenues have fallen steeply, and they are too young to remember the horrors of the civil war.

Since the under-30s are two-thirds of the country’s population, they are probably going to win. Having been in power ever since the end of Algeria’s war of independence from France in 1962, ‘le pouvoir’ is now going to be dismantled. The question is what happens next, and nobody knows.

The precedents elsewhere in the Arab world are not encouraging. When Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak (29 years in power) was forced out of power by popular protests in 2011, the Muslim Brotherhood won the subsequent election, but the army overthrew them in a very bloody coup and is back in power. The attempted democratic revolutions in other Arab countries also mostly ended also ended in disaster.

When Libyan dictator Muammar Gadafy (42 years in power) was overthrown and killed in the same year, there were no free elections, and the civil war started right away. Most of the contending groups are Islamist of one flavour or another, and the war is still going on.

When Syrian ruler Bashar al-Assad (18 years in power) faced a challenge from pro-democracy protests in 2012, he was not overthrown, but the civil war that ensued has destroyed half the country and is only now coming to an end.

So why would anyone think that Algeria can do it better?

One reason is that most of the young in Algeria really aren’t Islamists any more. Generational turnover has done its work, and the current youth generation is mostly secular, pro-democracy, and animated by non-violent ideals.

But that’s about it. There aren’t many more reasons to believe that Algeria will turn out differently second time around, and there are lots of reasons to fear that it won’t be different this time. Yet hope springs eternal.

Tunisia managed to turn itself into a democracy non-violently in 2011, and despite huge unemployment among its under-30s it still is one. It’s hard to see how freeing Algeria from the dead hand of a superannuated dictatorship will really change the grim economic prospects of its younger generation – after all, that hasn’t happened in Tunisia after almost a decade of democracy – but it’s worth a try anyway. Despite the risk.

To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 11 and 12. (“When…end”)

Five Years After the Arab Spring

Five years ago this month, the “Arab Spring” got underway with the non-violent overthrow of Tunisia’s long-ruling dictator, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. He dared not order the army to open fire on the demonstrators (because it might not obey), he was running out of money, and eventually he flew off off to Saudi Arabia to seek asylum.

In an Arab world where satellite television broadcasts and social media had effectively destroyed the power of the censors, practically everybody else spent the four weeks of civil protest in Tunisia tensely watching what the Tunisians were doing. When the Tunisian revolutionaries won, similar non-violent demonstrations demanding democracy immediately broke out in half a dozen other Arab countries.

It felt like huge change was on the way, because the world had got used to the idea that non-violent revolutions spread irresistibly, and usually win in the end. The ground-breaking “People Power” revolution in the Philippines in 1986, for example, was followed in the next three years in Asia by non-violent democratisation in South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand and Bangladesh, and failed attempts at non-violent revolution in Burma and China.

Similarly in eastern Europe, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Communist regime in East Germany in 1989 was followed by non-violent democratisation in all the Soviet-dominated “satellite” countries by the end of the year. The Soviet Union itself broke up in 1991, and some of its component parts also became democratic. Non-violence was a magic potion, and people assumed that it was bound to work in the Arab world too.

They were wrong. The non-violent movements demanding democracy spread just as fast, but their only lasting success was in Tunisia. Egypt and Bahrain are back under autocratic rule, and Yemen and Syria are both being devastated by civil wars and large-scale foreign military intervention. Libya is also being torn by civil war (although the revolution there was never non-violent).

You can hardly blame people for trying to get rid of the old regimes – they were pretty awful – but beyond Tunisia the endings were uniformly bloody and tragic. Was there some systemic reason for this, or was it just a lot of bad luck? There is great reluctance to pursue this question, because people are afraid that the answer has something to do with the nature of Arab society or Islamic culture. They shouldn’t worry.

Islam is not incompatible with democracy. Indonesia, the most populous Muslim country, had a non-violent democratic revolution in 1998 and continues to be a thriving democracy today. Turkey has been democratic for decades, although Recep Tayyib Erdogan, the current president, is doing great damage to the country’s democratic institutions. Pakistan and Bangladesh are both democracies, although turbulent ones.

These four countries alone account for almost half the world’s Muslims. In the Arab world democracy is a much scarcer commodity, but it does exist, most notably in Tunisia itself. Several other Arab countries, like Jordan and Morocco, have a significant democratic element in their politics, although the king retains much power.

So what went wrong with the “Arab Spring”? In the case of Bahrain, the problem was that the majority of the population is Shia, but the ruling family is Sunni and saw the democratic movement as an Iranian plot. Neighbouring Saudi Arabia saw it the same way, and sent the Saudi army in to crush the “plot”.

Yemen was a lost cause from the start, since there was already an incipient civil war in the country. Now it’s a full-scale war, with foreign military intervention by a Saudi-led coalition that includes half the countries in the Arab world, and the non-violent protestors are busy hiding from the bombs.

Syria was a hard case since the Ba’athist regime, in power for more than forty years, had accumulated a great many enemies. The Alawite (Shia) minority who dominated the regime were terrified that they would suffer from revenge-taking if they lost power, and were willing to fight to the last ditch to keep power.

But it is also true that Turkey and Saudi Arabia, and later the United States as well, encouraged an armed uprising in Syria that undercut the entire non-violent movement. It probably wouldn’t have succeeded anyway, but it really didn’t get tried. And in Egypt, the non-violent revolution actually won.

The Egyptian victory didn’t last long. The Muslim Brotherhood won the election in 2012, and the urban, secular minority who had made the revolution panicked. They asked the army to intervene, and the army was happy to oblige – so now the army runs Egypt again, after a massacre of non-violent Muslim Brotherhood protesters in Cairo in 2013 that was probably worse that the slaugher on Tienanmen Square in 1989.

Egypt is by far the biggest country in the Arab world. If it had not thrown its democracy away, about a third of the world’s Arabs would be living in a democracy today. It was very bad luck, but non-violent revolution is still a viable technique – and democracy is still just as suitable for Arabs as it is for Poles, Peruvians or Pakistanis. It’s just going to take a little longer than we thought in 2011.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 8. (“You..worry”; and “These…power”)

Islamic State: More Massacres

Last Friday (June 26), in France, an Islamist named Yassin Salhi killed his employer, Herve Cornara. He attached the victim’s severed head to the fence around a chemical plant, together with a cloth saying “There is no God but God and Muhammad is his prophet” —and then rammed his vehicle into a warehouse full of chemicals hoping (but failing) to cause a massive explosion.

In Kuwait two hours later, Fahd Suleiman Abdulmohsen al-Qaba’a, a Saudi citizen, entered a Shia mosque and detonated a bomb that killed at least 25 people. He was presumably a Sunni fanatic sent by “Islamic State” to kill Shias, who they believe are heretics who should be killed.

In Tunisia one hour later, 38 European tourists, most of them British, were massacred by a 23-year-old man with a Kalashnikov on a beach in Sousse. The perpetrator, Seifeddine Rezgui, was studying engineering at a university in Kairouan, an hour’s drive west of Sousse.

Islamic State, which has carved out a territory in Iraq and Syria that has more people and a bigger army than half the members of the United Nations, immediately claimed responsibility for all three attacks. Yassin Salhi may have been a lone-wolf head case, but in the other two cases the claim was almost certainly true.

But there was another attack that you probably didn’t hear about. Kobani, the Kurdish town in northern Syria that withstood a four-month siege by Islamic State troops last year, came under attack again last Thursday. About a hundred young Islamists in Humvees and pickup trucks drove into town and shot 220 people dead in the streets and in their houses.

So 64 murders that you heard a lot about, and 220 others you heard little or nothing about. There are hundreds of innocent people being murdered by Islamist fanatics in Syria every week, so it’s no longer news. Besides, the motive there is obvious: it’s just Islamic State trying to expand its territory in Syria. But as for the others…

Britain’s prime minister, David Cameron, responded to the deaths of 30 British citizens in Tunisia by trotting out the same shopworn drivel that Western leaders have been peddling for the past 14 years. The fight against Islamic State is “the struggle of our generation,” Cameron declared. Indeed, IS poses “an existential threat” to the West.

Maybe Cameron doesn’t know what the word “existential” means. Could somebody please explain to him that he is saying that Islamic State poses a threat to the continued existence of the West? Does he really think that is the case?

Forgive me for making a cold-blooded calculation, but sometimes it is necessary. The population of the West (not counting the countries of Latin America, which don’t play in this league) is about 900 million. Thirty-nine “Westerners” have been killed in attacks by Islamist terrorists this month. At this rate, the West will have ceased to exist in 1.9 million years. If this is an existential threat, it’s not a very urgent one.

In fact, it’s not really about the West at all. The European victims on the beach in Sousse were killed in order to destroy the tourism that provides almost 15 percent of Tunisia’s national income, and thereby destabilize the only fully democratic country in the Arab world. The extremists’ real goal is to seize power in Tunisia; the Western victims were just a means to that end.

The bombing of a Shia mosque in Kuwait was intended to increase tensions between the Sunni majority and the large Shia minority in that country, with the ultimate goal of unleashing a Sunni-Shia civil war in which Islamist extremists could take over the Sunni side as they have already done in Syria and Iraq.

Only the lone-wolf attack in France could be conceivably be seen as directed at the “West”—although that might also have been just a personal grievance wrapped up in an Islamist justification.

The rest of the killing was about who controls the Muslim countries, particularly in the Middle East, as it has been from the start. Even 9/11 was about that, designed not to “bring America to its knees” but to lure it into an invasion of Afghanistan that Osama bin Laden believed would stimulate Islamist revolutions in Muslim countries. The Islamists do “hate Western values”, but they have bigger fish to fry at home.

Islamic State and the various incarnations of Al Qaeda (the Nusra Front in Syria, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, et cetera) pose an existential threat to the non-Sunni Muslim minorities of the Middle East, and even to Sunni Muslims whose beliefs diverge significantly from those of the Islamists. The West should help governments in the region that protect their minorities, and of course it should try to protect its own people.

But this is not the “struggle of our generation” for the West. It should be nowhere near the top of its own list of priorities.