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.

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

July 2018 Middle Atlantic Review of Latin American Studies II(1); also from the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict and at Research Gate: 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

The Progressive April 3, 2018:
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.
    Most people learn only about King’s great accomplishments in the fight against racial segregation and Jim Crow laws in the South. Yet King also opposed the de facto segregation in housing and other manifestations of racism in the North, and was a passionate advocate for peace.
    He challenged the draining of our national resources for the military. He opposed the Vietnam War and other aspects of U.S. foreign policy. He questioned an economic system that created enormous poverty amid great wealth. He was assassinated while organizing the Poor People’s March, in which he planned to lead thousands of poor Americans of all races to Washington, D.C., to demand economic justice.
    In speaking out against the Vietnam War, King recognized it was “the symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit.”

Global Journalist: Egypt’s Staged Election

[Zunes’ segment begins at 14 mins.]

[Global Journalist March 8, 2018]:
Egypt will hold a presidential election at the end of this month. But there’s little drama about who will actually win. President Abdel-Fatah el-Sissi, who led a 2013 coup against the country’s first democratically elected leader, is expected to be handily re-elected. That’s because el-Sissi’s government has arrested or intimidated all viable potential opponents.
    That’s left him facing off against one virtually unknown opponent – someone who was actually an outspoken supporter of el-Sissi until just hours before the candidate registration deadline.
So while most observers view this election as a sham – it’s not without drama. After el-Sissi’s coup ended a brief experiment with democracy following the Arab Spring, the country has been going backwards in many ways.
    Its economy is stagnant, its population is growing rapidly and there’s virtually no place for people to express discontent. Opposition leaders have been jailed or exiled and independent media has been tightly restricted. Meanwhile the country faces a bloody Islamist insurgency in the Sinai peninsula.

Power’s Prophet: Remembering Gene Sharp

The Progressive February 1, 2018:
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?

Washington Post April 24, 2017
   For March 2017, we tallied 585 protests, demonstrations, marches, sit-ins and rallies in the United States, with at least one in every state and the District. Our conservative guess is that 79,389 to 89,585 people showed up at these political gatherings, although it is likely that there were far more participants.
   Because mainstream media often neglect to report nonviolent actions — especially small ones — it is probable that we did not record every event that occurred. This is particularly true of the “A Day Without a Woman” strikes on March 8. It’s virtually impossible to record an accurate tally of participants for strikes, in part because many people deliberately conceal their motivations for skipping out on work or school when they participate. Nevertheless, we think our tally gives us a useful pool of information to better understand political mobilization in the United States (For our counting methods, please see our first post in the series.)

The Bipartisan Effort against Campaigns for Corporate Responsibility

The Progressive, Huffington Post & Common Dreams
The Trump Administration’s efforts to legitimize the Israeli occupation and illegal settlements in the Israeli-occupied territories has received surprising bipartisan support. A series of bills passed or under consideration in Washington and in state capitols seeks to punish companies, religious denominations, academic associations, and other entities which support the use of boycotts, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) to challenge the occupation of Palestinian land…

Pro-Palestinian activism faces suppression on Catholic campuses

National Catholic Reporter March 7, 2017
At Marquette University last year, the Students for Justice chapter initially received administration approval to erect a large wooden barrier symbolizing Israel’s separation barrier in the West Bank. The barrier at Marquette included slogans and pictures from the actual wall illegally constructed in the occupied territory. The university quickly removed it, however, determining that the “nature of the content of the display” was “likely to cause great offense,” and declared that the Marquette administration “cannot approve the wall being displayed again.” [Other US Catholic universities suppressing activism include DePaul, St. Louis and Loyola.]

Fordham ban of Palestine group contradicts free speech, Jesuit values

National Catholic Reporter February 9, 2017
Perhaps it is a sign that we are indeed in the age of Trump when a Jesuit university bans a student organization with “justice” in its name.    Although Students for Justice in Palestine went through all the required procedures and obtained approval from the student government, Fordham University in New York has prohibited the group’s recognition as a student organization. The move raises serious concerns not only regarding Fordham’s commitment to justice, long a priority for Jesuit universities, but also regarding its students’ rights to free speech and association and the spirit of an open university that protects free inquiry.

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.

Powerful nonviolent resistance to armed conflict in Yemen

While media coverage of the tragic situation unfolding in Yemen in recent months has focused on armed clashes and other violence, there has also been widespread and ongoing nonviolent civil resistance employed by a number of different actors.

In fact, the most significant setbacks to the Huthi militia in their march southward across the country in recent months have come not from the remnants of the Yemeni army or Saudi air strikes, but from massive resistance by unarmed civilians which has thus far prevented their capture of Taiz, the country’s third largest city, and other urban areas. The resistance efforts have also pressed the Houthis to withdraw their forces from a number of previously-held areas, including universities, residential neighborhoods, and even military bases. This kind of nonviolent resistance by ordinary people is remarkable, but it is not new in Yemen.

The fall of President Saleh and rise of the Huthis

It was just four years ago, in 2011, when—inspired in part by the successful civil insurrections against the Ben Ali regime in Tunisia and the Mubarak regime in Egypt—millions of Yemenis took to the streets in massive nonviolent protests against the autocratic US-backed government of Ali Abdullah Saleh, who had held power for three and a half decades. An impressive degree of unity was forged between the various tribal, regional, sectarian, and ideological groups taking part in the pro-democracy protests, which included mass marches, sit-ins, and many other forms of civil resistance. Leaders of prominent tribal coalitions publicly supported the popular insurrection, prompting waves of tribesmen to leave their guns at home and head to the capital to take part in the movement. These tribesmen, along with the hundreds of thousands of city dwellers, were encouraged to maintain nonviolent discipline, even in the face of government snipers and other provocations which led to the deaths of hundreds of unarmed protesters.

These ongoing nonviolent protests, combined with shifting alliances between competing elites and armed factions, made President Saleh’s continued hold on power increasingly untenable. Saleh was eventually forced to resign, but it wasn’t long before conflict returned. Backed by Saudi Arabia, the Gulf Cooperation Council, and the United States, Saleh’s vice president, Major General Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi took over as the head of state, over the objections of civil society and the masses that had ousted the former president.

The new Hadi government was unpopular, lacked credibility, and was widely perceived as inept and corrupt. These factors, combined with the mass resignation of the cabinet, controversial proposals for constitutional change, and support from armed groups allied with the former Saleh dictatorship led to a power vacuum that enabled the Huthi militia (despite representing only the Zaidi minority in the north of the country) to emerge as the most potent military force in Yemen.

Popular resistance to the Huthi takeover

Despite having participated in various forms of nonviolent action in previous years, the Huthi militia made a decision to begin engaging in violence, and on July 10, 2014 they attacked the city of Amran, overrunning a military base, seizing a large array of weaponry, and killing dozens of soldiers and civilians in the process. While the Hadi government was unpopular, the Huthi attack was also summarily rejected by many Yemenis, and the following day massive protests took place in Amran, Sana, Taiz, Ibb, Hadramout, Dhamar, Al Bayda, and Ad-Dhale’e, condemning the Huthi attack (along with Israel’s military campaign in Gaza), demanding investigations of the incident and a return of the stolen weapons.

In August 2014, the Huthi’s surprised the world by seizing the capital of Sana’a, which led to a new round of anti-Huthi protests in September, with hundreds of thousands marching in Taiz against what they called “threats of royalists” along with calls to resist the violent groups that were trying to impose their control by force.

Major student protests swept the country throughout the fall, primarily in Hodaidah, Ibb and Baydha. On November 2, hundreds of students and employees of the Sana’a University formed a silent chain around their campus, raising signs with slogans condemning the control of their campus by the Huthis. Protests were continuous, with students insisting they would not stop until the “Huthi occupation” ended. As a result of ongoing protests, Huthi forces finally withdrew from the university on December 10.

In addition to demonstrations, a wave of strikes took place across the country targeting a variety of sectors where the Huthis attempted to assert their control: in addition to universities and high schools, the military academy in Sana’a, the judiciary in several cities, and fuel production facilities in Shabwa were shut down. Hundreds of prisoners held captive by the Huthis went on hunger strike, as did President Hadi while under house arrest prior to his escape. Scores of prominent Yemenis have resigned from their posts in protest, including governors, police chiefs, senior military officials, and top administrators in transportation, medicine, communications, and other sectors.

Young activists, many taking advantage of social media networking, have played a role in resisting the Huthi armed advance and have tried to emphasize the need for national unity and nonviolent means of settling differences. A September 28 protest in front of the Ministry of Youth and Sports in Sana’a incorporated national songs and dances in order to emphasize Yemenis’ commonalities and to condemn the presence of armed groups. Protesters chanted such slogans as “Dear my country, rise and shine, no weapons after today” and “Altogether for a capital without weapons.” Similar themes were stressed in a December 13 demonstration calling for national unity and nonviolent action with protesters marching from Change Square to the president’s house. The largest protests during this period took place on January 26, 2015 in response to the Huthi consolidation of their takeover, in which tens of thousands took the streets in Sana’a despite violent repression by the Huthis.

By the end of January, a number of tribal groups and other associations declared they would no longer comply with orders, military or otherwise, coming from the Huthi-dominated government in Sana’a. The Huthis began recognizing that control of government buildings in the capital did not necessarily mean control of the country, even in areas where their forces were present.

A series of mass protests took place in response to the detention of anti-Huthi activists, the most significant of which took place in Ibb on February 15. Thousands of nonviolent protesters who took to the streets were met with gunfire, with armed forces trying to separate the mass demonstration into smaller more controllable units. The protesters not only held their ground, but were able to seize a number of armed Huthis. As these citizens maintained nonviolent discipline and refused to disperse, Huthi-led security forces then refused commands by their superiors to continue firing on the crowd, calling it “deliberate repression of peaceful demonstrators.”

Remarkably, even with the dramatic escalation in fighting last month with the Huthi advance southward and the subsequent Saudi military intervention, nonviolent resistance has continued. The most impressive episodes took place in Taiz, located between Sana’a and the strategic port city of Aden. On March 19, Huthi militiamen seized the important Yemeni Special Forces camp on its outskirts and were expected to shortly take over the entire city, no longer defended by Yemeni government troops, who had fled or defected. However, largely youthful demonstrators massed outside gates of the captured base, raising banners rejecting the Houthis’ armed presence, and remained encamped to physically block additional militiamen from entering the area. The region’s governor, Shawki Ahmed Hayel, called on all Taizis to join the sit-ins and remain in place until the Huthis left the city.

On March 21, armed Huthis militiamen attempted to break up the “human wall” surrounding the base with teargas and gunfire, killing several unarmed demonstrators. This resulted in a public backlash, with hundreds of thousands marching the following day from the center of the city demanding that the Huthis withdraw their gunmen from Taiz. By March 24, a general strike was in effect to demand Huthi withdrawal from city. Taiz effectively shut down and the mostly youthful protesters set up roadblocks preventing access to the city by Huthi reinforcements. Despite additional casualties among the protesters, the Huthis — who just days earlier were presumed to have been preparing to occupy the entire city — were forced to withdraw from the captured base and surrounding areas.


The recent military intervention by Saudi Arabia has resulted in a mixed response. Popular anger at the Huthi aggression has led many Yemenis to support the Saudi air strikes, with rallies in support of the bombing taking place in Ibb, Hodeidah, and Taiz. Larger rallies in opposition have taken place in Sana’a and Amran. Even among those who oppose the Huthis, there is widespread suspicion regarding Saudi intentions and actions due to their previous interventions in Yemen’s internal affairs, their support for authoritarian and extremist elements, their maltreatment of Yemeni guest workers, and their ultra-conservative Salafi brand of Islam.

The Saudi role in creating conditions for the current crisis by marginalizing civil society elements in supporting Hadi’s takeover of the presidency and their overall aspirations in the Arabian Peninsula have led many Yemenis to fear that once again they seek to usurp nonviolent nationalist pro-democracy forces. In addition, there has been widespread outrage at the large-scale civilian casualties resulting from the Saudi air assault.

It was the sidelining of civil society and leaders of the 2011 nonviolent pro-democracy struggles by the Saudis, GCC states, and the US which helped create the current crisis. It would therefore behove the international community not to similarly ignore the hundreds of thousands of Yemenis who, in the midst of the current chaos and violence, have again taken to the streets in unarmed civil resistance.

The history and ongoing manifestations of nonviolent action in Yemen is greater than is generally perceived by the outside world, which has long dismissed the country as “primitive,” “violent,” “tribal,” “chaotic,” and incapable of handling its own affairs. The most effective means of ensuring stability and resisting the Huthis, Al-Qaeda, or other armed extremists comes not from backing allied strongmen, but from allowing civil society to take the lead in developing broad-based democratic institutions without the use of arms.

Yet it is in this history of civil resistance that lies the country’s greatest hope. The power of Yemenis of various and even competing tendencies to wage their struggles nonviolently is something that should be acknowledged and encouraged, not undermined in pursuit of military solutions to complex political problems.