Lebanon's Nonviolent Intifada: Arab People Power Arrives
Dar Al Hayat
The Lebanese "Intifada for independence" has achieved its first victory with the resignation of the Damascus-controlled government and the mass mobilization of people in Beirut. It's being watched by millions of Arab citizens - from Egypt to Mauritania, Saudi Arabia to Morocco and Syria - who vicariously feel that they are partners in this struggle for freedom and democracy. The Lebanese people understand that power does not just lie in weapons, armies or anonymous bombs. People have power to resist occupiers and dictators, end corruption and discrimination, and gain democracy, human rights and justice.
People power, however, is more than protests. It's the strategic use of a wide variety nonviolent tactics such as strikes, boycotts, other mass actions, and civil disobedience. Mohandas Gandhi said, "Even the most powerful cannot rule without the cooperation of the ruled." People power unfolds when the population withdraws this cooperation, refuses to obey, and uses nonviolent resistance to make "business as usual" impossible for the opponent.
Ukraine's Orange Revolution, which inspired the Lebanese, is the most recent of a long line of victorious people power movements. Last May the predominantly Muslim population of Ajaria, a breakaway province in Georgia, ended the regime of Aslan Abashidze, a third-generation local dictator. A nonviolent struggle was initiated by students who were joined by ordinary citizens. They learned how to plan and strategize from their counterparts in Georgia's Rose Revolution, who had pressured Eduard Shevardnadze to resign after fraudulent parliamentary elections.
The Solidarity movement in Poland won free trade unions and ultimately the demise of the communist regime all the while that one million Soviet soldiers occupied Eastern Europe and national governments took orders from Moscow. The Indian independence movement not only shook the foundations of British rule, but established a stable democracy amidst a population composed of multiple religions and sects.
Some may doubt the viability of people power given Lebanon's occupier. But civilian-based movements do not succeed because a political system is open or because an opponent is soft. It is in closed, repressive situations that they usually emerge. Serbia's Slobodan Milosevic was known as the "Butcher of the Balkans" until he was dislodged by a nonviolent uprising. The Pinochet regime in Chile was infamous for torture and disappearances, yet it too succumbed to a civilian-based movement. The anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa operated under curfews and violent military incursions into black townships.
Will people power succeed in Lebanon? There are four necessary conditions for success. The first is planning. It's not enough to gather spontaneously on the streets, whether in the hundreds or the thousands. Planning the selection and sequencing of a range of nonviolent actions is based on a strategy to de-legitimize the oppressor and undermine its sources of support and control, namely, the organizations, institutions and sectors of society that make decisions and carry out orders.
Planning and strategy are crucial to thwarting counter moves and withstanding repression from the opponent. For example, in 1985 the Sudanese population forced Jaafar Numeiri from power, but the military and a group of civilians struck back, and took control with the promise of holding free and transparent elections the following year. The military intervention and the lack of a clear strategy from the protesters aborted a real opportunity to move the country toward democracy.
A second condition is unity of purpose. Civilian-based struggles need to have widely held political goals in order to win the support and participation of the majority. The Lebanese "Intifada for independence" is gathering momentum through the broad consensus behind its basic demands: freedom from all foreign powers, and democracy. These two objectives appeal to most people regardless of their political or religious affiliations.
Third, nonviolent discipline is absolutely essential. It builds longevity. In contrast to violent uprisings, whereby a minority acts while the majority is sidelined, only nonviolent action will enlist the active participation of average citizens, undermine the loyalty of the opponent's sources of support and control, and enable defections from security forces. It's not possible to co-opt those you threaten to harm.
Lastly, nonviolent movements cannot be created or directed by external sources; they have to be homegrown. The population needs to believe in the cause and righteousness of the struggle in order to stand up in the face of repression and say "enough," as many are now doing in Egypt.
People power is finally reaching the Arab world. Those rulers who, until yesterday, refused any changes are today realizing they may have no choice.
* Mr. Sabir is presently a United Nations Human Rights Officer and a long-time civil society activist from Morocco. Shaazka Beyerle is Vice President of the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict.
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