Interview: A Beacon of Hope in Troubled Times; Stephen Zunes

Resource Center for Nonviolence, January 11, 2024; 25 min. on YouTube.

In an era marked by escalating tensions and complex geopolitical dynamics, the Resource Center for Nonviolence (RCNV) remains steadfast in its mission to foster peace and justice through understanding. Upholding the philosophy of nonviolence and the values of Martin Luther King Jr.’s Beloved Community, RCNV is hosting a pivotal event, “Shadows of War: Decoding U.S. Role in the Israel-Palestinian Conflict,” featuring the esteemed Professor Stephen Zunes, a leading authority on Middle Eastern politics and U.S. foreign policy.
During an insightful conversation with RCNV’s Executive Director, Silvia Morales, Professor Zunes shared his nuanced understanding of the Israel-Palestine conflict and its alignment with RCNV’s principles of nonviolence and justice. Reflecting on the Jewish community’s involvement in RCNV and their connection to Israel, Zunes observed, “Jews have played a disproportionate role in RCNV leadership and activism. Jews feel an attachment to the state, often rationalizing war crimes committed by Israel.” His perspective resonates with RCNV’s long-standing approach to international conflicts, emphasizing human rights and international law over ideological debates.

Sudan’s 2019 Revolution The Power of Civil Resistance

Stephen Zunes’ April 2021 report* reviews the chronology of the resistance struggle in Sudan, the critical role of nonviolent discipline, other factors contributing to the movement’s success, and the current political situation. It seeks to explain how the movement was able to succeed despite enormous odds against it and what lessons could be learned by those facing similarly difficult circumstances. Given the serious challenges facing the new civilian-led government, there is a real possibility that—as was the case following successful pro-democracy struggles decades earlier—the military could again seize power. However, there are also reasons for hope… Download the PDF here or at *The International Center on Nonviolent Conflict (ICNC).

Nonviolent Activists Laid the Groundwork to Oppose a Coup. They May Have Saved the Republic

Yes!Activists prepared for months, expecting Trump to steal the election. They were right, and he failed. [FULL LINK]
Since Joe Biden’s decisive win in November, efforts by President Trump and his supporters to steal the election… have been unsuccessful. In the months leading up to the Nov. 3 election, many of us were warning that, even in the face of a clear Biden victory, Trump and the Republicans might attempt a de facto coup. .. Trump might declare victory election night before all the votes are counted… make false charges of vote fraud, and refuse to concede… wage a legal battle to challenge the legitimate results, try to convince Republican election officials not to certify the results, encourage state legislatures to appoint Republican electors regardless of the vote count in the state, and convince the Republican-dominated federal judiciary to uphold these illegal measures.

When a Ceasefire is Not Enough

THE WAR BETWEEN Armenia and Azerbaijan this past autumn was an avoidable  tragedy. 

Sojourners Magazine — The disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region has been populated since at least the second  century B.C.E. by Armenians, one of the world’s oldest Christian civilizations. The  Muslim Azeris and others have lived there and in neighboring areas for centuries as  well, and the region was ethnically mixed (albeit majority Armenian) when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. Stalin’s divide-and-rule policy for drawing borders made Nagorno-Karabakh a  theoretically “autonomous region” within the Azerbaijani Soviet Socialist Republic. As  the Soviet Union was breaking up and Azerbaijani persecution of ethnic Armenians increased, the Armenian and Nagorno-Karabakh governments demanded transfer of the region to Armenia.  [FULL LINK]

Is the U.S. Prepared to Resist a Coup?

[The Progressive October 26, 2020] President Donald Trump’s refusal to agree to a peaceful transfer of power has raised concerns that the Republicans may try to steal the 2020 Presidential Election. And while the courts may be insufficient to hinder a Trump coup—especially after the Supreme Court nomination of Amy Coney Barrett—a growing network of organizations is already preparing to launch a large-scale civil resistance movement to defend American democracy. [FULL LINK]

Resisting Stolen Elections: Lessons from the Philippines, Serbia, Ukraine, and Gambia

[ICNC October 23, 2020] Discussion has grown for months about how the upcoming U.S. election results could be contested and possibly subverted. No one knows for certain what will happen, but there are precedents we can learn from about how attempts to overturn election results have been stopped. Four cases in recent decades—one in Southeast Asia, one in Africa and the other two in Eastern Europe—involved an incumbent president or party attempting to steal an election only to have it reversed through large-scale nonviolent direct action. This article looks at these cases, and identifies key lessons. [FULL LINK]

How Sudan’s Pro-Democracy Uprising Challenges Prevailing Myths about Civil Resistance

[International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, April 22, 2019] A powerful pro-democracy civil insurrection in Sudan which has ousted a longstanding dictator and his successor is still in progress, but Sudanese are hopeful for a full democratic transition. Demonstrations began in December of last year, initially focusing on the deteriorating economic situation, but soon escalated to demand that the authoritarian President Omar al-Bashir—who had ruled the country for nearly three decades—step down and that democracy be restored. By January, the protests had spread to the capital of Khartoum, gaining support from youth and women’s movements as well as a number of opposition parties….

The Power of Nonviolent Action in Conflict Zones

While the world is no less conflict-ridden than it has been in the past, recent decades have witnessed a remarkable shift in many areas regarding how conflict has been waged. In many places where either armed struggle or acquiescence to violence and injustice were once seen as the only alternatives, strategic nonviolent action has proven to be remarkably effective, even in cases of struggles against repressive dictatorships, minority rule, and foreign occupation, and even in the midst of war zones.

The Role of Civil Resistance in Bolivia’s 1977-1982 Pro-Democracy Struggle

Despite being the poorest and least developed country in South America, Bolivia was the first to emerge from the period of military dictatorships that dominated the continent from the mid-1960s into the 1980s. This article examines the role of civil resistance in that country’s seemingly improbable early end to military rule, noting how a broad coalition of unions, intellectuals, the Catholic Church, and opposition parties succeeded in bringing down a series of military leaders, eventually ushering in elected civilian governance. Despite the pro-democracy movement’s successful defeat of the dictatorship of Hugo Banzer in 1978, it took more than four years, three general elections, five presidents and several coups d’état before full electoral democracy was restored. This article responds to questions of how the movement was able to persist, grow, and maintain largely nonviolent discipline in the face of severe repression, shifting alliances, and internal divisions, and how the movement helped lay the groundwork for more recent radical changes in Bolivian politics. The article illustrates other critical factors in the movement’s success: the willingness to avoid armed struggle, the country’s rich tradition of mass-based civil resistance and defiance of central authority, and grassroots democratic relations.

Civil Resistance Against Coups: A Comparative and Historical Perspective

Nations are not helpless if the military decides to stage a coup. On dozens of occasions in recent decades, even in the face of intimidated political leaders and international indifference, civil society has risen up to challenge putschists through large-scale nonviolent direct action and noncooperation. How can an unarmed citizenry mobilize so quickly and defeat a powerful military committed to seizing control of the government? What accounts for the success or failure of nonviolent resistance movements to reverse coups and consolidate democratic gains?

This monograph presents in-depth case studies and analysis intended to improve our understanding of the strategic utility of civil resistance against military takeovers; the nature of civil resistance mobilization against coups; and the role of civil resistance against coups in countries’ subsequent democratization efforts (or failure thereof). It offers key lessons for pro-democracy activists and societies vulnerable to military usurpation of power; national civilian and military bureaucracies; external state and non-state agencies supportive of democracy; and future scholarship on this subject.

Remembering Martin Luther King, the Radical for Peace

It is nothing short of tragic that the fiftieth anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4 arrives during a presidential administration containing some of the most overtly racist individuals to hold positions of such political power in generations.

Power’s Prophet: Remembering Gene Sharp

As a left-wing student activist in the 1970s, I parted with most of my comrades regarding their romanticization of armed revolution. Recognizing that pacifist arguments would be unconvincing—particularly in cases of those struggling against U.S.-backed dictatorships around the world—I came upon the writings of Gene Sharp, a Harvard University-based scholar who, through his study of centuries of nonviolent struggle, made a convincing case on utilitarian grounds that nonviolent struggle was a better means of resistance.

In Trump’s America, who’s protesting and why?

Since tallying attendance at the Women’s Marches on Jan. 21, we have continued counting political crowds — and are launching a monthly series of Monkey Cage posts about our findings. Each month the Crowd Counting Consortium will post updates about trends and patterns from the previous month as recorded by our volunteers. (For our counting methods, please see our first post in the series.)

Berrigan’s witness to nonviolence challenged church and nation

Jesuit Fr. Daniel Berrigan, who died at the end of April, not only challenged the conscience of the Catholic church and the nation on the dangers of militarism and the need to affirm Christ’s teachings of nonviolence, he challenged those who oppose war to engage in direct action to stop it.

He was a devout Catholic amid the largely secular anti-war left. He opposed abortion as a form of violence while most of his colleagues in the peace movement identified as “pro-choice.” He remained a priest while many of his contemporaries, including his brother Philip, left the priesthood for marriage or over doctrinal disputes. Berrigan was guided not by adherence to a particular ideology, but by a deep faith in God through the nonviolent witness of Jesus Christ.

Over the decades, I prayed with him, broke bread with him, was arrested with him, and discussed matters of politics, theology and movement-building. We did not always agree. Yet his warmth, his humor, his faith, his wisdom and his commitment always left me inspired.

His actions led him to become one of the best-known priests of the 20th century. Yet he had no desire for people to follow him. He simply wanted people to follow the Gospel.

Like many Americans, I first learned of the Berrigan brothers in 1968 when they and seven other Catholic activists entered the Selective Service office in Catonsvillle, Md., seized hundreds of draft files and, using homemade napalm similar to what was then being dropped on Vietnamese villages, burned them in the parking lot.

In a statement following the incident, the group which became known as the “Catonsville Nine” declared, “We confront the Roman Catholic church, other Christian bodies, and the synagogues of America with their silence and cowardice in the face of our country’s crimes. We are convinced that the religious bureaucracy in this country is racist, is an accomplice in this war, and is hostile to the poor.”

Traditionally, pacifists have believed that nonviolent action should eschew damage to property. Dorothy Day, for example, thought that the Berrigans’ advocacy of property destruction and other militant tactics crossed a dangerous theological threshold.

However, the Berrigans firmly believed that some property — such as nuclear warheads and draft files — had no right to exist and it was the responsibility of pacifists to destroy them, as long as people were not harmed. Their actions were intended to shock, as the American people needed to be made aware of the enormous danger from their nation’s militarism.

While most activists of that era sentenced to prison for nonviolent resistance would turn themselves in to authorities, Berrigan and his brother, Philip, were willing to go underground, even showing up unannounced to speak at rallies and church services then disappear before they could be arrested. They became folk heroes, appearing on the cover of Time magazine and becoming the first priests to appear on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list.

At the same time, they never wavered from their opposition to violence, particularly as the Weather Underground and other extremist anti-war groups began a campaign of bombing. In The Village Voice, Berrigan wrote, “The death of a single human is too heavy a price to pay for the vindication of any principle, however sacred.”

The first time I met Berrigan was in October 1973 during the Arab-Israeli War, when I was 16 years old, at a talk he gave in Washington, D.C. While many peace activists at that time would avoid the often divisive issue of Israel and Palestine, he decided to address it head on. Unlike many liberals of that era who opposed U.S. militarism but rationalized for Israeli militarism, he could not defend militarism by anybody. His analysis was blunt and he did not try to be “balanced,” but it was basically an accurate and honest assessment. In short, it was typical Dan Berrigan.

He noted how Israel was, like the United States and South Africa, “seeking a biblical justification for crimes against humanity.” He expressed his regret that “in place of Jewish prophetic vision,” Israel had launched “an Orwellian nightmare of double talk, racism, fifth-rate sociological jargon, aimed at proving its racial superiority to the people it has crushed.”

Noting the similarities of Israel’s “military-industrial complex” with that of the United States, he observed how “Israel has not freed the captives, she has expanded the prison system, perfected her espionage, exported on the world market that expensive blood-ridden commodity, the savage triumph of the technologized West, violence and the tools of violence.” He also noted that he “was very depressed by the silence of my own church about Israel.”

As with many of his words and actions, giving such a speech at that time was not very strategic, leading to widespread criticisms and misinterpretation. Similarly, his later arrests, largely focused around trespassing at nuclear weapons facilities, which at times included damaging components of warheads and missiles, led to many months in prison without much publicity or a discernible growth in the movement. However, strategic efficacy did not really matter to him. For Berrigan, it was a moral imperative. Indeed, when a reporter noted he was not getting as much attention as he had previously, he replied, “I don’t think we ever felt our conscience was tied to the other end of a TV cord.”

And yet, while some accused him of acting more out of “Catholic guilt” than on building a movement, Berrigan’s witness indeed had a profound impact. It encouraged the broader anti-war movement, which prior to Catonsville had been primarily focused on street protests, into nonviolent direct action and other forms of active resistance. It brought many young Catholics, who had been alienated by the hierarchy’s support for the Vietnam War and U.S. militarism, back into active involvement in the church. As a middle-aged priest, his actions brought greater credibility to opponents of the Vietnam War, then often portrayed as angry, young, long-haired misfits.

And he undoubtedly played a role in moving the Catholic church to a more active witness for peace and justice. The church eventually came out against the Vietnam War, renounced the legitimacy of nuclear weapons, and challenged the Israeli occupation and repression of Palestinians.

Indeed, just days before he died, the Vatican hosted a landmark meeting raising questions about the just war doctrine and examining nonviolent alternatives. Would this have even been possible were it not for such prophetic voices as Berrigan?

Chancellor’s opposition to student resolution problematic

UC Santa Cruz Chancellor George Blumenthal, in an all-campus mailing sent out Nov. 19, expressed his opposition to a recently passed resolution by the Student Union Assembly in a manner which has raised serious concerns among supporters of corporate responsibility and academic freedom. It is virtually unprecedented for a chancellor or other high-level administration to criticize student representatives for participating in a democratic process of debate and decision making, even on contentious issues.

As issue was a vote by the UCSC Student Union Assembly to reinstate a call for the University of California to divest from companies that profit from military support for the Israeli occupation or from companies that invest in illegal settlements or the illegal separation barrier in occupied Palestinian territories.

Many observers, on campus and off, found the chancellor’s response problematic for a number of reasons:

First of all, the letter falsely claimed it was a vote to “divest from Israel,” when in fact the resolution called only for divestment from four primarily U.S. companies that directly support the Israeli occupation.

Secondly, the chancellor’s claim that taking this principled stance in support of corporate responsibility in reference to international law and human rights could somehow “have a chilling effect on individuals within our campus community” appears designed to discourage the very kind of activism that UCSC students have practiced for decades without interference from previous chancellors.

Thirdly, the letter implies that supporting a socially responsible investment policy would somehow contribute to a possible climate of harassment or worse for students who disagree. Based on similar divestment campaigns regarding apartheid South Africa, sweatshops and carbon polluters, however, there seems to be little merit to concerns that opponents of this initiative would be targeted in such a way.

Perhaps the most disturbing part the letter was Chancellor Blumenthal’s claim that the resolution “may create an environment in which some of our Jewish students feel alienated and less welcome on our campus.” The implication that “Jewish students” are a homogenous group who will somehow be offended simply by opposition to certain policies of Israel’s right-wing government is ludicrous. Not only is opposition to the Israeli occupation widespread among Jews in the United States, Israel and elsewhere, Jewish students were among those who voted in favor of the divestment resolution.

This is why posting a letter conflating Israeli-occupied territories with Israel and conflating Israel with Jewish students is so problematic. In failing to make these critical distinctions, Chancellor Blumenthal is effectively equating opposition to what is recognized by the international community (including the U.S. State Department) as a foreign belligerent occupation and a call for divestment from corporations supporting it as somehow encouraging bigotry toward a minority group.

There are also concerns the chancellor’s decision to express his opposition to the SUA resolution in such a public way could be intimidating for non-tenured faculty and others who might support this and other initiatives in support of human rights, international law and corporate responsibility. Indeed, the letter warns of how such efforts “can exacerbate tensions and contribute to what some experience as a hostile environment” and ominously notes, how, “Globally, we’re seeing how hatred can lead to unimaginable acts of violence.”

Increasingly, well-funded right-wing groups supportive of the Israeli occupation have been pressuring administrators to crack down on activism and scholarship critical of such policies in the name of protecting the ethnic or religious sensitivities of students, usually by intemperate and exaggerated characterizations of the statements or scholarly work of those they target.

Anti-Semitism — like racism, sexism, and other forms of oppression — is a real problem that UCSC and other academic institutions should indeed take seriously. However, as noted in a recent letter to Chancellor Blumenthal from California Scholars for Academic Freedom, “While both federal and state law as well as university policy protect students from discrimination or antagonism based on their religious, ethnic, gender and other identities, it is completely unreasonable — as long as such discourse is conducted in a non-coercive and nonviolent manner — to try to protect people from hearing challenges to their political beliefs simply on the grounds of their identification with them.”

It is disappointing that Chancellor Blumenthal appears to be confused about this important distinction

The contrasting fates of Tunisia and Libya

The people of Libya and Tunisia both overthrew long-standing dictatorships in popular uprisings in 2011. Four years later, however, the current political situation in these two neighboring North African states could not be more different. The reason has much to do with how their authoritarian regimes were overthrown.
In January 2011, a popular unarmed insurrection in Tunisia that began the previous month ousted the long-ruling Western-backed dictatorship of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Elections that October brought together a broad coalition government led by an Islamist party. During the next two years, concerns over their conservative policies and their failure to suppress occasional acts of extremist violence led to large-scale protests, resulting in the resignation of the prime minister in December 2013 and the installation of a technocratic government.

A democratic constitution ratified in January 2014 included provisions guaranteeing freedom of speech, freedom of religion, gender equality, and protection of the country’s natural resources.

Free competitive elections in the fall of 2014 brought to power a center-left coalition led by secularists, trade unionists and liberals. Despite the horrific attack at the national museum by terrorists of the self-proclaimed Islamic State group in March, Tunisia has emerged as the most democratic and one of the most stable countries in North Africa and the Arab world.

Contrast this with Libya, where — unlike the unarmed insurrection that paved the way to democracy in Tunisia — the dictator Moammar Gadhafi was overthrown in August 2011 by a Western-backed armed insurrection, the culmination of six months of bloody civil war.

Like Tunisia, free elections were held several months after the dictator’s ouster, though unlike Tunisia’s initial Islamist victors, Libyan voters opted for a coalition led by secular moderates. Unfortunately, the new government was unable to exert its power in the face of more than 200,000 armed militiamen, many of whom proclaimed themselves as “guardians of the revolution,” in a country with a population of barely 6 million. It was not long before these armed groups effectively controlled the country’s major cities, with increasing armed clashes between rival militias as well as widespread revenge killings and armed robberies.

Some of these armed groups have engaged in massacres and mass incarceration of alleged supporters of the old regime. In addition to Gadhafi himself, hundreds of suspected supporters of the former government have been summarily executed. Black Libyans and other black Africans living in the country have been targeted in particular, with hundreds killed and thousands driven from their homes.

A radical Islamist group attacked the U.S. consulate in Benghazi in September 2012, killing the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans. Salafi extremists have attacked and destroyed Sufi schools, mosques and holy sites. By 2013, the Libyan Ministry of the Interior reported that the murder rate was five times what it had been prior to the uprising, and armed robberies had increased by almost as much.

Militia groups have engaged in a series of kidnappings of government officials and their family members, even the prime minister and other Cabinet officers. Heavily armed militia groups were able to surround the parliament to force the passage of legislation despite a minority of support.

While seculars and liberals did well in the June 2014 elections, the newly elected government was driven from the capital of Tripoli. Within months, the hard-line Islamist group Ansar al-Sharia had seized all or parts of several Libyan cities, declaring the establishment of an “emirate.” In August 2014, Tripoli’s international airport fell to Islamist forces following a 10-day battle.

Most foreigners have now left, and there is now virtually no foreign diplomatic presence in the country. The deteriorating security situation has led to air strikes by Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, but tribal militias and Islamist extremists — including forces aligned with the Islamic State group — now control most of the country.

In certain respects, Libya’s deterioration from an authoritarian but relatively stable country to that of a failed state is not surprising.

Social scientists have observed that in nearly 90 percent of cases where dictatorships have been overthrown through armed struggle, the countries have either become new dictatorships or, like Libya, have ended up spiraling into ongoing violence and instability.

This comes in large part because armed struggle often promotes the ethos of a secret elite vanguard and a strict military hierarchy. Like any military organization, armed liberation movements are organized on an authoritarian model based upon martial values and an ability to impose their will through force. It is no accident that many guerrilla commanders, when they become civilian leaders of a new government, continue to lead in a similar autocratic manner or, even if not formally in power, seek to exert their influence through military means.

By contrast, the majority of dictatorships brought down by largely nonviolent struggles, as with the case of Tunisia, usually evolve into stable democracies within a few years. For mass nonviolent action to emerge victorious, pro-democracy activists need to develop a broad coalition from civil society. Unlike violent movements, such unarmed civil insurrections cannot succeed without the support of the majority of the population.

There has to be give and take within such a movement to mobilize the broad constituency necessary to wage a collective struggle on such a magnitude. Building that kind of support requires utilizing a pluralistic model of organization that could serve as a basis of more democratic and representative governance.

This is the major reason the Tunisians were able to establish a stable democracy on their own while the Libyans, despite military intervention on their behalf by foreign democratic nations, could not.

Many conscientious people in the United States and Europe, concerned over the violent repression by Gadhafi’s forces in 2011, backed the shift from the initial nonviolent resistance in Libya to an armed struggle and supported the NATO intervention as a legitimate application of the so-called “responsibility to protect.” However, in weighing the factors as to whether such humanitarian intervention is morally defensible, it is important to also consider the consequences of what might follow.