Weapons of Mass Democracy: Nonviolent Resistance Is the Most Powerful Tactic Against Oppressive Regimes
By Stephen Zunes
On the outskirts of a desert town in the Moroccan-occupied territory of Western Sahara, about a dozen young activists are gathered. They are involved in their country’s long struggle for freedom. A group of foreigners—veterans of protracted resistance movements—is conducting a training session in the optimal use of a “weapons system” that is increasingly deployed in struggles for freedom around the world. The workshop leaders pass out Arabic translations of writings on the theory and dynamics of revolutionary struggle and lead the participants in a series of exercises designed to enhance their strategic and tactical thinking.
These trainers are not veterans of guerrilla warfare, however, but of unarmed insurrections against repressive regimes. The materials they hand out are not the words of Che Guevara, but of Gene Sharp, the former Harvard scholar who has pioneered the study of strategic nonviolent action. And the weapons they advocate employing are not guns and bombs, but strikes, boycotts, mass demonstrations, tax refusal, alternative media, and refusal to obey official orders.
Serbs, South Africans, Filipinos, Georgians, and other veterans of successful nonviolent struggles are sharing their knowledge and experience with those still fighting dictators and occupation armies.
The young Western Saharans know how an armed struggle by an older generation of their countrymen failed to dislodge the Moroccans, who first invaded their country back in 1975. They have seen how Morocco’s allies on the U.N. Security Council—led by France and the United States—blocked enforcement of U.N. resolutions supporting their right to self-determination. With the failure of both armed struggle and diplomacy to bring them freedom, they have decided to instead employ a force more powerful.
The Rise of Nonviolence
The long-standing assumption that dictatorial regimes can only be overthrown through armed struggle or foreign military intervention is coming under increasing challenge. Though nonviolent action has a long and impressive history going back centuries, events in recent decades have demonstrated more than ever that nonviolent action is not just a form of principled witness utilized by religious pacifists. It is the most powerful political tool available to challenge oppression.
It was not the leftist guerrillas of the New People’s Army who brought down the U.S.-backed Marcos dictatorship in the Philippines. It was nuns praying the rosary in front of the regime’s tanks, and the millions of others who brought greater Manila to a standstill.
It was not the 11 weeks of bombing that brought down Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic, the infamous “butcher of the Balkans.” It was a nonviolent resistance movement led by young students, whose generation had been sacrificed in a series of bloody military campaigns against neighboring Yugoslav republics, and who were able to mobilize a large cross-section of the population to rise up against a stolen election.
It was not the armed wing of the African National Congress that brought majority rule to South Africa. It was workers, students, and township dwellers who—through the use of strikes, boycotts, the creation of alternative institutions, and other acts of defiance—made it impossible for the apartheid system to continue.
It was not NATO that brought down the communist regimes of Eastern Europe or freed the Baltic republics from Soviet control. It was Polish dockworkers, East German church people, Estonian folk singers, Czech intellectuals, and millions of ordinary citizens.
Similarly, such tyrants as Jean-Claude Duvalier in Haiti, Moussa Traoré in Mali, King Gyanendra in Nepal, General Suharto in Indonesia, and, most recently, Maumoon Gayoom in the Maldives were forced to cede power when it became clear that they were powerless in the face of massive nonviolent resistance and noncooperation.
The power of nonviolent action has been acknowledged even by such groups as Freedom House, a Washington-based organization with close ties to the foreign policy establishment. Its 2005 study observed that, of the nearly 70 countries that have made the transition from dictatorship to varying degrees of democracy in the past 30 years, only a small minority did so through armed struggle from below or reform instigated from above. Hardly any new democracies resulted from foreign invasion. In nearly three-quarters of the transitions, change was rooted in democratic civil-society organizations that employed nonviolent methods. In addition, the study noted that countries where nonviolent civil resistance movements played a major role tend to have freer and more stable democratic systems.
A different study, published last year in the journal International Security, used an expanded database and analyzed 323 major insurrections in support of self-determination and democratic rule since 1900. It found that violent resistance was successful only 26 percent of the time, whereas nonviolent campaigns had a 53 percent success rate.
From the poorest nations of Africa to the relatively affluent countries of Eastern Europe; from communist regimes to right-wing military dictatorships; from across the cultural, geographic and ideological spectrum, democratic and progressive forces have recognized the power of nonviolent action to free them from oppression. This has not come, in most cases, from a moral or spiritual commitment to nonviolence, but simply because it works.
Why Nonviolent Action Works
Armed resistance, even for a just cause, can terrify people not yet committed to the struggle, making it easier for a government to justify violent repression and use of military force in the name of protecting the population. Even rioting and vandalism can turn public opinion against a movement, which is why some governments have employed agents provocateurs to encourage such violence. The use of force against unarmed resistance movements, on the other hand, usually creates greater sympathy for the government’s opponents. As with the martial art of aikido, nonviolent opposition movements can engage the force of the state’s repression and use it to effectively disarm the force directed against them.
In addition, unarmed campaigns involve a range of participants far beyond the young able-bodied men normally found in the ranks of armed guerrillas. As the movement grows in strength, it can include a large cross-section of the population. Though most repressive governments are well-prepared to deal with a violent insurgency, they tend to be less prepared to counter massive non-cooperation by old, middle-aged, and young. When millions of people defy official orders by engaging in illegal demonstrations, going out on strike, violating curfews, refusing to pay taxes, and otherwise refusing to recognize the legitimacy of the state, the state no longer has power. During the “people power” uprising against the Marcos dictatorship in the Philippines, for example, Marcos lost power not through the defeat of his troops and the storming of the Malacañang Palace but when—due to massive defiance of his orders—the palace became the only part of the country he still effectively controlled.
Furthermore, pro-government elements tend to be more willing to compromise with nonviolent insurgents, who are less likely to physically harm their opponents when they take power. When massive demonstrations challenged the military junta in Chile in the late 1980s, military leaders convinced the dictator Augusto Pinochet to agree to the nonviolent protesters’ demands for a referendum on his continued rule and to accept the results when the vote went against him.
Unarmed movements also increase the likelihood of defections and non-cooperation by police and military personnel, who will generally fight in self-defense against armed guerrillas but are hesitant to shoot into unarmed crowds. Such defiance was key to the downfall of dictatorships in East Germany, Mali, Serbia, the Philippines, Ukraine, and elsewhere. The moral power of nonviolence is crucial to the ability of an opposition movement to reframe the perceptions of the public, political elites, and the military.
A Democratizing Force
In many cases, armed revolutionaries—trained in martial values, the power of the gun, and a leadership model based upon a secret, elite vanguard—have themselves become authoritarian rulers once in power. In addition, because civil war often leads to serious economic, environmental, and social problems, the new leadership is tempted to embrace emergency powers they are later reluctant to surrender. Algeria and Guinea-Bissau experienced military coups soon after their successful armed independence struggles, while victorious communist guerrillas in a number of countries simply established new dictatorships.
By contrast, successful nonviolent movements build broad coalitions based on compromise and consensus. The new order that emerges from that foundation tends to be pluralistic and democratic.
Liberal democracy carries no guarantee of social justice, but many of those involved in pro-democracy struggles have later played a key role in leading the effort to establish more equitable social and economic orders. For example, the largely nonviolent indigenous peasant and worker movements that ended a series of military dictatorships in Bolivia in the 1980s formed the basis of the movement that brought Evo Morales and his allies to power, resulting in a series of exciting reforms benefiting the country’s poor, indigenous majority.
Another reason nonviolent movements tend to create sustainable democracy is that, in the course of the movement, alternative institutions are created that empower ordinary people. For example, autonomous workers’ councils eroded the authority of party apparatchiks in Polish industry even as the Communist Party still nominally ruled the country. In South Africa, popularly elected local governments and people’s courts in the black townships completely usurped the authority of administrators and judges appointed by the apartheid regime long before majority rule came to the country as a whole.
Recent successes of nonviolent tactics have raised concerns about their use by those with undemocratic aims. However, it is virtually impossible for an undemocratic result to emerge from a movement based upon broad popular support. Local elites, often with the support of foreign powers, have historically promoted regime change through military invasions, coup d’états, and other kinds of violent seizures of power that install an undemocratic minority. Nonviolent “people power” movements, by contrast, make peaceful regime change possible by empowering pro-democratic majorities.
Indeed, every successful nonviolent insurrection has been a homegrown movement rooted in the realization by the masses that their rulers were illegitimate and that the political system would not redress injustice. By contrast, a nonviolent insurrection is unlikely to succeed when the movement’s leadership and agenda do not have the backing of the majority of the population. This is why the 2002–2003 “strike” by some privileged sectors of Venezuela’s oil industry failed to bring down the democratically elected government of Hugo Chavez, while the widely supported strikes in the Iranian oil fields against the Shah in 1978–1979 were key in bringing down his autocratic regime.
Unlike most successful unarmed insurrections, Iran slid back under autocratic rule after the overthrow of the Shah. Now, hard-line clerics and their allies have themselves been challenged by a nonviolent pro-democracy movement. Like most governments facing popular challenges, rather than acknowledging their own failures, the Iranian regime has sought to blame outsiders for fomenting the resistance. Given the sordid history of U.S. interventionism in that country—including the overthrow of Iran’s last democratic government in 1953 in a CIA-backed military coup—some are taking those claims seriously. However, Iranians have engaged in nonviolent action for generations, not just in opposition to the Shah, but going back to the 1890–1892 boycotts against concessions to the British and the 1905–1908 Constitutional Revolution. There is little Americans can teach Iranians about such civil resistance.
Citing funding from Western governments and foundations, similar charges of powerful Western interests being responsible for nonviolent insurrections have also been made in regard to recent successful pro-democracy movements in Serbia, Georgia, and Ukraine.
However, while outside funding can be useful in enabling opposition groups to buy computers, print literature, and promote their work, it cannot cause a nonviolent liberal democratic revolution to take place any more than Soviet financial and material support for leftist movements in previous decades could cause an armed socialist revolution to take place.
Successful revolutions, whatever their ideological orientation, are the result of certain social conditions. Indeed, no amount of money could force hundreds of thousands of people to leave their jobs, homes, schools, and families to face down heavily armed police and tanks and put their bodies on the line. They must be motivated by a desire for change so strong they are willing to make the sacrifices and take the personal risks to bring it about.
In any case, there is no standardized formula for success that a foreign government could put together, since the history, culture, and political alignments of each country are unique. No foreign government can recruit or mobilize the large numbers of ordinary civilians necessary to build a movement capable of effectively challenging the established political leadership, much less of toppling a government.
Sahrawi freedom fighters in Western Sahara display their flag to celebrate the release of political prisoners in 2006. Use of the Sahrawi flag is forbidden in Morocco.
Photo courtesy afapredesa.org.
Even workshops like the one for the Western Saharan activists, usually funded through nonprofit, nongovernmental foundations, generally focus on providing generic information on the theory, dynamics, and history of nonviolent action. There is broad consensus among workshop leaders that only those involved in the struggles themselves are in a position to make tactical and strategic decisions, so they tend not to give specific advice. However, such capacity-building efforts—like comparable NGO projects for sustainable development, human rights, equality for women and minorities, economic justice, and the environment—can be an effective means of fostering international solidarity.
Back in Western Sahara, anti-occupation activists, building on their own experiences against the Moroccan occupation and on what they learned from the workshop, press on in the struggle for their country’s freedom. In the face of severe repression from U.S.-backed Moroccan forces, the movement continues with demonstrations, leafleting, graffiti writing, flag waving, boycotts, and other actions. One prominent leader of the movement, Aminatou Haidar, won the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award last November, and she has been twice nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Those in the Western Sahara resistance are among the growing numbers of people around the world struggling against repression who have recognized that armed resistance is more likely to magnify their suffering than relieve it.
From Western Sahara to West Papua to the West Bank, people are engaged in nonviolent resistance against foreign occupation. Similarly, from Egypt to Iran to Burma, people are fighting nonviolently for freedom from dictatorial rule.
Recent history has shown that power ultimately resides in the people, not in the state; that nonviolent strategies can be more powerful than guns; and that nonviolent action is a form of conflict that can build, rather than destroy.