Powerful nonviolent resistance to armed conflict in Yemen

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

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

The fall of President Saleh and rise of the Huthis

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

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

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

Popular resistance to the Huthi takeover

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.

Egypt’s pro-democracy movement: the struggle continues

Despite the natural subsidence of dramatic demonstrations on the streets of Cairo and other Egyptian cities, as many protesters return to jobs and catch their breath, there is little question that the pro-democracy struggle in Egypt has achieved lasting momentum, barring unexpected repression. As with other kinds of civil struggles, a movement using nonviolent resistance can ebb and flow. There may have to be tactical retreats, times for regrouping or resetting of strategy, or a focus on negotiations with the regime before broader operations that capture the world’s attention resume.

Those who were expecting a quick victory are no doubt disappointed, but successful People Power movements of recent decades have usually been protracted struggles. It took nearly a decade between the first strikes in the Gdansk shipyards and the fall of Communism in Poland; Chile’s democratic struggle against the Pinochet regime took three years between the first major protests and the regime’s acquiescence to holding the referendum which forced the dictator from power.

Most successful unarmed insurrections against authoritarian regimes take a much shorter time, but they usually take weeks or months rather than days. As of this writing, the Egyptian protests have only been going for two weeks. It took ten weeks of struggle in East Germany during the fall of 1989 before the Berlin Wall came down. It took three months before the first student demonstrations in Mali and the downfall of the Traore dictatorship in 1991. Indeed, the pro-democracy movement in Tunisia which many credit as having inspired the Egyptian uprising took nearly a month, and they are still struggling to ensure that the end of the Ben Ali regime will also lead to real democracy.

Despite the failure of the protests in Egypt thus far to dislodge the hated Mubarak regime or force the president’s resignation, there have been some notable victories.

Millions of Egyptians, in direct defiance of emergency laws banning public demonstrations, have taken part in pro-democracy protests. A remarkable cross-section of Egyptian society was visible in these demonstrations in Cairo and other cities across the country: young and old, Muslim and Christian, men and women, poor and middle class, secular and religious. Despite waves of attacks by plainsclothes police and paid squads of young toughs, clearly unleashed by the regime – and comparable to the notorious Basiji in Iran or Mugabe’s green bombers in Zimbabwe – which the regime hoped would disperse the protesters and cower them into submission, the pro-democracy activists in Tahrir Square have held fast. Moreover, there have been key defections among prominent journalists and intellectuals who were previously willing to parrot the government’s line or keep quiet – for example, the president of the Arab League joined the protests at one point. The movement has also provided cover and legitimacy for opposition political figures who would have otherwise been jailed or ignored.

Equally importantly, the movement has forced the United States and other western governments to end their unconditional support for the regime and press for Mubarak to step down. These shifts illustrate that, despite the longstanding sense of fatalism among Arabs that Washington and London will ignore what happens on the ‘Arab street,’ it has proven itself capable of disrupting expectations in Washington and London.

Specifically, the demonstrators have forced Mubarak to renounce plans for re-election or to have his son run in his place, making him a lame duck. Their exposure of the ruling party’s corruption has led leading figures to formally resign from the party, including Mubarak and his son. They have forced the government into negotiations with representatives from the opposition.

Above all, events of the past couple of weeks have changed Egyptian society. German anthropologist Samuli Schielke, who was present at the demonstrations, observed that the sense of unity and power experienced by the protesters in Tahrir Square and elsewhere is necessarily transient. Negotiations, party politics, tactical decisions and other processes that will inevitably arise during the course of a democratic transition are going to be messy and not produce the incredible energy of coming together in the popular contestation of public space and saying “no!” However, he observes, “thanks to its utopian nature, it is also indestructible. Once it has been realised, it cannot be wiped out of people’s minds again. It will be an experience that, with different colourings and from different perspectives, will mark an entire generation.”

Similarly, after covering both the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings, British journalist Peter Beaumont emphasized the significance of this shift in attitude: “A threshold of fear has been crossed. For what has happened in both countries is that the structures of a police state have been challenged and found, to the surprise of many, to be weaker than imagined.” He goes on to note that regardless of how soon Mubarak is forced to leave, “a transition of power is already under way” – not as a result of formal negotiations or diplomatic efforts by the United States or the European Union, but from the people effective seizing power for themselves. The bold actions by what were once relatively small bands of activists “have been embraced by a wider population no longer afraid to speak or to assemble.”

For years, the Mubarak regime has offered short-term fixes and various small concessions which have failed to pull up the roots of the country’s problems. A combination of paternalism and repression by the regime had fostered an atmosphere of apathy and cynicism. Now, however, a whole new generation has been empowered and the regime, with its feet to the fire, realizes more significant changes are necessary if they are going to survive. Yet each new concession demonstrates the regime’s relative weakness and the movement’s growing power, thereby emboldening the activists to press forward with their demands for an authentic democratic transition.

The movement will have to think strategically as to how it might be able to achieve victory. A recent article on these pages by Maciej Bartkowski and Lester Kurtz compares the Solidarity movement in Poland, which was able to force the Communist regime to negotiate a series of compromises which eventually led to multi-party democratic elections in which the Communists were defeated, with the youthful pro-democracy activists on Tiananmen Square during that same period whose all-or-nothing demands failed to budge the regime and resulted in a massacre and the crushing of the movement. Sometimes a movement will have to be temporarily satisfied with a series of relatively minor concessions, declare a partial victory as a testament of their power and the vulnerability of the regime to pressure, then regroup for another round of public resistance and demands, and continue this process until the government has given away so much they no longer effectively rule. What makes this more feasible in the Egyptian case than perhaps in other movements that have so far been unsuccessful, as in Iran, is that the Egyptian Army has plainly been unwilling to engage in general repression. This seems to have created a viable political space for the movement, where effectively none existed before except through the internet and organizing out of sight of the authorities.

It is also important to recognize that successful unarmed insurrections against dictatorships have usually engaged in a multiplicity of tactics other than the mass demonstrations and multi-day sit-ins. For example, the movement could take advantage of the government’s economic vulnerabilities. Already, as a result of the de facto 12-day general strike and other disruptions, including the exodus of foreign tourists and the regime’s decision to shut down the Internet for a period, the country lost well over $3 billion in revenue. The desperate xenophobic campaign by the regime – including Mubarak’s thugs attacking foreign journalists, human rights workers and others – has undoubtedly scared away not only tourists but inhibited business visitors.

Other potential tactics by the opposition, such as periodic work stoppages and slowdowns, one-day general strikes, tax resistance, selective international sanctions targeted at the regime and its supporters, or a boycott of particular industries or institutions controlled by the government, armed forces, ruling party or pro-Mubarak families, would squeeze further the regime’s ability to demonstrate that it has any meaningful control of events going forward.

It is critical that, whatever tactics are employed, there needs to be long-range strategic planning, a logical sequencing of tactics, and an awareness that – as in any campaign – one needs to take advantage of one’s strengths and target the opponent’s weaknesses.

The dramatic events of recent weeks have illustrated that for democracy to come to the Arab world, it will come not from foreign intervention or sanctimonious statements from Washington, but from Arab peoples themselves. Even if a government has a monopoly of military force and even if a government has the support of the world’s one remaining superpower, it is still ultimately powerless if the people refuse to recognize its legitimacy and withdraw their cooperation from business and life as usual. Mubarak and his enablers have lost their long primacy in Egyptian affairs and it is doubtful that either he or his vice-president Omar Suleiman, the notorious former head of military intelligence, will be able to regain it. Supplanting the regime with a legitimate government that emerges from free and fair elections will be no easy task. But the most important steps, the dissolution of the status quo and the empowerment of the people, have already been accomplished.

Upsurge in repression challenges nonviolent resistance in Western Sahara

On November 8, Moroccan occupation forces attacked a tent city of as many as 12,000 Western Saharans just outside of Al Aioun, in the culminating act of a months-long protest of discrimination against the indigenous Sahrawi population and worsening economic conditions. Not only was the scale of the crackdown unprecedented, so was the popular reaction: In a dramatic departure from the almost exclusively nonviolent protests of recent years, the local population turned on their occupiers, engaging in widespread rioting and arson. As of this writing, the details of these events are unclear, but they underscore the urgent need for global civil society to support those who have been struggling nonviolently for their right of self-determination and to challenge western governments which back the regime responsible for the repression.

Western Sahara is a sparsely-populated nation located on the Atlantic coast of northwestern Africa. Traditionally inhabited by nomadic Arab tribes, collectively known as Sahrawis and famous for their long history of resistance to outside domination, the land was occupied by Spain from the late 1800s through the mid-1970s. The nationalist Polisario Front launched an armed independence struggle against Spain in 1973, and Madrid eventually promised the people of what was then still known as the Spanish Sahara a referendum on the fate of the territory by the end of 1975. Irredentist claims by Morocco and Mauritania were brought before the International Court of Justice, which ruled in favour of the Sahrawis’ right to self-determination. A special Visiting Mission from the United Nations engaged in an investigation that same year and reported that the vast majority of Sahrawis supported independence under the leadership of the Polisario, not integration with Morocco or Mauritania. Under pressure from the United States, which did not want to see the leftist Polisario come to power, Spain reneged on its promise for a referendum and instead agreed to partition the territory between the pro-Western countries of Morocco and Mauritania.

As Moroccan forces moved into Western Sahara, most of the population fled to refugee camps in neighboring Algeria. Morocco and Mauritania rejected a series of unanimous UN Security Council resolutions calling for the withdrawal of foreign forces and recognition of the Sahrawis’ right of self-determination. The United States and France, meanwhile, despite voting in favor of these resolutions, blocked the UN from enforcing them. Meanwhile, the Polisario – which had been driven from the more heavily populated northern and western parts of the country – declared independence as the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic. Thanks in part to the Algerians providing significant amounts of military equipment and economic support, Polisario guerrillas fought well against both occupying armies. Mauritania was defeated by 1979, agreeing to turn their third of Western Sahara over to the Polisario. However, the Moroccans then annexed that remaining southern part of the country as well.

The Polisario then focused their armed struggle against Morocco and, by 1982, had liberated nearly 85% of their country. Over the next four years, however, the tide of the war was reversed in Morocco’s favor thanks to dramatic increases in American and French support for the Moroccan war effort, with U.S. forces providing important training for the Moroccan army in counter-insurgency tactics and helping with the construction of a wall which kept the Polisario out of most of their country. Meanwhile, the Moroccan government, through generous housing subsidies and other benefits, successfully encouraged thousands of Moroccan settlers to immigrate to Western Sahara. By the early 1990s, these Moroccan settlers outnumbered the remaining Sahrawis indigenous to the territory by a ratio of more than 2:1.

A cease fire in 1991 was part of an agreement that would have allowed for the return of Sahrawi refugees to Western Sahara followed by a UN-supervised referendum on the fate of the territory. Neither the repatriation nor the referendum took place, however, due to Moroccan insistence on stacking the voter rolls with Moroccan settlers and other Moroccan citizens that it claimed had tribal links to Western Sahara. To break the stalemate, the UN Security Council passed a resolution in 2004 which would allow Moroccan settlers to also vote in the referendum following five years of autonomy. Morocco, however, rejected this proposal too, with the apparent reassurance that the French and Americans would yet again threaten to veto any resolution imposing sanctions or other pressures on them to compromise.

Unarmed popular resistance

As happened during the 1980s in both South Africa and the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories, the locus of the Western Sahara freedom struggle shifted from the military and diplomatic initiatives of an exiled armed movement to a largely unarmed popular resistance from within, as young activists in the occupied territory and even in Sahrawi-populated parts of southern Morocco confronted Moroccan troops in street demonstrations and other forms of nonviolent action, despite the risk of shootings, mass arrests, and torture. Sahrawis from different sectors of society have engaged in protests, strikes, cultural celebrations, and other forms of civil resistance focused on such issues as educational policy, human rights, the release of political prisoners, and the right to self-determination. They also raised the cost of occupation for the Moroccan government and increased the visibility of the Sahrawi cause. Indeed, perhaps most significantly, civil resistance helped to build support for the Sahrawi movement among international NGO’s, solidarity groups and even sympathetic Moroccans.

Internet communication became a key element in the Saharawi movement, with public chat rooms evolving as vital centres for sending messages, as breaking news regarding the burgeoning resistance campaign reached those in the Saharawi diaspora and among international activists. Despite attempts by the Moroccans to disrupt these contacts, the diaspora has continued to provide financial and other support to the resistance. Though there have been complaints from inside the territory that support for their movement by the older generation of Polisario leaders was inadequate, the Polisario appears to have recognized that by having signed a cease-fire and then having had Morocco reject the diplomatic solution expected in return, it has essentially played all its cards. So there was a growing recognition that the only real hope for independence has to come from within the occupied territory in combination with solidarity efforts from global civil society. There have been some small victories, such as the successful campaign which led to Sahrawi nonviolent resistance leader Aminatou Haidar securing the 2008 Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award, as well as forcing Moroccan authorities to reverse their expulsion order in December 2009, which resulted in her near-fatal 30-day hunger strike.

After Moroccan authorities’ use of force to break up the large and prolonged demonstrations in 2005 -2006, the resistance subsequently opted mainly for smaller protests, some of which were planned and some of which were spontaneous. A typical protest would begin on a street corner or a plaza where a Sahrawi flag would be unfurled, women would start ululating, and people would begin chanting pro-independence slogans. Within a few minutes, soldiers and police would arrive, and the crowd would quickly scatter. Other tactics have included leafleting, graffiti (including tagging the homes of collaborators), and cultural celebrations with political overtones. Such nonviolent actions, while broadly supported by the people, appear to have been less a part of coordinated resistance than a result of action by individuals. Still, the Moroccan government’s regular use of violent repression to subdue the Sahrawi-led nonviolent protests suggests that civil resistance is seen as a threat to Moroccan control.

One of the obstacles to the internal resistance is that Moroccan settlers outnumber the indigenous population by a ratio of more than 2:1 and by more in the major cities, making certain tactics used effectively in similar struggles more problematic. For example, although a general strike could be effective, the large number of Moroccan settlers, combined with the minority of indigenous Sahrawis who oppose independence, could likely fill the void resulting from the absence of much of the Sahrawi workforce. Although that might be alleviated by growing pro-independence sentiments among ethnic Sahrawi settlers from the southern part of Morocco, it still presents challenges that have not been faced by largely nonviolent struggles in other occupied lands – among them East Timor, Kosovo, and the Palestinian territories.

A shift in Morocco’s strategy

Despite this, civil resistance also appears to have forced a shift in Morocco’s strategy to maintain control of the mineral-rich territory. Although the Moroccan autonomy plan for the territory put forward in 2006 does not meaningfully address Morocco’s legal responsibility to recognize the Sahrawi’s right of self-determination (see my Open Democracy article More Harm Than Good), it nevertheless constitutes a reversal of Morocco’s historical insistence that Western Sahara is as much a part of Morocco as other provinces by acknowledging that it is indeed a distinct entity. Protests in Western Sahara in recent years have begun to raise some awareness within Morocco, especially among intellectuals, human rights activists, pro-democracy groups, and some moderate Islamists – long suspicious of the government line in a number of areas – that not all Sahrawis see themselves as Moroccans and that there exists a genuine indigenous opposition to Moroccan rule.

In the occupied territory, Moroccan colonists and collaborators are given preference for housing and employment and the indigenous people receive virtually no benefits from their country’s rich fisheries and phosphate deposits. In response, a new tactic emerged late this summer, as Sahrawi activists erected the tent city about 15 kilometers outside of El Aioun, the former colonial capital and largest city in the occupied territory. Since any protests calling for self-determination, independence, or enforcement of UN Security Council resolutions are brutally suppressed, the demonstrators pointedly avoided such provocative calls, instead simply demanding economic justice. Even this was too much for the Moroccan monarchy, however, which was determined to crush this nonviolent act of mass defiance. The Moroccans tightened the siege in early October, attacking vehicles bringing food, water and medical supplies to the camp, resulting in scores of injuries and the death of a 14-year old boy. Finally, on November 8, the Moroccans attacked the camp, driving protesters out with tear gas and hoses, beating those who did not flee fast enough, setting off rioting and triggering the burning and pillaging of Sahrawis homes and shops, with occupation forces shooting or arresting suspected activists, hundreds of whom disappeared after the outbreak of violence.

Morocco has been able to persist in flouting its international legal obligations toward Western Sahara largely because France and the United States have continued to arm Moroccan occupation forces and blocked the enforcement of resolutions in the UN Security Council demanding that Morocco allow for self-determination or even simply the stationing of unarmed human rights monitors in the occupied country. So now, at least as important as nonviolent resistance by Sahrawis is the potential of nonviolent action by the citizens of France, the United States, and other countries that enable Morocco to maintain its occupation. Such campaigns played a major role in forcing Australia, Great Britain, and the United States to end their support for Indonesia’s occupation of East Timor.

Despite 35 years of exile, war, repression and international neglect, Sahrawi nationalism is at least as strong within the younger generation as their elders, as is their will to resist. How soon they will succeed in their struggle for self-determination, however, may well rest on such acts of international solidarity by global civil society.

More harm than good

The failure of the Kingdom of Morocco and the Polisario Front [8] to agree on the modalities of the long-planned United Nations-sponsored referendum on the fate of Western Sahara, combined with a growing nonviolent resistance campaign in the occupied territory against Morocco’s 31-year occupation, has led Morocco to propose [9] granting the former Spanish colony special autonomous status within the kingdom.Stephen Zunes [10] is a professor of Politics at the University of San Francisco and the Middle East / North Africa editor for Foreign Policy in Focus [11].

Friends in big places

The plan has received the enthusiastic support of the American and French governments as a reasonable compromise to the abiding conflict, which has caused enormous suffering to the Sahrawi people – over half of whom live in refugee camps [13] in neighboring Algeria – and has seriously crippled efforts to advance badly-needed economic and strategic cooperation between Morocco and Algeria as both face the challenges of struggling economies and rising Islamist militancy.

Morocco has failed to live up to the terms of the 1991 UN-supervised ceasefire agreement [14] with the Polisario – a secular nationalist movement that waged an armed struggle against Spanish colonialists and later against Moroccan occupiers – which called for a free and fair referendum on the fate of the territory. A series of resolutions by the UN Security Council and the UN General Assembly, as well as a landmark 1975 advisory ruling [15] by the International Court of Justice, have reaffirmed the right of the people of Western Sahara to self-determination.

However, France and the United States have blocked the Security Council from enforcing its resolutions as part of their perceived need to strengthen the Moroccan monarchy, seen as a bulwark against Communism and radical Arab nationalism during the Cold War and, in more recent years, an important ally in the struggle against Islamist extremism.

Creating more problems than it solves

Unfortunately, the Moroccan plan for autonomy falls well short of what is required in bringing about a peaceful resolution to the conflict. Moreover, it seeks to set a dangerous precedent which threatens the very foundation of the post-World War II international legal system.

Recently on toD on self-determination and referenda:

Abhoud Syed M. Lingga – “Determining factors” [16], 13 July, 2007To begin with, the proposal is based on the assumption that Western Sahara is part of Morocco, a contention that has long been rejected [17] by the United Nations, the World Court, the African Union and a broad consensus of international legal opinion. To accept Morocco’s autonomy plan would mean that, for the first time since the founding of the United Nations and the ratification of the UN Charter [18] more than sixty years ago, the international community would be endorsing the expansion of a country’s territory by military force, thereby establishing a very dangerous and destabilising precedent.

If the people of Western Sahara accepted an autonomy agreement over independence as a result of a free and fair referendum, it would constitute a legitimate act of self-determination. However, Morocco has explicitly stated that its autonomy proposal “rules out, by definition, the possibility for the independence option to be submitted” to the people of Western Sahara, the vast majority of whom – according to knowledgeable international observers – favour [19] outright independence.

A history of failure

Even if one takes a dismissive attitude toward international law, there are a number of practical concerns regarding the Moroccan proposal as well:

One is that the history of respect for regional autonomy on the part of centralised authoritarian states is quite poor, and has often led to violent conflict. In 1952, the United Nations granted the British protectorate (and former Italian colony) of Eritrea autonomous, federated status within Ethiopia. In 1961 [20], however, the Ethiopian emperor revoked Eritrea’s autonomous status, annexing it as his empire’s fourteenth province, resulting in a bloody 30-year struggle for independence and subsequent border wars between the two countries.

Similarly, the decision of Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic to revoke the autonomous status of Kosovo in 1989 [21] led to a decade of repression and resistance, culminating in the NATO war against Yugoslavia in 1999.

Based upon Morocco’s habit of breaking its promises to the international community regarding the UN-mandated referendum for Western Sahara and related obligations based on the cease fire agreement sixteen years ago, there is little to inspire confidence that Morocco would live up to its promises to provide genuine autonomy for Western Sahara.

Pyrrhic autonomy

Indeed, a close reading of the proposal [9] raises questions as to how much autonomy is even being offered. Important matters such as control of Western Sahara’s natural resources and law enforcement (beyond local jurisdictions) remain ambiguous.

In addition, the proposal appears to indicate that all powers not specifically vested in the autonomous region would remain with the Kingdom. Indeed, since the king of Morocco is ultimately invested with absolute authority under Article 19 [22] of the Moroccan Constitution, the autonomy proposal’s insistence that the Moroccan state “will keep its powers in the royal domains, especially with respect to defense, external relations and the constitutional and religious prerogatives of His Majesty the King”, appears to afford the monarch considerable latitude of interpretation.

There appears to be a growing consensus within the international community that some sort of compromise, or “third way” between independence and integration, is necessary to resolve the conflict, and that a “winner take all” approach is unworkable.

While encouraging such compromise and trying to find a win/win situation is certainly the preferable way to pursue a lasting peaceful settlement regarding ethnic conflict and many international disputes, Western Sahara is a clear-cut case of self-determination for a people struggling against foreign military occupation. The Polisario Front has already offered guarantees to protect Moroccan strategic and economic interests if allowed full independence. To insist that the people of Western Sahara must give up their moral and legal right to genuine self-determination, then, is not a recipe for conflict resolution, but for far more serious conflict in the future.

As a result of the French and American veto threats, the UN Security Council has failed to place the Western Sahara issue under Chapter VII [23] of the UN Charter, which would give the international community the power to impose sanctions or other appropriate leverage to force the Moroccan regime to abide by the UN mandates it has up until now disregarded. Polisario’s unwillingness to compromise should not be seen as the major obstacle impeding the resolution of the conflict.

In the comparable case of East Timor, it was only after human rights organizations, church groups and other activists in the United States, Great Britain and Australia successfully pressured their governments to end their support for Indonesia’s occupation that the Jakarta regime was finally willing to offer a referendum which gave the East Timorese their right to self-determination. It may take similar grassroots campaigns [24] in Europe and North America to ensure that western powers live up to their international legal obligations and pressure Morocco to allow the people of Western Sahara to determine their own destiny.

[1] http://www.opendemocracy.net/opensecurity
[2] http://www.opendemocracy.net/authors/stephen_zunes
[3] http://www.opendemocracy.net/copyright/creative-commons-normal
[4] http://www.opendemocracy.net/terrorism_opendemocracy_tags/rule_of_law
[5] http://www.opendemocracy.net/terrorism_opendemocracy_tags/insurgency
[6] http://www.opendemocracy.net/terrorism_opendemocracy_tags/non_violent_action
[7] http://www.syracuseuniversitypress.syr.edu/spring-2010/western-sahara.html
[8] http://www.wsahara.net/polisario.html
[9] http://w-sahara.blogspot.com/2007/04/moroccos-plan-full-text.html
[10] http://www.stephenzunes.org/
[11] http://www.fpif.org/
[12] http://www.amazon.com/Tinderbox-Stephen-Zunes/dp/1567512267
[13] http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/africa/264052.stm
[14] http://www.un.org/Depts/dpko/missions/minurso/background.html
[15] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/International_Court_of_Justice_Advisory_Opinion_on_Western_Sahara
[16] http://www.opendemocracy.net/madrid11/philippines_130707
[17] http://www.fpif.org/briefs/vol3/v3n42mor.html
[18] http://www.un.org/aboutun/charter/
[19] http://www.lrb.co.uk/v28/n04/print/hard01_.html
[20] http://www.onwar.com/aced/data/echo/eritrea1961.htm
[21] http://emperors-clothes.com/milo/milosaid.html
[22] http://www.al-bab.com/maroc/gov/con96.htm
[23] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chapter_VII_of_the_United_Nations_Charter
[24] http://www.etan.org/