Stephen Zunes : Nonviolent Action
The worsening violence and repression in Syria has left many analysts and policymakers in the United States and other western countries scrambling to think of ways our governments could help end the bloodshed and support those seeking to dislodge the Assad regime. The desperate desire to “do something” has led a growing number of people to advocate for increased military aid to armed insurgents or even direct military intervention, as the French government has said it will consider doing unilaterally.
A political struggle now under way on a tiny island nation in the Indian Ocean has huge implications for the global struggle for democracy and human rights. Western powers which profess to support democratic and accountable governance need to act decisively to prevent this Muslim nation, whose protracted nonviolent freedom struggle was an important precursor for the Arab Spring, to continue its slide back into authoritarianism.
t’s been a year since the Occupy Wall Street movement sprang up. Since then, it has fizzled, but this does not mean that the underlying issues that gave rise to the protests have gone away.
Until last year, mainstream political discourse did not include nearly as much emphasis on such populist concerns as rising income inequality, tax policies that favor the rich, growing influence by large corporate interests in elections and the reckless deregulation of financial institutions that resulted in the 2008 crisis. It is hard to miss them now.
A growing anti-government movement consisting of nonviolent demonstrations as well as scattered rioting is beginning to threaten the Sudanese dictatorship of Omar al-Bashir, an indicted war criminal, who has ruled this large North African nation for twenty-three years. Beginning as protests against strict austerity measures imposed three weeks ago, the chants of the protesters have escalated to “the people want to overthrow the regime,” the line heard in recent uprisings in other Arab countries, including Egypt, Yemen, Libya, Bahrain and Syria.
In examining the political crises which have gripped Mali in recent months, it is important not to fall into simplistic analyses of dysfunctional or “failed” African states. Indeed, the Malian people have repeatedly demonstrated their ability to mobilize civil society and build stable democratic governance despite a history of enormous poverty, ethnic divisions, and foreign intervention.
Although the impulse to try to end the ongoing repression by the Syrian regime against its own people through foreign military intervention is understandable, it would be a very bad idea.
Empirical studies have repeatedly demonstrated that international military interventions in cases of severe repression actually exacerbate violence in the short term and can only reduce violence in the longer term if the intervention is impartial or neutral. Other studies demonstrate that foreign military interventions actually increase the duration of civil wars, making the conflicts longer and bloodier, and the regional consequences more serious, than if there were no intervention. In addition, military intervention would likely trigger a “gloves off” mentality that would dramatically escalate the violence on both sides.
Well before the launch of the Arab Spring, the people of the Maldives, a Muslim nation located on a tropical archipelago in the Indian Ocean, were engaged in widespread nonviolent resistance against the 30-year reign of the corrupt and autocratic president Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. The growing civil insurrection forced the dictator to finally allow for free elections in October 2008, which he lost.
The Syrian pro-democracy struggle has been both an enormous tragedy and a powerful inspiration. Indeed, as someone who has studied mass nonviolent civil insurrections in dozens of countries in recent decades, I know of no people who have demonstrated such courage and tenacity in the face of such savage repression as have the people of Syria these past 10 months.
Of the popular pro-democracy civil insurrections that have swept the Middle East over the past year, none were as large — relative to the size of the country — as the one that took place in the island kingdom of Bahrain. And while scattered resistance continues, none were so thoroughly suppressed.
The crackdown against the overwhelmingly nonviolent pro-democracy struggle launched in mid-February was brutal. More 40 people have been killed, including a number in custody, and more than 1,600 have been arrested. Those targeted were not just human rights activists, but journalists who covered the protests and medical personnel who treated victims. In October, a military court sentenced 20 doctors and nurses to up to 15 years in jail for assisting the wounded.
It is hard to work for economic justice within the system when corporate-financed elections and a corporate-dominated legislative process make such reforms impossible. As a result, millions of Americans are recognizing that the system is the problem, and thousands are now taking to the streets. With inequality in the United States reaching Third World proportions, the biggest surprise may be that it has taken this long.