The Truth About Nonviolent Movements

In These Times December 17, 2013
Journalists Carl Gibson and Steve Horn have done an important service with their article outlining Serbian activist Srdja Popovic’s inexcusable collaboration with the global intelligence company STRATFOR, and his role in disclosing the activities of movements and activists with whom he has worked. Unfortunately, the article falls into a rather simplistic and reductionist analysis of Popovic’s motivations and, more critically, misrepresents the nature of the popular uprisings in Serbia and other countries. The article also contains a number of factual errors and misleading statements. Even prior to the recent revelations, Popovic’s activities were being increasingly recognized as problematic…

Analysis of STRATFOR Leaks Misrepresents Nonviolent Movements

The Real News Network December 11, 2013
First published on Republished by In These Times, Medcom-Taiwan,
   Carl Gibson and Steve Horn have done an important service in writing their article outlining Srdja Popovic’s inexcusable collaboration with the global intelligence company STRATFOR and his disclosure of the activities of movements and activists with whom he has worked.  Unfortunately, as will be spelled out below, the article falls into a rather simplistic and reductionist analysis of Popovic’s motivations and, more critically, misrepresents the nature of the popular uprisings in Serbia and other countries. The article also contains a number of factual errors and misleading statements.

Ruthless regimes not impervious to civil resistance: A reply to Maged Mandour

Open Democracy November 1, 2013
Republished by International Center for Nonviolent Conflict
   There is little systematic evidence to suggest that “ruthlessness” is, in and of itself, a critical variable. Maged Mandour’s article on openDemocracy, “Beyond Civil Resistance: The Case of Syria”, argues that civil resistance has been marginalized in the Syrian insurrection because it doesn’t work  against “ruthless” regimes. But history doesn’t support that conclusion…

Supporting non-violence in Syria

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.

While understandable, to support the armed opposition would likely exacerbate the Syrian people’s suffering and appear to validate the tragic miscalculation by parts of the Syrian opposition to supplant their bold and impressive nonviolent civil insurrection with an armed insurgency.

The Assad regime proved itself to be utterly ruthless in its suppression of the nonviolent pro-democracy struggle in 2011. However, it is important to stress that this ruthlessness was not the primary reason the movement failed to generate sufficient momentum to oust Bashar al-Assad.

From apartheid South Africa to Suharto’s Indonesia to Pinochet’s Chile, extremely repressive regimes have been brought down through largely nonviolent civil insurrections. In some cases, as with Marcos in the Philippines, Honnecker in East Germany, and Ben Ali in Tunisia, dictators have ordered their troops to fire into crowds of many thousands of people, only to have their soldiers refuse. In some other countries, such as Iran under the Shah and Mali under General Toure, many hundreds of nonviolent protesters were gunned down, but rather than cower the opposition into submission, they returned in even larger numbers and eventually forced these dictators to step down.

Historically, when a nonviolent movement shifts to violence, it is a result of frustration, anger, or the feeling of hopelessness. Rarely is it done as a clear strategic choice. Indeed, if the opposition movement were organizing its resistance in a strategic way, with a logical sequencing of tactics and a familiarity with the history and dynamics of popular unarmed civil insurrection, they would recognize that it is usually a devastating mistake to shift to violence. Rather than hasten the downfall of the dictator, successful armed revolutions have historically taken more than eight years to defeat a regime, while unarmed civil insurrections have averaged around two years before victory. Unfortunately, the fragmentation of Syrian civil society combined with the hardness of the security apparatus has made it challenging to maintain a resilient movement. Whether a movement is violent or nonviolent, improvisation is not enough when dealing with a regime that readily instills fears as in Syria.

Indeed, the failure of the opposition movement to overthrow the regime in its initial months, when it was primarily nonviolent, does not prove that nonviolence “doesn’t work” any more than the failure of a violent movement to overthrow a regime subsequently proves that violence “doesn’t work.” Whether or not a movement is primarily violent or nonviolent, what is important is whether it employs strategies and tactics that can maximize its chances of success.

Another factor is that, unlike the Ben Ali regime in Tunisia, the Mubarak regime in Egypt, the Saleh regime in Yemen, or the Qaddafi regime in Libya, Syria is not a case of a regime whose power rests in the hands of a single dictator and the relatively small segment of the population that benefits from their association with the dictator. The Syrian regime still has a social base. A fairly large minority of Syrians — consisting of Alawites, Christians and members of other minority communities, Baath Party loyalists and government employees, the professional armed forces and security services, and the (largely Sunni) crony capitalist class that the regime has nurtured — still cling to the regime. There are certainly dissidents and “latent double thinkers” within all of these sectors. Yet regime loyalists are a large enough segment of the population so that no struggle — whether violent or nonviolent — will win without cascading defections.

The Baath Party has ruled Syria for most of the past 50 years, before even the 30-year reign of Assad’s father. Military officers and party apparatchiks have developed their own power base. Dictatorships that rest primarily on the power of just one man are generally more vulnerable in the face of popular revolt than are oligarchical systems in which a broader network of elite interests has a stake in the system. Just as the oligarchy which ruled El Salvador in the 1980s proved to be far more resistant to overthrow by a popular armed revolution than the singular rule of Anastasia Somoza in neighboring Nicaragua, it is not surprising that Syria’s ruling group has been more resilient relative to the personalist dictatorships toppled in the wave of largely nonviolent insurrections in neighboring Arab countries which climaxed last year.

What this means is that, whatever the method of struggle in Syria, it was always likely to have been a protracted one. Armed struggle is not a quick fix. Whether a popular struggle against an autocratic regime succeeds depends not on the popularity of the cause or even the repression of state security forces, but on whether those engaged in resistance understand the basis of the real power of the regime and develop a strategy that can neutralize its strengths and exploit its vulnerabilities.

Nonviolent struggle, like armed struggle, will succeed only if the resistance uses effective strategies and tactics. A guerrilla army cannot expect instant success through a frontal assault on the capital. They know they need to initially engage in small low-risk operations, such as hit and run attacks, and take the time to mobilize their base in peripheral areas before they have a chance of defeating the well-armed military forces of the state. Similarly, it may not make sense for a nonviolent movement to rely primarily on the tactic of massive street demonstrations in the early phases of a movement, but diversify their tactics, understand and apply their own strengths, and exploit opportunities to mobilize support and increase the pressure on the regime.

Despite the ruling Baath Party’s nominally socialist ideology, the uprising in Syria has a much stronger working-class base than most of the other Arab uprisings. Strikes and boycotts have been used only sporadically in Syria, but they have been enough to demonstrate the potential of undermining the loyalty of the crony capitalists who benefit from their close relationship to the regime. Indeed, this is what proved to be decisive in the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa. For a revolution against a heavily armed and deeply entrenched dictator to succeed, the opposition movement needs to mobilize a large percentage of the population on its side, as took place in Tunisia and Egypt. The Syrian resistance needs to act in ways to make the regime come across as illegitimate and traitorous, while making itself look virtuous and patriotic.

There is little question that the Assad regime feared the ability of the nonviolent opposition to neutralize the power of the state through the power of civil resistance more than it has armed groups that are attacking state power where it is strongest — through the force of arms. They recognized that an armed resistance would reinforce the regime’s unity and divide the opposition. That is why the regime has so consistently tried to provoke the pro-democracy forces into violence. It claimed that the opposition was composed of terrorists and armed thugs even during the early months of the struggle, when it was almost completely nonviolent, recognizing that the Syrian people were far more likely to support a regime challenged by an armed insurgency than through a largely nonviolent civil insurrection.

Encouraging defections from the government’s side is essential. Defections by security forces — critically important in ousting a military-backed regime — are far more likely when they are ordered to gun down unarmed protesters than when they are being shot at. Defection, however, is rarely a physical act of soldiers spontaneously throwing down their arms, crossing the battlefield and joining the other side. Not everyone can do that. Sometimes defections come in the form of bureaucrats or officers degrading the effectiveness of the regime through quiet acts of noncooperation, such as failing to carry our orders, causing key paperwork to disappear, deleting computer files, or leaking information to the other side.

In turning to armed resistance, what was once a political struggle becomes an existential struggle, and therefore more difficult to win people to your side. One’s loyalty to the regime may depend in large part on how they perceive the alternative. They need to decide whether the goal of the opposition is to create an inclusive Syria in which all political factions and sectarian communities will play a part or whether they instead simply seek to destroy their perceived opponents. The chances of bringing down Assad will be greatly enhanced if Syrians are forced to choose not between two savage forces, but between a repressive regime and more inclusive representative movement.

An unarmed civil insurrection which resists the temptation to fight back with violence gives those who may be in a position to defect real hope that they would be welcomed in joining the opposition in building a more democratic and pluralistic system in which they could have a part. By contrast, facing an armed movement — particularly one which has engaged in acts of terrorism and targets minority communities and other alleged supporters of the government — gives rise to fears that they will be persecuted or even executed if the opposition wins, and will therefore fight even harder. In short, armed struggle hardens rather than weakens the resolve and unity of repressive regimes.

The most critical limitation of armed struggle is that its occurrence can significantly decrease the number of participants in a movement or popular opposition since most citizens are unwilling to put their own lives at risk. Another significant limitation is that armed struggle plays to the strength of an authoritarian regime, which commands the arena of military force. When the armed wing of the insurgency initially came to predominate in Syria toward the end of 2011, there was still a fair amount of nonviolent resistance as well. As late as April 12, the initial day of the United Nations-brokered cease-fire (and the only day it effectively held), the largest demonstrations since before the launch of the armed struggle happened. However, armed opposition elements feared the cease-fire might simply give the regime time to stall, enact some reforms, and reinforce its standing, and immediately resume fighting. This gave the regime the excuse to engage in some of the worst massacres to date and the cease-fire completely collapsed.

As the New York Times noted, “The Assad regime probably likes the fact that the opposition has embraced armed struggle. This solidifies its support among its core constituency — the Alawites, who represent about 10 percent of the population– as well as other minorities … The regime can argue it has to hit back hard, otherwise it will be massacred.” Indeed, when the regime in the early months of the struggle last year insisted that the diverse, peaceful pro-democracy protesters were “terrorists,” “Islamist extremists,” “foreigner-backed,” and included “foreign infiltrators,” they were appropriately ridiculed, which served to further delegitimize the regime. Since the turn to armed struggle, however, some elements of the resistance do indeed match those descriptions.

When the armed resistance escalated dramatically in 2012 after the failure of the cease-fire late in the spring and into the summer, it proved deleterious to the civil insurrection and dramatically increased the death toll. From May to August, the monthly death toll rose from 1322 to 5039 while the number of Friday demonstrations declined from 834 to 355. Subsequently, the weekly total has been well under 300. Indeed, despite claiming to defend the civilian population from the regime’s armed forces, they have only succeeded in fearfully increasing the civilian death toll.

A large fraction of former nonviolent protesters have since embraced the armed struggle and, given the horrific repression the opposition has faced from the brutal regime, it would be difficult for observers in the West to pass moral judgment on individuals who have made that choice. However, for those of us who want to see the Assad regime replaced with a true democratic government, there are plenty of reasons to question that choice on strategic grounds. And there are many Syrians still involved in the nonviolent struggle who agree.

According to pro-democracy activist Haythan Manna, the turn to armed struggle has resulted in the fragmentation of opposition groups and has served to “undermine the broad popular support necessary to transform the uprising into a democratic revolution. It made the integration of competing demands — rural v. urban, secular v. Islamist, old opposition v. revolutionary youth — much more difficult.” He also noted how the militarization of the resistance has “led to a decline in the mobilization of large segments of the population, especially amongst minorities and those living in the big cities, and in the activists’ peaceful civil movement.” He also notes how the armed struggle has increased the influence of hardline Islamists, noting, “The political discourse has become sectarian; there has been a Salafization of religiously conservative sectors.”

Another problem with armed struggle historically is that it can lead what were independent indigenous movements to become dependent upon foreign powers who supply them with arms, as happened to various popular leftwing nationalist movements in the Global South during the Cold War which ended up embracing Soviet-style Communism and adopting Moscow’s foreign policy prerogatives. While the initial pro-democracy movement explicitly rejected sectarianism, the Wahhabi-led regimes of Saudi Arabia and Qatar saw the challenge to Assad, an Alawite, as a means of breaking the so-called “Shiite crescent” stretching from Iran through Iraq to southern Lebanon. These autocratic Sunni monarchies clearly do not have a democratic agenda, yet — thanks to the armed struggle — they have developed significant influence. Gulf-based networks like Wisal and Safa pushed the Salafi line that the Syrian revolution should be seen not as a diverse pro-democracy struggle, but part of a global “jihad.”

As a result of all this, there are serious questions as to whether it is appropriate for the United States and other foreign powers to support the armed resistance. Providing military support to a disorganized and fragmented armed resistance movement means more people getting killed; it does not necessarily create a disciplined fighting force capable of defeating a well-armed regime, much less establishing a stable democratic order. Even more problematic would be direct military intervention.

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. For example, the wholesale ethnic cleansing in Kosovo by Serbian forces in 1999 began only after the launching of NATO air strikes. 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 could dramatically escalate the violence on both sides.

There is also the problem that the intentions of Western governments, particularly the United States, are highly suspect in the eyes of the Syrians. U.S. military intervention would simply play into the hands of the regime in Damascus, which has decades of experience manipulating the Syrian people’s strong sense of nationalism to its benefit. The regime can point out that the United States is the world’s primary military supplier to the region’s remaining dictatorships and is using the “promotion of democracy” as an excuse to overthrow a government that happens to oppose Washington’s designs on the region.

And, facing a Syrian political media sphere rooted in Arab nationalism, socialism, and anti-imperialism, Western intervention could unwittingly trigger the mobilization of hundreds of thousands of Syrians — perhaps even those otherwise opposed to the regime — to resist foreign invaders. Hundreds of Syrians have quit the Baath party and government positions in protest of the killings of nonviolent protesters, but few defections could be expected if Americans and Europeans attacked their country.

Furthermore, given that there are now heavily-armed Islamist extremists and others involved in the resistance, there is no guarantee that Assad’s overthrow would actually bring peace. U.S. occupation forces in Iraq soon found themselves caught in the middle of a bloody sectarian conflict and quickly learned that some of Saddam’s biggest foes were also quite willing to turn their guns on the “foreign infidels.”

The Obama administration is eager to see the Assad regime fall and the sooner the better. However, it recognizes that foreign intervention in Syria is a far more complicated proposition than Libya. The population is more than three times bigger and the terrain far more challenging. As a result, the administration recognizes the need to find alternative means of supporting the resistance.

In addition to providing humanitarian assistance, the United States has provided communication equipment and other resources for what remains of the nonviolent opposition. In addition, the State Department’s Office of Syrian Opposition Support (OSOS) has served as a point of contact between the international community and various nonviolent opposition networks inside Syria. The Obama administration appears to recognize that this approach — which has the support of many moderate Syrians and democratic U.S. allies in Europe and elsewhere — is the most realistic and effective means of supporting the resistance and a utilitarian alternative that avoids the pitfalls of doing nothing in the face of savage repression or becoming a party to horrific and protracted civil war.

Despite this, some critics mistakenly confuse this appropriately cautious approach with isolationism, pacifism, or naiveté. For example, Justin Vela, in an October 10 FP article, condescendingly claims the Obama administration is “fixated on the peaceful activists” and favorably quotes Syrian militants who deride these efforts as “useless.” He goes on to dismiss OSOS advice to activists as “civil society workshops,” with the implication that they are no different than those supported by the National Endowment for Democracy and other groups supporting middle class liberal constituencies in emerging democracies. In reality, what is being provided is basic information about how to organize and mobilize resistance efforts, which is sorely needed at all levels of the Syrian opposition.

In order for an unarmed civil insurrection to succeed, it is necessary to build a coalition representing broad segments of society, requiring the kind of compromise and cooperation which can provide the basis for a pluralist democratic order in the future. As a result, the majority of countries in which dictatorships are overthrown by nonviolent insurrections are able to establish stable democratic institutions and processes within a few years. By contrast, since armed struggles are centered on an elite vanguard with a strict military hierarchy and martial values, these patterns of leadership often continue once rebel military commanders become the new political leaders. Indeed, history has shown that dictatorships overthrown by armed revolutions are far more likely to become new dictatorships. Furthermore, there is also a high correlation with the method of struggle and political stability: countries in which the old regime was toppled through armed struggle are far more likely to experience civil war, coup d’états, and dangerous political volatility subsequently. This may be particularly true in light of the potentially explosive ethnic and sectarian mosaic of Syria.

In sum, opposition to U.S. support for the armed resistance in Syria has nothing to do with indifference, isolationism, or pacifism. Nor is it indicative of being any less horrified by the suffering of the Syrian people or any less desirous of the overthrow of Assad’s brutal regime. With so much at stake, however, it is critical to not allow the understandably strong emotional reaction to the ongoing horror or a romanticized attachment to armed revolution serve as a substitute for strategic thinking in our support for and solidarity with the Syrian struggle for freedom.

The ongoing attack on democracy in the Maldives

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.

Despite superficial media reports depicting the situation in the Maldives as simply a power struggle between competing political factions, it appears increasingly to involve an illegal seizure of power by authoritarian criminal elements in an effort to reconsolidate control by the former dictator Mamoun Abdul Gayoom and his associates.

The nation’s first democratically-elected president Mohamed Nasheed was deposed last February, less than four years after celebrating the triumph of a nonviolent pro-democracy revolution. A popular human rights activist and environmentalist who helped lead the struggle against the former dictatorship, Nasheed was – as feared and predicted – finally arrested on October 8 when fifty heavily-armed police in full riot gear and wearing masks broke down the door of a home where Nasheed and some aides were staying on a political visit to a Maldivian island. Despite offering no resistance, former cabinet officials and other pro-democracy activists were attacked with pepper spray.

As president, Nasheed had become one of the world’s most outspoken figures in the struggle against climate change, given the impending impact of rising sea levels on his country’s survival. Following his overthrow by allies for the former dictatorship earlier this year, he has sought to revive the nonviolent pro-democracy struggle that forced Gayoom to agree to free elections in October 2008, in which Nasheed emerged victorious.

Nasheed’s career-long commitment to nonviolent resistance against corruption and authoritarianism resulted in his being awarded the 2012 James Lawson Award for Achievement in the Practice of Nonviolent Action, named after the prominent US civil rights leader. Now, however, this tragic reversal of an apparent triumph by a mass nonviolent freedom struggle could embolden other former tyrants to attempt to reverse democratic gains elsewhere – unless the international community supports serious measure to restore the necessary conditions for Maldivian democracy.

A journalist by training, Nasheed was repeatedly jailed and tortured for his writings exposing government corruption and other abuses under the Gayoom regime. He eventually found himself leading a campaign of nonviolent protests and civil disobedience which eventually brought an end to a thirty-year dictatorship which had facilitated corruption, drug trafficking and human rights abuses. Unfortunately, significant parts of the old regime’s police and judicial system remained in place after Nasheed took office. When he attempted to investigate and pursue reforms of the system, he was detained and – facing threats against his family and prominent supporters – was forced to resign.

His vice-president, Mohamed Waheed, who was apparently part of the plot, assumed the presidency and promptly dismissed Nasheed’s ministers, replacing them with conservative Islamists opposed to Nasheed’s liberal reforms as well as nine key figures from the former dictatorship, including Gayoom’s son and daughter. The United States immediately recognized the new government, refusing to acknowledge the coup, instead referring to the ouster of the democratically-elected president as simply a “transition of power.” Similarly, US State Department spokesman Victoria Nuland commended as “thorough and conclusive” a highly-problematic Commission of Inquiry which claimed Nasheed’s resignation was not under duress, despite its failure to consider important evidence to the contrary or allow for key witnesses.

But regardless of the circumstances surrounding Nasheed’s resignation, it seems clearer every day that the regime that replaced his government has little regard for human rights or the democratic process. Indeed, the real test of a government’s legitimacy is its tolerance of freedom of expression and freedom of assembly.

Since the coup
Since the coup, more than 2,000 peaceful protesters have been arrested, many suffering severe beatings by security forces. Amnesty International has described the situation in the Maldives as a “human rights crisis,” documenting widespread brutality by security forces and arbitrary arrests. The US State Department, however, has simply called “for restraint by all sides to prevent possible violence.” In a visit to the Maldives last month, assistant secretary of state for South Asia Robert Blake announced a plan to work with the regime’s military and police to “strengthen them” and “build up their capacity.”

The repression is not just taking place against those on the streets. In recent months, key leaders in Nasheed’s Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) have been arrested on politically-motivated charges and now Nasheed himself appears to be suffering the same fate.

Nasheed and his supporters, apparently confident of victory in any free and fair poll, have called for elections as early as possible – as did the British foreign secretary last month. In parliamentary elections prior to the coup, Nasheed’s NDP won the largest number of votes. Even the head of the Commission of Inquiry, a judge from the autocratic country of Singapore, has endorsed the call for elections as soon as feasible.

The regime, however, has reneged on its promises for early elections and has refused to announce a future date for them. There is some speculation that, even if the regime does eventually allow for elections, the filing of charges against the popular deposed president and restricting his movement are designed to prevent him from campaigning or from running altogether. Indeed, if the leader of the democratic opposition is detained, it raises serious questions regarding the regime’s commitment to anything resembling a normal democratic process. And Nasheed’s legal troubles may only have begun. The regime’s Home Affairs Minister has threatened to put him behind bars for the rest of his life.

Even simply restricting Nasheed to the capital island of Male would make it impossible for him to travel through his country or abroad to rally support. The latter is critical, because for a country as dependent on tourism and foreign trade as Maldives, even relatively mild sanctions by Great Britain, the United States, Australia or India could be a major constraint on those who have taken power and whose democratic intentions are widely distrusted, including by most Maldivians.

Indeed, it is the lucrative tourism industry which has contributed to the country’s crisis. Gayoum and a handful of his family members and cronies are reputed to own well more than half of the island properties where expensive hotel resorts are located, a source of the enormous wealth that Gayoom used to buy the loyalty of corrupt judges and security forces.

Before 2008, Nasheed and pro-democracy activists were able to force free elections and influence Gayoom to honour the result because of the threat of western sanctions. They will have a very difficult time forcing free elections again without similar pressure, which has thus far not been forthcoming.

If western governments are unwilling to implement even modest measures which could significantly advance democracy in the Maldives, what hope is there for those involved in nonviolent struggles for democracy in more complicated circumstances?

Indeed, if western countries are unwilling to place any pressure against a regime of questionable legitimacy, which is allied with a former dictator and hard-line Islamists, and if they fail to provide any support for a popularly-elected leader committed to democracy and to nonviolence, what kind of message does that send to those struggling nonviolently for freedom elsewhere in the world?

Popular nonviolent struggles in poor countries emerging from authoritarianism and fighting corruption must know that the international community has their back.

Fortunately, leading human rights activists, environmentalists, academics, actors, and others are mobilizing in support for democracy in the Maldives. The question is whether the world will listen.

Occupy fizzled, but made 99% a force

It’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.

These concerns still impact 99% of Americans. Even if Occupy protests have petered out, the movement has affected the political narrative in our country.

We can see Occupy’s impact in the current presidential campaign. Whereas Bill Clinton’s 1996 re-election strategy focused on the idea of “triangulation” — taking centrist positions on key economic issues to isolate his Republican opponent on the right — President Barack Obama has taken on much more of a populist stance, mobilizing his Democratic base and economically stressed independents against an opponent whom his campaign is depicting as the quintessential representative of the 1%.

Occupy activists justifiably express skepticism over how much to trust the president’s left-leaning rhetoric when his actual economic policies have been decidedly centrist. Still, the fact that Obama’s re-election campaign recognizes the advantage of decrying unfair tax laws and similar policies that affect middle class Americans is indicative of how the tone has shifted.

Unfortunately, much of the decline of the Occupy movement can also be attributed to the distraction from this year’s election campaigns. Despite the Democrats’ mixed record, the unions and many other potential allies necessary in building a real movement have felt obliged to focus their energy on re-electing Obama and helping other Democratic candidates.

Some police repression and serious violations of civil liberties by city authorities certainly crippled the Occupy protests as well, as did the media’s tendency to focus too much on its more violent or flaky elements.

But, this does not mean that all is lost.

The Egyptian Revolution and other unarmed civil insurrections that have swept the world recently did not start and end during a few dramatic weeks or months when millions of people were on the streets. They were the culmination of many years of struggle, often initiated by young radicals engaging in small but creative demonstrations.

The Occupy protesters, even at their greatest numbers, were never able to do what successful movements must do in terms of developing a well-thought-out strategy, clearly articulated political demands, a logical sequencing of tactics and well-trained and disciplined activists who don’t vandalize property or fight cops. Indeed, the Occupy protesters never developed enough of the structural elements necessary to truly be considered a “movement.”

Most importantly, those involved never recognized that colorful protests are no substitute for door-to-door organizing among real people.
A look back: Meet the 99%

The United States has a long history of popular social and economic struggles, from the abolitionists to the Populists to the suffragists to the civil rights movement and, throughout much of that history, the trade unions. As Thomas Jefferson once beckoned his fellow Americans: “crush… the aristocracy of our moneyed corporations which dare already to challenge our government to trial and bid defiance to the laws of our country.”
If the pressing concerns of the 99% are not addressed, don’t be surprised if new incarnations of the Occupy movement emerge in the near future.

Sudan’s protests become civil insurrection

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.

Could Sudan be the next Arab country in which an autocratic government is brought down in a largely nonviolent civil insurrection?

Some analysts have dismissed the prospects of a successful uprising by noting the sheer brutality of the Sudanese regime, responsible for a genocidal counter-insurgency war in its western province of Darfur and decades of bloody repression in the southern part of the country, now the newly-independent republic of South Sudan.

However, it is not the brutality of the regime that determines whether or not it can be toppled by a largely nonviolent civil insurrection. The 900 people killed during the 18-day Egyptian uprising was a higher total than any 18-day period of the Syrian uprising during its earlier nonviolent phase, but the Egyptian revolutionaries persisted and won. Similarly, Tunisian dictator Ben Ali ordered his forces to open fire on the hundred s of thousands of nonviolent protesters on Bourguiba Avenue in Tunis, but the soldiers refused, forcing him to flee.

What determines the fate of autocrats being challenged by civil insurrections is not the threat of repression per se as it is the ability of the pro-democratic opposition to undermine the pillars of support for the regime – such as security forces, economic elites, foreign backers, and others – through massive non-cooperation.

Many in the West are unaware that Sudan – despite its horrific history of authoritarianism and violence in recent decades – also has a history of largely nonviolent pro-democracy civil insurrections which pre-date not just the recent revolts of the “Arab Spring,” but the pro-democracy uprisings in Africa during the early 1990s that brought down dictatorships in Mali, Benin, Madagascar and elsewhere in the continent.

The first major Sudanese pro-democracy insurrection took place against the regime of Field Marshal Ibrahim Abboud in October 1964. When authorities tried to ban increasing public debate regarding the legitimacy of the military government, which had ruled the country since 1958, large protests by a coalition of students, professionals, workers, leftists, nationalists and Islamists broke out. Within a week, a general strike had shut down the country. On October 28, scores of nonviolent protesters in Khartoum were gunned down by government forces. Politicians and activists, through family and other personal ties, took advantage of a deepening split within the military to convince them to depose Abboud and return the country to civilian governance on October 30. A series of unstable civilian coalition governed the country until a military coup in 1969, led by Jafaar Nimeiry.

Over the next sixteen years, Nimeiry shifted his ideology from left-wing nationalist, to pro-Western anti-communist, to Islamist, but not his autocratic style of leadership. Early in the spring of 1985, however, there were a series of massive and largely nonviolent demonstrations in the capital of Khartoum and the neighboring city of Omdurman. A general strike called by trade unions and professional organizations paralyzed the country as the pro-democracy movement gained increasing support from a growing cross-section of the population, including the business community. Despite thousands of arrests and scores of shootings, the largely-peaceful protests continued, with even the country’s judiciary joining in the civil rebellion. Protesters shut down pro-government radio stations and occupied airport runways to prevent Nimeiry, who was on a state visit to Washington, from returning home. On April 6, the military seized power, formally overthrowing the dictator. Pro-democracy activists continued their protests, however, forcing the new junta to allow for an interim civilian-led government followed by democratic elections which gave the Sudanese one of the most open democratic political systems in the Arab world.

As with the earlier experiment in democracy, however, the shaky civilian governments which followed were unable to unify the country and a coalition of military officers and hardline Islamists seized power in 1989 and have ruled ever since.

This inevitably raises the question of whether such an uprising can succeed again.

There are some major differences between Sudan today and Sudan during these previous uprisings, not the least of which has been the systematic destruction under al-Bashir’s rule of key civil society institutions, particularly the trade unions, which played a major role in the 1964 and 1985 uprisings. Still, pro-democracy groups like Girifna (Arabic for “We are fed up”) have continued to organize.

In addition to armed regional rebellions in the west, south and northeast in recent decades, there have also been periodic nonviolent struggles for greater democracy and accountability. In the 1990s, anti-regime protests were gaining traction until the 1998 U.S. bombing of the country’s largest pharmaceutical plant (apparently based on erroneous intelligence that it was a chemical weapons factory controlled by Al-Qaeda) enabled the regime to steer popular resentment towards the United States. Another uprising in 2005, centered in the poorer shantytowns of the capital, was violently suppressed.

The current uprising, however, is the most serious to challenge the regime so far. Despite being met by severe repression, there have been some impressive innovations by the pro-democracy forces. Recognizing the vulnerability of large concentrations of protesters to the armed forces of repressive regimes, the protests have organized as a series of simultaneous small demonstrations in many part of the country and various neighborhoods of the capital. Though students, as in the previous uprisings, are disproportionately represented among the protesters, there is also a strong component of poor and working class Sudanese, as well as older people. The grievances are not ethnic or even ideological as much as they are a simple demand for accountable government. Women have been playing an important role as well, with the first protest of the current uprising being organized by female students at the University of Khartoum on June 15.

Just as the movement has been consciously decentralized in terms of protests, it has been consciously decentralized in terms of organization. One pro-democracy activist noted how the secret police arrest Girifina members daily as if they are looking to jail the leadership, but “they just can’t get it that Girifna is a leaderless movement and no matter how much you arrest of us we simply will not stop.”

Though the movement faces enormous challenges and victory is by no means certain, the current protests in Sudan illustrate that even the most brutal regime is ultimately vulnerable if it loses legitimacy in the eyes of its people.

Mali’s Struggle: Not Simply of Their Own Making

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.

In 1991, more than two decades prior to similar pro-democracy uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, Malians engaged in a massive nonviolent resistance campaign that brought down the dictatorship of Mousa Traoré. A broad mobilization of trade unionists, peasants, students, teachers, and others — supported by griots (traditional singing storytellers) who would sing allegorical songs regarding historical freedom struggles — created a mass movement throughout the country. Despite the absence of Facebook or the Internet, virtually no international media coverage, and the massacre of hundreds of peaceful protesters, this popular civil insurrection succeeded not only in ousting a repressive and corrupt regime, but ushered in more than two decades of democratic rule.

Despite corruption, poverty, and a weak infrastructure, Mali was widely considered to be the most stable and democratic country in West Africa. In order to educate and promote the rights and duties of its citizens, the government implemented a program called the “Decentralization Mission” in 1993 to encourage popular participation in local and regional elections. Independent radio stations and newspapers emerged and the country experienced lively and open political debate.

The events surrounding the nonviolent revolution of 1991 were regularly commemorated, with the anniversary of the March 26 massacre a national holiday. A series of monuments in the capital of Bamako also commemorate the pro-democracy struggle.

In the years since the 1991 revolution, even contentious politics was expressed largely nonviolently. There were several periods of student-led protests in the 1990s against high unemployment and other negative effects of structural adjustment programs imposed by international financial institutions, contributing to the fall of one government through a no confidence vote in parliament. The tradition of nonviolent resistance against authoritarianism came to the fore in 2001 when a proposed constitutional referendum put forward by President Alpha Oumar Konaré was called off after a series of protests by those fearing it would have threatened the country’s independent judiciary and effectively make the president immune to prosecution. Additional protests against neo-liberal economic policies erupted in 2005. Hundreds peacefully demonstrated against the 2006 visit by then-French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy in protest at his tough policies against immigrants. That same year, Mali hosted the World Social Forum, a mass gathering of thousands of activists from hundreds of civil society organizations.

A number of studies have demonstrated how dictatorships overthrown through largely nonviolent civil insurrections are far more likely to evolve into stable democracies than dictatorships ousted through armed revolution or foreign intervention. Mali appeared to be a prime example of this phenomenon.

Indeed, soon after the March Revolution of 1991, the Malian government negotiated a peace agreement with armed Tuareg rebels in which they agreed to end their rebellion in return for a degree of autonomy. In March 1996, there was a massive ceremonial burning of the rebels’ surrendered weapons in Bamako.

So, what led to the coup d’état and secessionist crisis?

Unlike the positive contagion from Tunisia’s nonviolent insurrection, neighboring Libya’s armed insurrection appears to have launched a far more negative trend. Indeed, a major reason for the African Union’s opposition to the NATO-led war in Libya was out of concern for the risk of spreading instability to neighboring Africa countries.

When last year’s initially nonviolent uprising in Libya against the Gaddafi regime turned to armed struggle, resulting in even greater government repression and thereby prompting NATO intervention, disparate armed groups — including Tuareg tribesmen — ended up liberating major stores of armaments. These vast caches of weapons were passed on to Tuaregs in Mali who, now having the means to effectively challenge the Malian government militarily, resumed their long-dormant rebellion under the leadership of National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA).

Charging that the civilian government was not being tough enough against the rebels, U.S.-trained Army Captain Amadou Sanogo and other officers staged a coup on March 22 and called for U.S. intervention along the lines of Afghanistan and the “war on terror.”

Sanogo’s training in the United States is just one small part of a decade of U.S. training of armies in the Sahel, increasing the militarization of this impoverished region and the influence of armed forces relative to civilian leaders. Gregory Mann, writing in Foreign Policy, notes how “a decade of American investment in special forces training, co-operation between Sahalien armies and the United States and counter-terrorism programs of all sorts run by both the State Department and the Pentagon has, at best, failed to prevent a new disaster in the desert and, at worst, sowed its seeds.”

Rather than responding violently to the coup, thousands of Malians in Bamako and elsewhere took to the streets demanding a return to democracy, members of the deposed civilian cabinet went on a hunger strike, and many civil servants and others refused to cooperate with the military regime. Meanwhile, both western and African countries imposed sanctions against the illegitimate government.

Most problematically, however, Tuareg rebels, taking advantage of the political divisions in the capital, consolidated their hold on the northern part of the country by capturing its remaining towns and declaring an independent state. The MNLA’s victories also led various Islamist militias, including extremists allied with Al-Qaeda, to seize a number of towns and impose their rigid ideological agenda.

The combination of internal and external pressures led Sanago to agree to step down and allow for the restoration of a civilian government in early April. The deposed president, Amadou Toumani Touré, who had become increasingly unpopular and whose term was set to expire in a few months, had agreed to step aside in favor of National Assembly president Dioncounda Traoré. Despite formally handing over power on April 12, however, the junta continued to arrest opponents and still wields considerable influence. Scattered fighting between rival armed forces erupted in the capital last week. Meanwhile, extremist Islamic militias in the north, taking advantage of the country’s chaos, have reportedly been destroying historic shrines and other cultural landmarks they consider idolatrous in Timbuktu and other northern cities.

The question now is whether the Malians can build upon their rich history of democratic governance and nonviolent resistance to regain their country’s once admired stability and freedom or whether the recent tragic events, fomented in part by misguided western policies, will be too serious from which to easily recover. In any case, Mali serves as yet another reminder of both the power of strategic nonviolent action and the consequences of foreign powers seeking to impose military solutions to complex political problems.

Military Intervention in Syria Is a Bad Idea

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.

Even putting aside the recent historical record, however, virtually anyone familiar with Syrian politics and history can recognize the fallacy of such foreign support for the armed struggle.

Many nonviolent protesters have tragically been killed, as will many more. However, proportionately a far greater number of armed resisters have been killed and will continue to be killed. The question is not whether thousands will continue to die but what is the best way for the Syrian people to overthrow the hated regime, end the violence and bring democracy and social justice.

Violence vs. Nonviolence

The vast majority of the hundreds of thousands of Syrians engaged in the ongoing resistance against the regime are nonviolent. Some support the simultaneous armed struggle; some don’t. However, there is little question that the regime fears their ability to neutralize the power of the state through the power of nonviolent resistance more than it does armed groups that are attacking state power where it is strongest — through the force of arms. This is why the regime has so consistently tried to provoke the pro-democracy forces into violence. It has also claimed that the opposition was composed of terrorists and armed thugs even during the first six months of the struggle when it was almost completely nonviolent, recognizing that the Syrian people are far more likely to support a regime challenged by an armed insurgency than through a largely nonviolent civil insurrection.

Supporting the armed resistance with foreign military power would demoralize and disempower those in the nonviolent resistance who are daily risking their lives for their freedom. In addition, history has shown that those who are quickest to take up arms are least likely to support democracy after the old regime is toppled. Indeed, countries whose dictatorships are overthrown by armed groups — with their vanguard mentality, martial values and strict military hierarchy — are far more likely to turn into new dictatorships, often accompanied by ongoing violence and factionalism, than dictatorships overthrown by primarily nonviolent methods.

Some proponents of Western intervention cite the “success” of Libya as a precedent for Syria. Not only are there still serious questions regarding the necessity of armed struggle and foreign intervention in that case, Libya hardly constitutes a good model of a democratic transformation. Unlike the peaceful and relatively orderly transition to democracy going on in neighboring Tunisia, where largely nonviolent actions toppled the hated Ben Ali dictatorship in January of last year, Libya is struggling with rival-armed militias fighting each other for the spoils when they aren’t tracking down and summarily executing suspected supporters of the old regime.

Even if one wants to count Libya as a “success” for foreign intervention, however, there are important differences between the two countries:

Although Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi during his final years had largely alienated virtually every segment of Libyan society, the Syrian regime still has a strong social base. A fairly large minority of Syrians — consisting of Alawites, Christians and other minority communities, Baath Party loyalists and government employees, and the crony capitalist class that the regime has nurtured — still back the regime. There are certainly dissidents within all of these sectors. But the regime will only solidify its support in the case of foreign intervention.

The Baath Party is organized in virtually every town and neighborhood. No such organization existed under Gaddafi. Unlike Iraq’s Baath Party, which Saddam Hussein ruled with an iron fist in a matter reminiscent of Stalin’s takeover of the Soviet Communist Party, the Baath Party is far more than President Assad. It has ruled Syria for nearly 50 years. And with an ideology rooted in Arab nationalism, socialism and anti-imperialism, it could mobilize its hundreds of thousands of members to resist the foreign invaders. Hundreds have quit the party in protest of the killings of nonviolent protesters, but few defections could be expected if foreigners suddenly attacked the country.

The United States and Syria

The history of U.S. relations with Syria makes the United States a particularly inappropriate advocate for military intervention.

On the one hand, the Syrian regime has at times supported U.S. foreign policy goals in the region, such as suppressing Palestinian and leftist forces in Lebanon in the mid-to-late 1970s, contributing troops to the U.S.-led “Desert Shield” operation in 1990 following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, supporting a coup against a pro-Saddam Lebanese prime minister that same year, providing intelligence and other support against al-Qaeda and other extremists, supporting tough anti-Iraq resolutions while on the UN Security Council, and becoming a destination for “extraordinary rendition” of suspected Islamist radicals captured by the United States.

Overall, however, the U.S.-Syrian relationship has been marked by enormous hostility. The United States has backed the right-wing Israeli government in its illegal occupation and colonization of southwestern Syria, which Israel invaded in June of 1967, despite offers by the Syrian government to recognize Israel and provide security guarantees in return for a full Israeli withdrawal. Indeed, in 2007, the United States effectively blocked Israel from resuming negotiations with Syria.

U.S. Navy jets repeatedly attacked Syrian positions in Lebanon during 1983-84 and U.S. army commandoes attacked a border village in eastern Syria in 2008, killing a number of civilians. The United States imposed draconian sanctions on the country in 2003, refusing to lift them until Syria unilaterally halted development of certain kinds of weapons systems already possessed by such U.S. allies as Israel, Egypt and Turkey. A nearly unanimous bipartisan bill, which passed Congress that same year, made the ludicrous assertion that Syria represented a threat to the national security interests of the United States and that Syria would be “held accountable” for what it referred to as “hostile actions” against Americans. Passage of this bill led the late Senator Robert Byrd to warn that Congress was building a case for military action against Syria.

With this kind of history, U.S. military intervention would simply play into the hands of the regime in Damascus, which has decades of experience manipulating the Syrian people’s strong sense of nationalism to its benefit. The regime can point out that the United States is the world’s primary military supplier to the world’s remaining dictatorships, including the repressive monarchy in Bahrain, which brutally suppressed an overwhelmingly nonviolent pro-democracy struggle last year with few objections from Washington. It would not be difficult for Assad and other Syrian leaders to assert that the United States doesn’t care about democracy in Syria any more than it does about democracy elsewhere in the Middle East but is using the “promotion of democracy” as an excuse to overthrow a government that happens to oppose Washington’s hegemonic designs on the region.

The Power of Nonviolent Action

Recent history has shown that armed struggles are far less likely to be successful than nonviolent struggles, even against dictatorships, since it makes defections by security forces and government officials less likely, reduces the number of active participants in the movement, alienates potential supporters, and gives the regime the excuse to crack down even harder by portraying the opposition as “terrorists.” Indeed, empirical studies note that primarily nonviolent movements against dictatorships are more than twice as likely to succeed as armed struggles. It just doesn’t make sense for the United States or other foreign powers to throw their support to the deadlier and less effective wing of the anti-regime resistance.

The best hope for Syria is that continued protests, strikes and other forms of nonviolent resistance, combined with targeted international sanctions, will cause enough disruption that powerful economic interests and other key sectors currently allied with the Alawite-led government would force the government to negotiate with the opposition for a transfer of power to a democratic majority. Indeed, this is the scenario that eventually forced an end to another notorious minority regime, that of South Africa.

Talk of military intervention can only benefit the regime and weaken the force that is far more likely to end the tragic violence and bring forth a new democratic Syria: that of civil society and the power of nonviolent action.

Democracy Imperiled in the Maldives

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.

This triumph for democracy is now threatened as a result of a coup last month led by allies of the former dictator and hardline Islamists.

When the democratic opposition leader and former political prisoner Mohamed Nasheed assumed the presidency slightly over three years ago, he was faced with the difficult task of repairing the country’s damaged social fabric from decades of misrule. While luxury resorts had mushroomed on many of the Maldives’ remote islands, most of the population suffered in poverty. Indeed, Gayoom’s legacy is one of shattered communities, destitution, crime and widespread drug abuse.

Despite their best efforts, Nasheed and his democratic allies were hampered by a court system still dominated by corrupt judges handpicked by the former dictator as well as violent protests by Islamists angered at the democratic government’s moderate social policies. Meanwhile, despite struggles at home, Nasheed took global leadership in pushing for concrete international action on climate change, through which rising sea levels threaten his nation’s very existence.

Nasheed’s increasingly bold and popular efforts against the vestiges of the Gayoom dictatorship, however, threatened powerful interests. On February 7, police and other security forces with links to the old regime, in alliance with Vice-President Mohammed Waheed, forced President Nasheed to sign a letter of resignation. Subsequent evidence leaves little doubt that Nasheed was accurate in describing it as a coup d’etat.

Much to the dismay of the pro-democracy forces, the U.S. State Department initially recognized the sworn-in vice president as representing the legitimate government, though the Obama administration soon backed away from its recognition in the wake of a public outcry, particularly as evidence of the actual circumstances of Nasheed’s departure became apparent.

Over the past month, pro-democracy demonstrators have once again taken to the streets as they had under Gayoom’s rule. Once again, they are being met with brutal repression. In the face of growing protests, the junta has invited Nasheed and his party to join the new government as a junior partner in a coalition dominated by Waheed and supporters of the former dictatorship.

The United States has been pressuring the ousted president to accept the junta’s offer. However, Nasheed — confident that the majority of Maldivians support democracy and will return him to office — has instead called for early elections as the only means of stabilizing the country.

The United States and much of the international community has understandably been focused on the repression and increasingly violent conflict in Syria. However, attention also needs to be given to the Muslim people of this Asian nation, whose nonviolent struggle for freedom foreshadowed the Arab Spring and whose democratic emergence is now in serious jeopardy.

Popular unarmed civil insurrections have toppled scores of dictatorships over the past three decades, from the Philippines to Poland, from Chile to Serbia, from Mali to the Maldives, and more recently in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen. These successes have demonstrated that democracy has the best chance of success if the leadership and initiative comes from within, not through ‘regime change’ from the outside. However, while the United States and other major powers which espouse democracy don’t have the power to launch such pro-democracy revolutions, the least they can do is avoid undermining them.

Rather than push Nasheed and his democratically-elected party to serve under an illegitimate regime, the United States must take the lead in imposing tough and carefully calibrated international sanctions against the junta until they agree to hold free and fair internationally-monitored elections. Unlike in Libya and increasingly so in Syria, the Maldivians have consciously rejected the use of arms in their struggle against dictatorship and corruption, and, through Nasheed’s forty months in office, demonstrated their enthusiasm for democratic values. This commitment to political rights and to the power of nonviolent action deserves the world’s support.

Unarmed resistance still Syria’s best hope

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.

The resulting decline in the legitimacy of Bashar al-Assad’s government gives hope that the opposition will eventually win. The question is how many more lives will be lost until then.

While the repressive nature of regime has never been in question, many observers believed it would be smarter and more nuanced in its reaction when the protests of the Arab Spring first came to Syria in March. Indeed, had the government responded to the initial demonstrations like those of Morocco and neighboring Jordan with genuine (if relatively minor) reforms and more subtle means of crowd control, the pro-democracy struggle would have probably faded rather quickly.

Instead, the regime has responded with live ammunition against overwhelmingly nonviolent demonstrators and with widespread torture and abuse of detainees, even as the protests spread to every major region of the country. The death toll as of this writing now stands at more than 5,000.

Unlike Tunisia and Egypt, where the opposition was relatively united and was able to take advantage of divisions within the ruling circles, the elites in Syria have been united against a divided opposition. Decades of human rights abuses, sectarian divisions, suppression of independent civil society institutions, ubiquitous secret police, and an overall culture of fear have made it difficult to build a unified opposition movement. Furthermore, the Israeli occupation of the southwestern region of the country, foreign invasions and occupations of neighboring Lebanon and Iraq, and periodic threats by Turkey, Israel and the United States have allowed the nationalistic regime to further solidify its control.

Another difference is that Assad is not a singular ruler, but part of a powerful oligarchy composed of top military officers, wealthy businessmen, Baath Party officials and others. Dictatorships that rest primarily on the power of just one man are generally more vulnerable in the face of popular revolt than are oligarchical systems where a broader network of elite interests has a stake in the system.

Syria has not had much experience in democracy. Its brief democratic period following independence was aborted by a CIA-supported coup in 1949. Following two decades of coups, countercoups, a brief union with Egypt, and chronic political instability, Defense Minister Hafez al-Assad seized power in 1970 and ruled until his death in 2000. Despite that the republican Baath movement was founded in large part on opposition to dynastic succession so common in the Arab world, Assad was succeeded by his son Bashar. The younger Assad, while allowing for an initial wave of liberalization upon first coming to power, soon cracked down on dissent. Indeed, the only liberalization subsequently has been on the economic front, and that has primarily benefited only a minority of Syrians and greatly increased social inequality.

Though nominally a secular regime, the top sectors of the government and armed forces are controlled by Alawites (members of an Islamic sect similar to the Shiites) who are concentrated along Syria’s northwestern coast — home of the Assad clan — and represent barely 12 percent of the country’s population. Stoking fears of a takeover by hard-line elements of Syria’s Sunni Muslim majority in the event of its overthrow, the regime still has a fair amount of support among the country’s Christians (representing around 10 percent of the population) and other minorities, as well as secular elements and powerful business interests.

In reality, the opposition’s goals are economic justice and political freedom, not the establishment of a Salafi Sunni theocracy, as the regime claims.

Despite the ruling Baath Party’s nominally socialist ideology, the uprising in Syria has a much stronger working-class base than most of the other Arab uprisings. The vast majority of the opposition rejects foreign intervention, recognizing that it would likely result in strengthening support for the nationalist regime and open the way for inordinate Western influence in a post-Assad system.

Despite enormous provocations, the uprising — which has brought millions of people out into the streets in scores of towns and cities across the country — has been overwhelmingly nonviolent. Hundreds of soldiers have been executed for refusing orders to fire on unarmed demonstrators. Thousands more have defected from the armed forces, forming the “Free Syrian Army,” which has engaged in a series of firefights with forces still loyal to the regime, leading to fears that the country could descend into a civil war.

This would likely harm the pro-democracy movement. Recent history has shown that armed struggles are far less likely to be successful than nonviolent struggles, even against dictatorships, since it lessens the likelihood of defections by security forces and government officials, reduces the numbers of active participants in the movement, alienates potential supporters, and gives the regime the excuse to crack down even harder by portraying the opposition as “terrorists.”

The best hope for Syria is that continued protests, strikes and other forms of nonviolent resistance, combined with targeted international sanctions, will cause enough disruption that powerful economic interests and other key sectors currently allied with the regime would force the government to negotiate with the opposition for a transfer of power to a democratic majority. Indeed, this is the scenario that eventually forced an end to another notorious minority regime, that of South Africa.

Protesters persist despite crackdown

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.

More than 2,500 people have been dismissed from their jobs for supporting the freedom movement and more than 40 mosques and religious sites deemed to have links to pro-democracy activists were destroyed. Human Rights Watch reports, “Leading political opposition figures, human rights defenders and civil society activists have been sentenced to unduly long prison terms, in some cases for life, solely for their role in organizing the large street protests; their trial record does not link them in any way to acts of violence or any other recognizable criminal offense.”
When the Bahraini regime proved incapable of suppressing the popular nonviolent uprising on its own, U.S.-armed Saudi forces, supplemented by smaller units from the nearby emirates, invaded the country March 14 via the causeway separating the island from the mainland.

On Nov. 22, the government-appointed Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry released a report that was surprisingly frank in acknowledging many of the regime’s abuses. The day after the report was issued, however, security forces launched a new round of repression against the now smaller but still persistent protests.

It is not surprising that the pro-democracy struggle has been so much stronger in Bahrain than in the other Arab Gulf states. Its traditional role as a leading trading center reinforced traditions of cosmopolitanism, tolerance and pluralism. A visit to the island today reveals not only Sunni and Shiite mosques, but Christian churches, Hindu and Sikh temples and even a synagogue. Bahrain was also the first Arab country in the Gulf to provide formal modern education to women. Even prior to the discovery of oil, the economy based on fishing, pearl diving and trade allowed for the development of a largely urban society with an indigenous middle class, thereby avoiding the parochial tribalism of other Arabian countries.

Though the protesters have represented a broad cross section of society, the Sunni royal family and its supporters have tried to depict the struggle for democracy as a sectarian conflict by radical Shiites tied to Iran. The majority of pro-democracy activists are indeed Shiite, because more than three-quarters of Bahrainis are of the Shiite tradition and have long been discriminated against by the Sunni-controlled Bahraini government in employment, housing and infrastructure. The military, particularly top officers, is mostly made up of Sunnis and the secret police are almost exclusively Sunni. Only a handful of cabinet posts, restricted to the less important ministries, have been granted to Shiites, with the most important positions held by members of the royal family.

Such discrimination, however, is but one aspect of the monarchy’s authoritarian rule that the Bahrainis are challenging. Indeed, the protests in Bahrain are as legitimate a pro-democracy movement as the popular struggles in Tunisia, Egypt and Syria, and they have had the support of progressive Sunni and secular elements. Signs and chants at the demonstrations have eschewed sectarianism, emphasizing Shiite-Sunni unity in the cause of democracy. Having been conquered by the Persian Empire for periods of their history, the Arab Bahrainis cherish their independence. In addition, the opposition movement has expressed its solidarity with the ongoing pro-democracy struggle against the Iranian-backed Syrian regime.

That hasn’t stopped some Obama administration officials from denouncing alleged Iranian meddling in Bahraini affairs while refusing to criticize the Saudi invasion and repression.

The United States has long been a major supporter of Bahrain’s autocratic monarchy, which hosts the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet. While President Barack Obama has expressed his concern about the repression and has called for the government to dialogue with the opposition, his language has been restrained compared with his criticisms of the Assad regime in Syria and other repressive governments with which the United States does not have such close relations.

In October, the administration announced a new $53 million arms sale to Bahrain, including 44 armed Humvees that could be important instruments in suppressing street protests. The Pentagon, in defending the arms transfer, praised the authoritarian government as “an important force for political stability and economic progress in the Middle East.”
Fortunately, a broad coalition of 29 peace, human rights and religious organizations mobilized against the arms sale and a number of prominent congressional Democrats raised concerns as well. The following month, in the face of mounting objections, the Obama administration announced an indefinite delay in the sale.

This serves as a reminder that for the cause of freedom and democracy to advance in the Arab world, the struggle cannot just take place in the Middle East, but here in the United States as well.

Protests Alone Are Not a Movement

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.

With protesters ranging from scruffy young anarchists to mainstream labor, the Wall Street protests hearken back to May of 1968, when demonstrations across France nearly brought down the Fifth Republic. More recent decades have witnessed largely nonviolent civil insurrections bringing down autocratic regimes from the Philippines to Poland, from Chile to Serbia, from Mali to Nepal, and more recently in Tunisia and Egypt. Meanwhile, popular struggles for water rights in Bolivia, land rights in India, and labor rights in Wisconsin have met with varying degrees of success.

Occupy Wall Street must represent the majority of Americans who lack corporate power and political influence.
Nevertheless, whether targeted at dictators or corporate greed, protests alone — however impressive in their numbers or disruptive in effect — do not make a movement. The revolutionary pretensions of a youthful counter-culture aside, Occupy Wall Street must become genuinely representative of the vast majority of Americans now struggling as a result of inordinate corporate power and political influence, reflecting also the legitimate aspirations of small business owners, small farmers, and working families of the poor and middle-class majority whose voices in the established political process are too often drowned out by powerful corporate interests.

Successful movements focus on developing a well-thought-out strategy, clearly articulated political demands, a logical sequencing of tactics, well-trained and disciplined activists, and a recognition that colorful protests are no substitute for door-to-door organizing among real people.

Lessons and False Lessons From Libya

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.

It is certainly true that NATO played a critical role in disrupting the heavy weapons capability of the repressive Libyan regime and blocking its fuel and ammunition supplies through massive airstrikes and providing armaments and logistical support for the rebels. However, both the militaristic triumphalism of the pro-intervention hawks and the more cynical conspiracy mongering of some on the left ignore that this was indeed a popular revolution, which may have been able to succeed without NATO, particularly if the opposition had not focused primarily on the military strategy. Engaging in an armed struggle against the heavily armed despot essentially took on Qaddafi where he was strongest rather than taking greater advantage of where he was weakest – his lack of popular support.

There has been little attention paid to the fact that the reason the anti-Qaddafi rebels were able to unexpectedly march into Tripoli last weekend with so little resistance appears to have been a result of a massive and largely unarmed, civil insurrection which had erupted in neighborhoods throughout the city. Indeed, much of the city had already been liberated by the time the rebel columns entered and began mopping up the remaining pockets of pro-regime forces.

As Juan Cole noted in an August 22 interview on Democracy Now!, “the city had already overthrown the regime” by the time the rebels arrived. The University of Michigan professor observed how, “Beginning Saturday night, working-class districts rose up, in the hundreds of thousands and just threw off the regime.” Similarly, Khaled Darwish’s August 24 article in The New York Times describes how unarmed Tripolitanians rushed into the streets prior to the rebels entering the capital, blocked suspected snipers from apartment rooftops and sang and chanted over loudspeakers to mobilize the population against Qaddafi’s regime

Though NATO helped direct the final pincer movement of the rebels as they approached the Libyan capital and continued to bomb government targets, Qaddafi’s final collapse appears to have more closely resembled that of Hosni Mubarak and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali than that of Saddam Hussein.

It should also be noted that the initial uprising against Qaddafi in February was overwhelmingly nonviolent. In less than a week, this unarmed insurrection had resulted in pro-democracy forces taking over most of the cities in the eastern part of the country, a number of key cities in the west and even some neighborhoods in Tripoli. It was also during this period when most of the resignations of cabinet members and other important aides of Qaddafi, Libyan ambassadors in foreign capitals and top military officers took place. Thousands of soldiers defected or refused to fire on crowds, despite threats of execution. It was only when the rebellion took a more violent turn, however, that the revolution’s progress was dramatically reversed and Qaddafi gave his infamous February 22 speech threatening massacres in rebel strongholds, which in turn, led to the United States and its NATO allies to enter the war.

Indeed, it was only a week or so before Qaddafi’s collapse that the armed rebels had succeeded in recapturing most of the territory that had originally been liberated by their unarmed counterparts six months earlier.

It can certainly be argued that, once the revolutionaries shifted to armed struggle, NATO air support proved critical in severely weakening Qaddafi’s ability to counterattack and that Western arms and advisers were important in enabling rebel forces to make crucial gains in the northwestern part of the country prior to the final assault on Tripoli. At the same time, there is little question that foreign intervention in a country with a history of brutal foreign conquest, domination and subversion was successfully manipulated by Qaddafi to rally far more support to his side in his final months than would have been the case had he been faced with a largely nonviolent indigenous, civil insurrection. It isn’t certain that the destruction of his military capabilities by the NATO strikes was more significant than the ways in which such Western intervention in the civil war enabled the besieged dictator to shore up what had been rapidly deteriorating support in Tripoli and other areas under government control.

I could achieve an outcome I desired in an interpersonal dispute by punching someone in the nose, but that doesn’t mean that it, therefore, proved that my action was the only way to accomplish my goal. It’s no secret that overbearing military force can eventually wear down an autocratic militarized regime, but – as the ouster of oppressive regimes in Egypt, Tunisia, the Philippines, Poland, Chile, Serbia, and scores of other countries through mass nonviolent action in recent years has indicated – there are ways of undermining a regime’s pillars of support to the extent that it collapses under its own weight. Ultimately, a despot’s power comes not from the armed forces under his command, but the willingness of a people to recognize his authority and obey his orders.

This is not to say that the largely nonviolent struggle launched in February would have achieved a quick and easy victory had they not turned to armed struggle with foreign support. The weakness of Libyan civil society, combined with the movement’s questionable tactical decision to engage primarily in demonstrations rather than diversifying their methods of civil resistance, made them particularly vulnerable to the brutality of Qaddafi’s foreign mercenaries and other forces. In addition, unlike the well-coordinated nonviolent anti-Mubarak campaign in Egypt, the Libyan opposition’s campaign was largely spontaneous. However, insisting that the Libyan opposition “tried nonviolence and it didn’t work” because peaceful protesters were killed and it did not succeed in toppling the regime after a few days of public demonstrations makes little sense, particularly since the armed struggle took more than six months. And it does not mean there were no other alternatives but to launch a civil war.

The estimated 13,000 additional deaths since the launching of the armed struggle and the widespread destruction of key segments of the country’s infrastructure are not the only problems related to resorting to military means to oust Qaddafi.

One problem with an armed overthrow of a dictator, as opposed to a largely nonviolent overthrow of a dictator, is that you have lots of armed individuals who are now convinced that power comes from guns. The martial values and the strict military hierarchy inherent in armed struggle can become accepted as the norm, particularly if the military leaders of the rebellion become the political leaders of the nation, as is usually the case. Indeed, history has shown that countries in which dictatorships are overthrown by force of arms are far more likely to suffer from instability and/or slide into another dictatorship. By contrast, dictatorships overthrown in largely nonviolent insurrections almost always evolve into democracies within a few years.

Despite the large-scale NATO intervention in support of the anti-Qaddafi uprising, this has been a widely supported popular revolution from a broad cross section of society. Qaddafi’s brutal and arbitrary 42-year rule had alienated the overwhelming majority of the Libyan people and his overthrow is understandably a cause of celebration throughout the country. Though the breadth of the opposition makes a democratic transition more likely than in some violent overthrows of other dictatorships, the risk that an undemocratic faction may force its way into power is still a real possibility. And given that the United States, France and Britain have proved themselves quite willing to continue supporting dictatorships elsewhere in the Arab world, there is no guarantee that the NATO powers would find such a scenario objectionable as long as a new dictatorship was seen as friendly to the West.

Another problem with the way Qaddafi was overthrown is the way in which NATO so blatantly went beyond the mandate provided by the United Nations Security Council to simply protect the civilian population through the establishment of a no-fly zone. Instead, NATO became an active participant in a civil war, providing arms, intelligence, advisers and conducting over 7,500 air and missile strikes against military and government facilities. Such abuse of the UN system will create even more skepticism regarding the implementation of the responsibility to protect should there really be an incipient genocide somewhere where foreign intervention may indeed be the only realistic option.

Furthermore, while it is certainly possible that Qaddafi would have continued to refuse to step down in any case, the NATO intervention emboldened the rebels to refuse offers by the regime for a provisional cease-fire and direct negotiations, thereby eliminating even the possibility of ending the bloodshed months earlier.

Indeed, there is good reason to question whether NATO’s role in Qaddafi’s removal was motivated by humanitarian concerns in the first place. For example, NATO intervention was initiated during the height of the savage repression of the nonviolent pro-democracy struggle in the Western-backed kingdom of Bahrain, yet US and British support for that autocratic Arab monarchy has continued as the hope for bringing freedom to that island nation was brutally crushed. And given the overwhelming bipartisan support in the United States for Israeli military campaigns in 2006 and 2008-09 which, while only lasting a few weeks, succeeded in slaughtering more than 1,500 Lebanese and Palestinian civilians, Washington’s humanitarian claims for the Libyan intervention ring particularly hollow.

It’s true that some of the leftist critiques of the NATO campaign were rather specious. For example, this was not simply a war for oil. Qaddafi had long ago opened his oil fields to the West, with Occidental, BP and ENI among the biggest beneficiaries. Relations between Big Oil and the Libyan regime were doing just fine and the NATO-backed war was highly disruptive to their interests.

Similarly, Libya under Qaddafi was hardly a progressive alternative to the right-wing Arab rulers favored by the West. Despite some impressive socialist initiatives early in Qaddafi’s reign, which led Libya to impressive gains in health care, education, housing, and other needs, the past two decades had witnessed increased corruption, regional and tribal favoritism, capricious investment policies, an increasingly predatory bureaucracy and a degree of poverty and inadequate infrastructure inexcusable for a country of such vast potential wealth.

However, given the strong role of NATO in the uprising and the close ties developed with the military leaders of the revolution, it would be naïve to assume that the United States and other countries in the coalition won’t try to assert their influence in the direction of post-Qaddafi Libya. One of the problems of armed revolutionary struggle compared to unarmed revolutionary struggle is the dependence upon foreign supporters, which can then be leveraged after victory. Given the debt and ongoing dependency some of the rebel leaders have developed with NATO countries in recent months, it would similarly be naïve to think that some of them wouldn’t be willing to let this happen.

In summary, while Qaddafi’s ouster is cause for celebration, it is critical that it not be interpreted as a vindication of Western military interventionism. Not only will the military side of the victory likely leave a problematic legacy, we should not deny agency to the many thousands of Libyans across regions, tribes and ideologies, who ultimately made victory possible through their refusal to continue their cooperation with an oppressive and illegitimate regime. It is ultimately a victory of the Libyan people. And they alone should determine their country’s future.

Washington Okays Attack on Unarmed U.S. Ship

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.”

Clinton did not explain why a country had “the right to defend themselves” against ships which are clearly no threat. Not only have organizers of the flotilla gone to great steps to ensure are there no weapons on board, the only cargo bound for Gaza on the U.S. ship are letters of solidarity to the Palestinians in that besieged enclave who have suffered under devastating Israeli bombardments, a crippling blockade, and a right-wing Islamist government. Nor did Clinton explain why the State Department suddenly considers the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of the port of Gaza to be “Israeli waters,” when the entire international community recognizes Israeli territorial waters as being well to the northeast of the ships’ intended route.

The risk of an Israeli attack on the flotilla is real. Israeli commandoes illegally assaulted a similar flotilla in international waters on May 31 of last year, killing nine people on board one of the vessels, including Furkan Dogan, a 19-year old U.S. citizen. Scores of others, including a number of Americans, were brutally beaten and more than a dozen others were shot but survived their wounds. According to a UN investigation, based on eyewitness testimony and analysis by a forensic pathologist and ballistic expert, Dogan was initially shot while filming the assault and then murdered while lying face down with a bullet shot at close range in the back of the head. The United States was the only one of the 47 members of the UN Human Rights Council to vote against the adoption of the report. The Obama administration never filed a complaint with the Israeli government, demonstrating its willingness to allow the armed forces of U.S. allies to murder U.S. citizens on the high seas.

As indicated by Clinton’s statement of last week, the administration appears to be willing to let it happen again.

Congressional Response

Last year, 329 out of 435 members of the U.S. House of Representatives signed a letter that referred to Israel’s attack that killed Dogan and the others as an act of “self-defense” which they “strongly support.” A Senate letter — signed by 87 out of 100 senators — went on record “fully” supporting what it called “Israel’s right to self-defense,” claiming that the effort to relieve critical shortages of food and medicine in the besieged Gaza Strip was simply part of a “clever tactical and diplomatic ploy” by “Israel’s opponents” to “challenge its international standing.”

But not everyone in Congress believes the assaulting and killing human rights activists on the high seas is legitimate. Last week, on June 24, six members of Congress signed a letter to Secretary Clinton requesting that she “do everything in her power to work with the Israeli government to ensure the safety of the U.S. citizens on board.” As of this writing, they have not received a response.

Earlier in the week, the State Department issued a public statement to discourage Americans from taking part in the second Gaza flotilla because they might be attacked by Israeli forces. Yet thus far neither the State Department nor the White House has issued a public statement demanding that Israel not attack Americans legally traveling in international waters. Indeed, on Friday, State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland implied that the United States would blame those taking part in the flotilla rather than the rightist Israeli government should anything happen to them. Like those in the early 1960s who claimed civil rights protesters were responsible for the attacks by white racist mobs because they had “provoked them,” Nuland stated, “Groups that seek to break Israel’s maritime blockade of Gaza are taking irresponsible and provocative actions that risk the safety of their passengers.” Again, The Obama administration didn’t offer even one word encouraging caution or restraint by the Israeli government, nor did it mention that the International Red Cross and other advocates of international humanitarian law recognize that the Israeli blockade is illegal.

Who’s On Board

Passengers of the U.S. boat, christened The Audacity of Hope, include celebrated novelist Alice Walker, holocaust survivor Hedy Epstein, former CIA analyst Ray McGovern, veteran foreign service officer and retired lieutenant colonel Ann Wright, Israeli-American linguistics professor Hagit Borer, and prominent peace and human rights activists like Medea Benjamin, Robert Naiman, Steve Fake, and Kathy Kelly. Ten other boats are carrying hundreds of other civilians from dozens of other countries, along with nearly three thousand tons of aid. Those on board include members of national parliaments and other prominent political figures, writers, artists, clergy from various faith traditions, journalists, and athletes.

Fifteen ships have previously sailed or attempted to sail to Gaza as part of the Free Gaza Campaign. None was found to contain any weapons or materials that could be used for military purposes. The current flotilla organizers have stated that their cargoes are “open to international inspection.” Despite this, however, the Obama State Department insists that the Israelis have the right to intercept the ships due to the “vital importance to Israel’s security of ensuring that all cargo bound for Gaza is appropriately screened for illegal arms and dual-use materials.”

Though the flotilla organizers have made clear that the U.S. boat is only carrying letters of support for the people of Gaza, the State Department has also threatened participants with “fines and incarceration” if they attempt to provide “material support or other resources to or for the benefit of a designated foreign terrorist organization, such as Hamas.”

As with many actions supporting Palestinian rights, the coalition of groups endorsing the flotilla includes pro-Palestinian groups as well as peace, human rights, religious, pacifist and liberal organizations, including Progressive Democrats of America, Pax Christi, Peace Action, Nonviolence International, Jewish Voice for Peace, War Resisters League, and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. Despite this, Brad Sherman (D-CA), ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Relations Committee’s subcommittee on terrorism, nonproliferation and trade, has claimed that organizers of the flotilla have “clear terrorist ties” and has called upon U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to prosecute U.S. citizens involved with the flotilla and ban foreign participants from ever entering the United States.

Israel’s Position

Largely as a result of last year’s flotilla, Israel has somewhat relaxed its draconian siege on the territory, which had resulted in a major public health crisis. The State Department has gone to some lengths to praise Israel for allowing some construction material into the Gaza Strip to make possible the rebuilding of some of the thousands of homes, businesses and public facilities destroyed in Israel’s devastating U.S.-backed 2008-2009 military offensive, which resulted in the deaths of over 800 civilians. At no point, however, has the Obama administration ever criticized Israel for destroying those civilian structures in the first place.

As with many potentially confrontational nonviolent direct actions, there are genuine differences within the peace and human rights community regarding the timing, the nature, and other aspects of the forthcoming flotilla. However, the response to the Obama administration’s position on the flotilla has been overwhelmingly negative. Many among his progressive base, already disappointed at his failure to take a tougher line against the rightist Israeli government as well as his reluctance to embrace human rights and international law as a basis for Israeli-Palestinian peace, feel increasingly alienated from the president.

More significantly, the Obama administration’s response may signal a return to the Reagan administration’s policies of defending the killing of U.S. human rights workers in order to discourage grassroots acts of international solidarity, as when Reagan officials sought to blame the victims and exonerate the perpetrators for the murder of four American churchwomen by the El Salvadoran junta and the murder of American engineer Ben Linder by the Nicaraguan Contras. Perhaps the Obama administration hopes that giving a green light to an Israeli attack on the U.S. ship and other vessels in the flotilla will serve as a warning. Perhaps they hope that Americans volunteering for groups like Peace Brigades International, Witness for Peace, Nonviolent Peaceforce, Christian Peacemaker Teams, International Solidarity Movement, and other groups operating in conflict zones like Mexico, Colombia, Guatemala, El Salvador, Sri Lanka, Palestine, Nepal, Indonesia and elsewhere will think twice, knowing that the U.S. government will not live up to its obligations to try to protect nonviolent U.S. activists from violence perpetrated by allied governments.

Indeed, nothing frightens a militaristic state more than the power of nonviolent action.

Yemen on the Edge

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.

Saleh’s behavior has gotten increasingly bizarre. He has begun claiming that an unlikely coalition of Israel and Qatar has incited and financed the pro-democracy struggle, and that women in leadership positions in the pro-democracy struggle and even men and women protesting in the streets together is somehow “un-Islamic.”

Efforts by Saudi Arabia and other regional monarchies to negotiate Saleh’s resignation, despite showing some initial promise, have failed both as a result of the dictator’s obstinacy and the protesters’ demands for a genuine democratic transition. Saleh continues to lose support despite his corrupt system of patronage. This policy of “bribe a tribe” appears to be failing as tribal leaders, top military officers, and other formal allies have joined the protesters in demanding that the increasingly repressive and eccentric U.S.-backed dictator to step down.

Rising Protests

Yemen is a desperately poor country, with high unemployment, and a long history of division and instability. Sheila Carapico, a professor at the University of Richmond, has described

the grotesque enrichment of regime cronies at the expense of the many; deteriorating standards of living; obscenely bad schools, hospitals and roads; the skyrocketing price of meat, staples and even clean water; the lack of jobs for college and high-school graduates. … Grandiose pageants of presidential power, half-truths in the official media, indignities at military checkpoints, arbitrary arrests and imprisonments — these and other daily insults feed popular alienation, despair and frustration, most notably among the youth. While a privileged few cool off in swimming pools in their luxury compounds, the water table has fallen, decimating the farm economy that remains the livelihood of the rural majority. Farmers and ranchers facing starvation have flocked to the cities where water supplies and social services are swamped. Misery has become the new normal; millions barely survive on the equivalent of a dollar or two per day.

The United States has sent plenty of money, but it’s almost all been military assistance. The small amounts of economic aid have mostly gone through corrupt government channels.

Until the pro-democracy struggle emerged as a major nationwide challenge to the regime, the attention of the U.S. media and the Obama administration had almost exclusively been on al-Qaeda cells operating in the country and Shiite Houthi tribesmen fighting in a remote northern region. There was a sense that the people of Yemen were too poor or too tribal or too “backward” to engage in a nonviolent civil insurrection against their dictator. However, as other unarmed pro-democracy uprisings in the region have demonstrated, the desire of human freedom and the willingness face down the tanks, machine guns, tear gas, and truncheons to defend basic rights is indeed universal.

As with Tunisia and Egypt, young people make up the majority of the protesters, though people of all ages have taken to the streets in more than a dozen cities across the country. As with similar pro-democracy protests, there has been a strong cultural dimension, including street theater, music, dancing, and other performance art. Protesters have used tactics that illustrate the unity of the movement, such as 50,000 hands being clasped above the crowd.

Yemen is the most heavily armed countries in the world in terms of individual gun ownership, with some estimates as high as three weapons per person. The fact that the millions of Yemenis who have taken to the streets have consciously left them at home and largely maintained a strict nonviolent discipline is nothing short of remarkable. At a recent demonstration in the tribal al-Bayda region, men brought guns only to throw them down on the ground shouting “silmiyya!” (“peacefully!”), a common chant of the protests. Indeed, the extent of the pro-democracy struggle and its commitment to nonviolence is comparable to the recent revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, and earlier unarmed insurrections in Serbia, Czechoslovakia, the Philippines, Chile, and elsewhere.

Washington Flat-Footed

Despite diplomatic cables going back as far as 2005 indicating that Saleh could potentially face a popular pro-democracy uprising, the Obama administration appears to have been caught completely off-guard. U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates acknowledged that Washington had not planned for an era without Saleh. As one former ambassador to Yemen put it in back in March, “For right now, he’s our guy.”

Since then, the Obama administration has belatedly joined its European allies in encouraging Saleh to step aside. At the same time, the United States has not been very supportive of the pro-democracy protests either. For example, following government attacks on peaceful pro-democracy protesters two weeks ago, which killed a dozen protesters and injured hundreds of others, the U.S. embassy called on the Yemenis to cooperate with the rather dubious Saudi-led negotiations for a transition by “avoiding all provocative demonstrations, marches and speeches in the coming days.”

Recently released Wikileaks cables have also demonstrated that U.S. military assistance increased despite evidence that Saleh was using U.S.-supplied weapons not against al-Qaeda as promised but against domestic opposition to his increasingly repressive rule. As a result of the popular protests, Washington has frozen the more than $1 billion in military aid currently in the pipeline. But Washington has acted more out of concern over Saleh’s successor than genuine outrage at the dramatically increased repression.

It’s time for the United States to recognize that the future of the Middle East is not in the hands of aging autocrats like Saleh or even traditional elite oppositionists, but in civil society. Ultimately power comes not from well-armed people at the top but from the consent of the people.

Libya: Was Armed Revolt and Western Intervention the Only Option?

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.

What has been notable about the successful civil uprisings against the Tunisian and Egyptian dictatorships, the serious popular challenges to the Yemeni and Bahraini dictatorships and the smaller-scale protests sweeping the region, is that they were completely indigenous and not sullied by foreign intervention. Furthermore, the chances of a successful transition to democracy following the ouster of an authoritarian regime are much higher if the overthrow results from a massive nonviolent movement, which requires the establishment of broad alliances of civil society organizations and the cooperation and consensus to make that possible. This contrasts with an overthrow resulting from a violent struggle – led by an elite vanguard, dominated by martial values and seeking power through force of arms rather than popular participation – which, more often than not, has simply resulted in a new dictatorship.

Providing military support to a disorganized, armed resistance movement means more people getting killed; it does not necessarily create a disciplined fighting force capable of defeating a well-armed regime, much less establishing a stable democratic order. When massive nonviolent resistance liberated a number of key Libyan cities back in February, popular democratic committees were set up to serve as interim local governments. For example, Benghazi – a city of over a million people – established a municipal government run by an improvised organizing committee of judges, lawyers, academics, and other professionals. Since the resistance to Gaddafi turned primarily violent, however, the leadership of the movement appears to now have significant representation from top cabinet officials and military officers, who for years had been allied with the tyrant, defected only in recent weeks and whose support for democracy is rather dubious.

This underscores that just because the incumbent regime may be evil and resistance to the regime is just, its replacement could end up being worse, a possibility greatly enhanced if power is seized through force of arms. For example, one could certainly make an argument that the mujahidin fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s also had a just cause and that the civilian population of that country also needed to be defended from the threat of serious war crimes. However, 80 percent of the billions of dollars of US aid money sent to help the Afghan “freedom fighters” ended up in the hands of Hezb-i-Islami, an extremist minority faction, which slaughtered many thousands of Afghan civilians and is currently allied with the Taliban and attacking US forces.

How to Undermine Qaddafi

As mercurial and repressive as Gaddafi is, he still has a social base. It is not just foreign mercenaries that are keeping him in power. In his 41 years as ruler, he wrested the country away from neo-colonial domination, instilled a sense of national pride and – despite his mismanagement and capricious policies – led his country to achieve the highest Human Development Index ranking in Africa, surpassing scores of relatively wealthy non-African countries as Saudi Arabia, Bulgaria, Serbia, Mexico, Costa Rica, Malaysia and Russia. There are many Libyans who, while unhappy with Qaddafi’s rule, are not ready to support the opposition.

For a revolution against a heavily armed and deeply entrenched dictator to succeed, the opposition movement needs to mobilize a large percentage of the population on their side, as took place in Tunisia and Egypt. Libyans need to engage in strategies that will make the regime come across as illegitimate and a traitorous, while making themselves look virtuous and patriotic.

Given how their history of suffering under colonialism and foreign intervention has made Libyans notoriously xenophobic, there is a risk of a nationalist reaction from Western bombing that could strengthen Gaddafi more than the damage done to Gaddafi’s war-making machinery would weaken him.

In addition, defections by security forces – critically important in ousting a military-backed regime – are far more likely when they are ordered to gun down unarmed protesters than when they are being attacked by foreign forces.

During the independence struggle in Kosovo during the 1990s, the United States and other Western nations stood by – and, to a limited extent, even supported Milosevic – when the ethnic Albanians were largely united in support of the nonviolent movement led by the moderate Ibrahim Rugova and the Democratic League of Kosovo. It was only when the violent and chauvinistic Kosovo Liberation Army took the lead in the independence struggle late in the decade that the West intervened on their behalf.

The 11-week NATO bombing campaign took over 500 civilian lives, provoked the worst of the ethnic cleansing and caused enormous devastation to Serbia’s infrastructure, temporarily setting back the Serbian pro-democracy struggle (which eventually triumphed in ousting Milosevic in a nonviolent insurrection in October 2000.) US and NATO policy toward Kosovo sent just the wrong message: if you are moderate and nonviolent, we will ignore you. If you take up arms, we will come to your aid.

Continued US support for the Yemeni and Bahraini governments as they brutally suppress nonviolent pro-democracy forces while simultaneously coming to the aid of the violent Libyan opposition similarly sends the wrong message.

It is critical, therefore, that those of us who would like to see democracy triumph in Libya challenge the myth that a military solution is the only alternative to ending Gaddafi’s repression and tyranny.

Did Nonviolence “Not Work”?

The overwhelmingly nonviolent, pro-democracy revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt in January and February followed scores of successful unarmed civil insurrections over the past few decades, which have brought down dictatorships in scores of countries, including Serbia, Chile, Poland, Bolivia, Czechoslovakia, Nepal and the Maldives. In addition, despite government repression, nonviolent protests in recent weeks have seriously challenged the governments of Yemen and Bahrain, while smaller protests have broken out in Syria, Oman, Sudan, Iraq, Algeria and Morocco.

Yet, only in Libya has the pro-democracy struggle deteriorated into a bloody civil war, which has been used as an excuse for foreign military intervention.

Some analysts have tried to attribute this to Gaddafi, arguing that nonviolence “can’t work” when faced with such a ruthless tyrant. History, however, has shown repeatedly that dictators as willing as Qaddafi to unleash massive violence against unarmed citizens were nevertheless overthrown through large-scale nonviolent action.

From the Philippines to East Germany, autocratic rulers facing nonviolent civil insurrections have ordered their troops to fire on unarmed crowds, only to have them refuse, forcing the dictatorships to fall. On January 14, Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali declared a state of emergency and banned gatherings of more than three people, threatening that “arms will be used if orders of security forces are not heeded.” In response, hundreds of thousands of Tunisians defied the regime, bravely marching upon the dreaded Interior Ministry and a general strike effectively shut down the country. When the head of the armed forces informed the president he would refuse to orders to attack nonviolent protesters, Ben Ali and his family then fled the country.

In 1991, Gen. Moussa Traoré, the military dictator of Mali, ordered his troops to fire on unarmed pro-democracy demonstrators, killing hundreds, but the resistance movement remained nonviolent and, within days, enough soldiers deserted to force him from power. Similarly, General Suharto, who had ruled Indonesia for 33 years and who had more blood on his hands than almost any leader of the second half of the 20th century, bearing direct responsibility for the deaths for many hundreds of thousands of Indonesian and East Timorese civilians, was ousted in a largely nonviolent uprising in 1998.

In Libya, the protests were almost exclusively nonviolent during the first week of the uprising. It was during this period that the pro-democracy movement made the most gains, taking over most of the cities in the eastern part of the country. It was also during this period when most of the resignations of cabinet members and other important aides of Gaddafi, Libyan ambassadors in foreign capitals and top military officers took place. Pilots deliberately crashed their planes, flew into exile and otherwise refused orders to bomb and strafe protesters. Thousands of soldiers defected or refused to fire on crowds, despite threats of execution.

It was when the rebellion took a more violent turn, however, that the revolution’s progress stalled and was soon reversed, which in turn led to the United States and its allies attacking Libya.

It is certainly true that a successful, popular, nonviolent uprising against the Libyan regime would be a greater challenge for pro-democracy forces than in Tunisia or Egypt, given that Libya is what political scientists call a “rentier state,” a country that derives a substantial portion of its revenues not from the labor or its people, but from the “rent” of its natural resources to external clients. As a result, civil society tends to be a lot weaker. When a government is not dependent on the cooperation of its people to labor, pay taxes, serve in the security forces and perform other functions to prop up its rule, it becomes more difficult to dislodge the regime through noncooperation. The regime can bring in foreign workers, rely on oil revenues and hire mercenaries.

At the same time, there are still plenty of options the opposition could have relied upon, as well as avoiding some of the mistakes apparent in the initial phase of the uprising.

Smart strategy is key to any insurrection, whether it be armed or unarmed. The largely spontaneous Libyan uprising, in its nonviolent phase, focused almost exclusively on mass protests, making them easy targets for Gaddafi’s repression, rather than relying on more diverse tactics — including strikes (which could have been particularly effective in the oil industry), boycotts, slowdowns, and other forms of non-cooperation. In short, the failure of the nonviolent struggle was not because it was nonviolent, but because it was not well-organized strategically.

This does not mean that armed struggle has any greater chance of success, however. Military force challenges Gaddafi at his strongest point where he clearly has the advantages and, with all land approaches to the capital Tripoli through flat open desert, it is hardly an ideal situation for successful insurrectionary warfare either. And the slaughter has only increased since the movement turned violent.

Even now, if a cease-fire could be arranged, rebel-controlled areas could solidify a well-functioning democratic order other Libyans would desire to emulate, while dissidents within areas controlled by Qaddafi could begin a series of strikes and other actions which — combined with international sanctions targeting the regime — could seriously undermine the dictator’s ability to resist. However, the promise of continued US and NATO military support will make it unlikely that either side will abide by a cease-fire and a bloody stalemate could go on indefinitely. As a result, Western military intervention — despite the seeming moral imperative that prompted it — could prove to have made matters worse.