While there will undoubtedly have to be additional popular struggle in Egypt to ensure that the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak leads to real democracy, the ouster of the dictator is by any measure a major triumph for the Egyptian people and yet another example of the power of nonviolent action. Indeed, Egypt joins such diverse countries as the Philippines, Poland, Chile, Czechoslovakia, Nepal, Serbia, Bolivia, Indonesia, and others whose authoritarian regimes were replaced by democratic governance as a result of such unarmed civil insurrections.
Unfortunately, there are already those who are trying to put the credit (or blame) for the Egyptian Revolution on anybody but the literally millions of ordinary Egyptians – men and women, Christian and Muslim, young and old, workers and intellectuals, poor and middle class, secular and religious – who faced down the truncheons, tear gas, water cannons, bullets and goon squads for their freedom.
It was not the military that was responsible for Mubarak’s downfall. While some top Army officers belatedly eased Mubarak aside on February 11, it was more of a coup de grace and than a coup d’état. It was clear to the military brass, watching the popular reaction following his nonresignation speech the previous day, who recognized that if they did not ease him out, they would be taken down with him. The Army’s refusal to engage in a Tiananmen Square-style massacre in Tahrir Square came not because the generals were on the protesters’ side – indeed, they had long been the bedrock of Mubarak’s regime – but because they could not trust their own soldiers, disproportionately from the poor and disenfranchised sectors of society, to obey orders to fire on their own people.
It was not the United States, long the primary foreign backer of the Mubarak regime. The Obama administration played catch-up for most of the 18-day uprising, initially calling only for reforms within the regime. To Obama’s credit, he did push for an end to attacks on protesters and the shutting down of the Internet, and reportedly threatened a cutoff of military aid and strategic cooperation if US weapons were used in a massacre or other major repression. Though Obama eventually called for a speedy transition to democracy, however, he never explicitly called on Mubarak to step down. His strongest and most eloquent words in support for the pro-democracy struggle came only after Mubarak’s departure, giving a sense that it came more from a desire to not be on the wrong side of history than his desire to play the role as a catalyst.
Some US Embassy staffers had sporadic contacts with pro-democracy activists in recent years and, through such Congressionally-funded foundations as the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), there was some limited financial assistance to a number of civil society organizations. This small amount of US “democracy” assistance did not include any support for training in strategic nonviolent action or other kinds of grassroots mobilization that proved decisive in the struggle, and the key groups that organized the protests resisted US funding on principle. In any case, the amount of US funding for NED and related programs in Egypt paled in comparison with the billions of dollars worth of military and economic assistance to the Mubarak regime and the close and regular interaction among US officials and leading Egyptian political and military leaders. In addition, most of this limited “pro-democracy” funding was eliminated altogether a couple of years ago, following Obama’s inauguration.
Nor was it the Internet. Social media helped expose the abuses of the regime and get around censorship prior to the uprising and, during the revolt, at times helped with tactical coordination for the protests. It is important to note, however, that less than 15 percent of the Egyptian population had access to the Internet (mostly through cafes heavily policed by the regime) and, for a number of key days early in the struggle, it was shut down completely. (Ironically, it may have helped the movement in some cases, as a number of residents in Cairo, Alexandria, and other cities decided to come out onto the streets to see what was happening first hand since they could not learn from the Internet.) While, on balance, the Internet was certainly helpful, it was probably not necessary for the movement’s success. The Eastern European revolutions of 1989 and other successful pro-democracy civil insurrections in Latin America, Southeast Asia and Africa took place without access to Internet technology. In Mali – an impoverished landlocked West African nation – word of the eventually victorious 1991 pro-democracy struggle against the Traore dictatorship was spread through griots, the traditionally singing storytellers, who would wander from village to village. When a people are committed to a struggle, they will find ways to communicate.
And neither the Tunisian nor the Egyptian revolutions were a result of WikiLeaks. While the leaked cables exposed how US diplomats were well aware of the corruption and repression of the respective regimes and their propensity to deliberately exaggerate the influence of radical Islamists among the opposition, such malfeasance by their governments was certainly nothing new to the citizens of those countries.
It certainly wasn’t the Islamists. Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood had been playing more the role of informal loyal opposition to the Mubarak regime in recent years. They refused to endorse the initial protests until the last minute and then only half-heartedly. Not only did their higher level of support as the movement later took off smack of opportunism, the conservative Brotherhood and its aging leadership had been increasingly seen by the young secular activists who spearheaded the movement as being almost as out of touch with their day-to-day realities as the regime. The chants, signs, and other outward manifestations of the protesters were decidedly secular with liberal democratic and leftist themes.
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Nor was the successful, large-scale application of nonviolent tactics that succeeded in bringing down the dictator a result of assistance or training by outsiders. There were a couple of seminars organized by Egyptian pro-democracy groups which brought in veterans of popular unarmed insurrections in Serbia, South Africa, Palestine, and other countries along with some Western academics who have studied the phenomenon, but these seminars focused on generic information about the history and dynamics of strategic nonviolent action, not on how to overthrow Mubarak. Neither the foreign speakers nor their affiliated institutions provided any training, advice, money, or anything tangible to the small number of Egyptian activists that attended. As one of the academics who lectured at one of these seminars, I can vouch that the Egyptians present were already very knowledgeable and sophisticated in terms of strategic thinking about their struggle. None of us foreigners can take credit for what later transpired.
Nor was it a spontaneous reaction to the Tunisian Revolution, which had emerged victorious in its largely nonviolent uprising against the Ben Ali dictatorship two weeks earlier. While the unarmed insurrection in Tunisia certainly inspired and empowered many Egyptians who had long been sunk in fear, cynicism and apathy, the Egyptian revolution had been a long time coming. There had been a dramatic growth in Egyptian civil society during the preceding years, with an increasing number of labor strikes and small, but ever-larger, demonstrations led by such youthful, secular pro-democracy groups as Kefaya (meaning “Enough!”) and the April 6 Movement (named after a nationwide strike and protest on that date in 2008.) Increasing government repression, worsening economic conditions and parliamentary elections this past November that were even more transparently fraudulent than most, led many of us to suspect that it was only a matter of time before Mubarak would be ousted in a popular uprising. Indeed, my visits to Egypt and meetings with pro-democracy activists led me to predict in an article posted in early December that “Egypt could very well be where the next unarmed popular pro-democracy insurrection takes place of the kind that brought down Marcos in the Philippines, Milosevic in Serbia and scores of other autocratic regimes in recent decades.” (Little did I know the Tunisians would beat them to it.)
It is, therefore, critical, particularly for those of us in the United States and other Western countries, not to deny agency to an Arab people who had the courage and smarts to organize and fight their own nonviolent revolution.
Indeed, this revolution strikes a blow to the two extremes in the nearly decade-long battle between Islamist extremists and US imperialists. Al-Qaeda’s first attack against US interests was in 1995 against a residential compound in Riyadh used by US soldiers responsible for training the Saudi National Guard, the branch of the Saudi military used primarily for internal repression. The line put forward by Osama bin Laden and like-minded self-styled jihadists has long been that US-backed dictatorships can only be defeated through terrorism and adherence to a reactionary and chauvinistic interpretation of Islam. On the other extreme, the line put forward by American neoconservatives and their supporters has long been that democracy could only come to the Middle East through US military intervention, as with the US invasion and occupation of Iraq.
The people of Egypt and Tunisia have powerfully demonstrated that both of these violent militaristic ideologies are wrong.
These are hardly the first countries to have seen dictators overthrown through nonviolent action. Its power has even been acknowledged even by such groups as Freedom House, a Washington-based organization with close ties to the foreign policy establishment. Its 2005 study observed that, of the nearly 70 countries that had made the transition from dictatorship to varying degrees of democracy in the previous 30 years, only a small minority did so through armed struggle from below or reform instigated from above. Hardly any new democracies resulted from foreign invasion. In nearly three-quarters of the transitions, change was rooted in democratic civil-society organizations that employed nonviolent methods. In addition, the study noted that countries where nonviolent, civil resistance movements played a major role tend to have freer and more stable democratic systems.
A different study, published in 2007 in the journal International Security, used an expanded database and analyzed 323 major insurrections in support of self-determination and democratic rule since 1900. It found that violent resistance was successful only 26 percent of the time, whereas nonviolent campaigns had a 53 percent rate of success.
From the poorest nations of Africa to the relatively affluent countries of Eastern Europe; from communist regimes to right-wing military dictatorships; from across the cultural, geographic and ideological spectrum, democratic and progressive forces have recognized the power of nonviolent action to free them from oppression. This has not come, in most cases, from a moral or spiritual commitment to nonviolence, but simply because it works.
As noted in such books as “Civilian Jihad: Nonviolent Struggle, Democratization and Governance in the Middle East,” there is a long history of nonviolent resistance in the Middle East, including Egypt’s 1919 independence struggle against the British. Iran has a long history of such uprisings, including the Tobacco Strike of the 1890s, the Constitutional Revolution of 1906, the overthrow of the Shah in 1979 and the aborted Green Revolution of 2009. Palestine has witnessed the general strike of the 1930s, the first intifada in the late 1980 and more recent campaigns against the separation wall and settlement expansion in the West Bank. In Sudan, unarmed insurrections ousted military dictatorships in both 1964 and 1985 (though the democratic governments that followed were eventually overthrown in military coups.) The 2006 Cedar Revolution in Lebanon ended years of Syrian domination of that country. There has also been an ongoing nonviolent resistance campaign in the nation of Western Sahara against the illegal Moroccan occupation. And, in recent weeks, pro-democracy protests have broken out in Yemen, Bahrain, Jordan, Algeria, Iran, and other countries.
This rich history, mostly dramatically played out on the streets of Cairo and other Egyptian cities in recent weeks, demonstrates a critical point: Democracy will not come to the Middle East through foreign intervention, sanctimonious statements from Washington, voluntary reforms by autocrats, or armed struggle by a self-selected vanguard. It will only come through the power of massive non-cooperation with illegitimate authority and the strategic application of nonviolent action by Middle Eastern peoples themselves.