Stephen Zunes : Nonviolent Action
The downfall of Muammar Qaddafi’s regime is very good news, particularly for the people of Libya. However, it is critically important that the world not learn the wrong lessons from the dictator’s overthrow.
The Obama administration appears to have given a green light to an Israeli attack on an unarmed flotilla carrying peace and human rights activists — including a vessel with 50 Americans on board — bound for the besieged Gaza Strip. At a press conference on June 24, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton criticized the flotilla organized by the Free Gaza Campaign by saying it would “provoke actions by entering into Israeli waters and creating a situation in which the Israelis have the right to defend themselves.”
Since Obama came to office in January 2009, U.S. security assistance to the Yemeni regime has gone up 20-fold. Despite such large-scale unconditional support, however, the 32-year reign of autocratic President Ali Abdullah Saleh may finally be coming to an end. Yet the Obama administration has been ambivalent in its support for a democratic transition in this impoverished but strategically important country.
The decision by the United States and its Western allies to intervene militarily against the Libyan regime of Muammar Gaddafi may have averted a massacre, but it is fraught with serious risks of eventually costing even more lives. Furthermore, it could undermine the remarkable and overwhelmingly nonviolent pro-democracy movements which have been sweeping the Arab world in recent months. As will be described below, had Libya’s popular uprising maintained its largely nonviolent discipline of its early days, there probably would not be the bloody stalemate and other dangers now emerging in the conflict.
Most Americans are not familiar with the sultanate of Oman. The mostly desert country the size of Kansas wraps around the Arabian peninsula’s southeastern corner, bordering Yemen on its southwest and the empty quarter of Saudi Arabia along most of its inland border. Oman’s long seacoast runs along the Gulf of Oman and the Arabian […]
The Obama administration’s continued support of the autocratic monarchy in Bahrain, in the face of massive pro-democracy demonstrators, once again puts the United States behind the curve of the new political realities in the Middle East. For more than two weeks, a nonviolent sit-in and encampment by tens of thousands of pro-democracy protesters has occupied the Pearl Roundabout. This traffic circle in Bahrain’s capital city of Manama – like Tahrir Square in Cairo – has long been the symbolic center of the city and, by extension, the center of the country. Though these demonstrations and scores of others across the country have been overwhelmingly nonviolent, they have been met by severe repression by the U.S.-backed monarchy.
While there will undoubtedly have to be additional popular struggle in Egypt to ensure that the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak leads to real democracy, the ouster of the dictator is by any measure a major triumph for the Egyptian people and yet another example of the power of nonviolent action. Indeed, Egypt joins such diverse countries as the Philippines, Poland, Chile, Czechoslovakia, Nepal, Serbia, Bolivia, Indonesia, and others whose authoritarian regimes were replaced by democratic governance as a result of such unarmed civil insurrections.
The inspiring triumph of the Egyptian people in the nonviolent overthrow of the hated dictator Hosni Mubarak is a real triumph of the human spirit. While there will likely be continued struggle in order to insure that the military junta will allow for a real democratic transition, the mobilization of Egypt’s civil society and the empowerment of millions of workers, students, intellectuals and others in the cause of freedom will be difficult to contain.
Despite the natural subsidence of dramatic demonstrations on the streets of Cairo and other Egyptian cities, as many protesters return to jobs and catch their breath, there is little question that the pro-democracy struggle in Egypt has achieved lasting momentum, barring unexpected repression. As with other kinds of civil struggles, a movement using nonviolent resistance can ebb and flow. There may have to be tactical retreats, times for regrouping or resetting of strategy, or a focus on negotiations with the regime before broader operations that capture the world’s attention resume.
Together, the unarmed insurrection that overthrew the Ben Ali regime in Tunisia and the ongoing uprising in Egypt have dramatically altered the way many in the West view prospects for democratization in the Middle East. The dramatic events of recent weeks have illustrated that for democracy to come to the Arab world, it will come not from foreign intervention or sanctimonious statements from Washington, but from Arab peoples themselves.