Immediately after the Arab Spring, political scientists and regional and policy experts embarked on soul searching to find the answers to two simple questions: why they failed to predict these uprisings; and why revolutions, such as in Tunisia and Egypt, succeeded through nonviolent means despite the presence of brutal regimes.
Scholars recognized that their past focus on the durability of authoritarian governments in the Middle East had caused them to overemphasize the powers of the ruling elites, and, by default, understate the agency of ordinary people in initiating major political change in the country.
The policy community, in turn, discovered that loyalty within the authoritarian regimes can never be assumed and that even the seemingly most obedient actors such as the bureaucracy, police and military can shift their loyalties away from their political superiors.
At the core of the widely-unexpected Arab Spring was a fundamental lack of understanding of what civil resistance is and how it can defeat authoritarian rulers. Civil resistance (also known as nonviolent resistance, nonviolent conflict, or nonviolent struggle) is waged using a variety of nonviolent tactics such as strikes, boycotts, mass protest and civil disobedience. The strategy that links these tactics is designed to mobilize oppositional participation, disrupt the status quo and elicit defections from the regime side, thus changing the power dynamics between the tyrant and its citizens.
An important part of a civil resistance movement’s strategy is maintaining nonviolent discipline, as it is highly unlikely to sway someone to defect if s/he is being shot at. Notably, however, civil resistance is distinct from a moral commitment to nonviolence and it is not pacifism—rather it involves a strategic commitment to nonviolent means. One reason for such a commitment is that violence can only consolidate the ranks of the regime loyalists. This is exactly what happened in Syria, where, once the opposition began using violence, minority groups felt increasingly insecure. Driven by the anti-government grievances, a number of them initially joined the anti-Assad protests. But later, when opposition violence escalated, they flocked to the Syrian regime and since have remained loyal to it.
After the initial round of soul searching, in the years that followed Arab Spring, the discussion progressively shifted toward criticism that nonviolent revolutions failed to bring about sustained positive change and, instead, after their victories, left a power vacuum that was quickly filled by people with arms.
Such a critique has always been the refrain of autocrats, particularly Russian President Vladimir Putin and his acolytes, who painted the Arab Spring and earlier color revolutions as events that led to chaos, violence, instability and extremism. Their political motivation is obvious—any challenge to the autocrats in other countries is indirectly a challenge to their own authoritarian rule at home.
As developments in the post-Arab Spring countries progressed, for their part, scholars, media commentators and policy experts became less focused on the obvious capability of nonviolent revolutions to bring down entrenched undemocratic regimes. Instead, they expressed increasing apprehension that popular nonviolent movement-based changes lead, in fact, to violence, civil wars, violent extremism, and the reemergence of authoritarianism. In Libya and Tunisia, violent Islamists have joined ISIS in increasing numbers or waged their own armed struggles. In Egypt, general Abdel Fattah el-Sisi not only restored authoritarian rule two years after the fall of Mubarak, but his regime is considered much more oppressive to civil society and independent organizing than that of his predecessor. In Syria, hopes of political change quickly degenerated into all-out civil war, and likewise in Yemen, violent conflict eventually ensued, and now a continued external violent intervention has added volatility to the region.
Should it be concluded, therefore, that nonviolent movements in general are followed by major risks of backsliding and civil war? In our view, the answer is no.
First, data and numerous studies show that the chances of democratic outcomes from nonviolent movements are vastly higher than for other forms of transitions. Secondly, with regard to the Arab Spring in particular, dynamics and impacts of revolutions differed from country to country. For example, the effects of civil resistance were often tangible, such as the process of military defections that saw soldiers refuse to follow orders to shoot unarmed protesters. However, instead of joining and bolstering nonviolent resistance, military defectors in some countries spearheaded armed resistance with devastating consequences—hardly the fault of nonviolent organizers.
In other words, a turn to violence meant the struggle was no longer civil resistance. Nonviolent uprisings were in essence hijacked by violent groups well before they could show positive impact or generate more long-term consequences. Accordingly, the transition to and violent struggle itself must be explicitly blamed for the eventual failure of resistance.
In addition, one must remember the legacy of decades of authoritarian rule that stifled independent voices and institutions, developed a pervasive political culture of corruption, repression, civic passivity, and fear, and resulted in economic and social depravation. Short-lived nonviolent revolutions can hardly be blamed for not succeeding in overcoming such a deeply rooted legacy. In fact, it was remarkable that in such conditions, where few imagined the possibility of mass independent mobilization took place, in some instances succeeding and, in others, lasting as long as they did despite all odds.
In Syria, five months of nonviolent struggle from March to August 2011 shook the regime to its core, as no other prior or subsequent violent challenge has. Among other impacts, it led to the defections of more than 50,000 soldiers from the Syrian regime. They saw regime violence against unarmed protesters as illegitimate and could no longer follow the orders. The nonviolent movement was withdrawing social, economic, and political cooperation from the Assad regime, and encouraging those who remained loyal, particularly Alawites, to disobey and defect. However, rather than directly join this effort, defected soldiers chose to try to “defend” the revolution with arms and bring down Assad with the same violence the regime used against its own people. There were reports that the Assad government sent agents into the opposition movement to try to foment such violence, with the understanding that it would serve to strengthen his position and reinforce the loyalties of his remaining military. In other words, it was not nonviolent revolution that led to the civil war in Syria, but a deliberate choice of violence by the regime and defected military that took Syria to its abyss, opening the doors for the flood of jihadists and weapons. What Syria’s tragedy really proves is the importance of remaining nonviolent and the failure and terrible costs of armed resistance.
In Egypt, President Sisi restored authoritarianism on the military’s own accord. It is true that the secular part of civil society mobilized against former President Morsi. Segments of the population also mobilized and supported the military overthrow of Morsi’s government and then stayed largely silent when Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood’s supporters were slaughtered in the thousands. However, the nonviolent revolution of 2011 had little to do with this; instead the Egyptian military, which functionally remained in power before, during, and after the revolution, revived authoritarianism and scaled up oppression, cracking down both on the Islamists and independently minded secularists. In fact, the military violently pushed back against revolutionaries soon after Mubarak’s resignation in 2011. In response, activists launched in 2011 and 2012 a number of campaigns, including “No to Military Trials” and Askar Kazeboon (“Military Liars”) to stop these abuses. Eventually, the military—aided by the Morsi government’s intransigence toward an inclusive governance and playing on the fears of Islamists’ agenda, present among many secular Egyptians—instigated a successful coup and violent crackdown that followed.
In Libya, a short-lived, week-long unarmed uprising was quickly overtaken by a violent revolt and subsequent armed intervention. These, along with the legacy of Gadhafi’s own rule, were the main contributing factors to the ensuing chaos, which, in turn, created an opening for violent extremists. Research shows that military interventions tend to extend the duration of civil wars and increase the number of people killed, while violently-driven political transitions raise the probability that a country will relapse into civil war within the next 10 years to 42%, versus 28% for transitions driven by nonviolent movements. Libya, similarly to Syria, is an example where a nonviolent revolution did not have a chance to continue and run its course; having been hijacked early on by armed opposition groups and subsequently by external violent intervention.
In Yemen, popular mobilization against President Salah, who resigned at the end of 2011, was mixed with violence and external interference. The power-transfer agreement overseen by the Gulf Cooperation Council was not viewed as genuine and was quickly rejected by the grassroots opposition, including Houthi rebels. Internal violence spiked with both Iran and Saudi Arabia providing military support to the opposing sides, eventually leading to a full-blown Saudi military intervention in 2015. What doomed the uprising in Yemen was not a nonviolent revolution, but rather a revolution that was never fully nonviolent, with its resolution (transfer-of-power) never authentic or legitimate in the eyes of the population, and its neighbors never interested in ceasing their military support to warring parties. Research shows that civilian-led campaigns that coexist with armed groups with the same democratic goals have a 49% chance of relapsing to civil war within 10 years as compared to a 27% chance for nonviolent campaigns that did not co-exist with armed campaigns.
In Bahrain, the nonviolent uprising that began in February 2011 was soon put down by the armed intervention of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) led by Saudi Arabia. The invasion never gave a chance for the nonviolent revolution to succeed. Nonetheless, the nonviolent uprising, even if unsuccessful in the short-term, was far preferable to the greater destruction and greater number of lives lost had the revolution been violent. As with the Soviet intervention of Czechoslovakia in 1968, blaming popular nonviolent insurrection for the foreign invasion is like justifying a murder because people stood up and peacefully demanded their rights. The GCC, and Saudi Arabia with their main domestic backers, are the main culprits of the resurgence of authoritarianism and repression in Bahrain. The West, including the United States with its military bases in the country, are also to blame for standing idly when the GCC intervened militarily.
In Tunisia, arguably the brightest spot in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, the nonviolent revolution has resulted in a democratic transition which will hopefully sustain itself in the future. The culture of nonviolent contestation, cooperation and compromise that were the highlights of the popular uprising have positively influenced the post-revolutionary political landscape, significantly reducing the chances for the outright mass violence or reemergence of the authoritarian rule—though not completely discarding this possibility. This development confirms the research findings (here and here) that peaceful transition brought about and continually propelled by nonviolent campaigns are much more likely to lead to successful democratization than violence, mixed, violent and nonviolent, transitions, or top-down driven transitions initiated by powerholders.
Given the fact that violent actors play a spoiler role in democratic transitions, some productive questions to address these days are:
In other words, a lesson we might draw from the Arab Spring is that practitioners of civil resistance—and sympathetic external actors concerned with democracy, rights, and sustainable peace and stability—must think more about the type of strategies and actions that will decrease the capacity and probability of spoilers, and increase the probability of civil resistance-driven, and consolidated, democratic outcomes.
Dr. Peter Ackerman is the Founding Chair of ICNC, and one of the world’s leading authorities on nonviolent conflict. He holds a Ph.D. from The Fletcher School, Tufts University, where he presently is the Chairman of the Board, and he is co-author of two seminal books on nonviolent resistance, A Force More Powerful and Strategic Nonviolent Conflict.Read More
Dr. Maciej Bartkowski is a Senior Advisor to ICNC. He works on academic programs to support teaching, research and study on civil resistance. He is a series editor of the ICNC Monographs and ICNC Special Reports, and book editor of Recovering Nonviolent History. You can follow him @macbartkow