Why nonviolence is working in Egypt

NOTRE DAME, Indiana — The fervor for social change sweeping through Egypt and the Middle East is one of the most dramatic expressions of “people power” in history. Never before have people in the region mobilized in such vast numbers to shake off the chains of autocracy.

The uprising has been impressive not only for its scale, but also for its style, which has largely been nonviolent.

Even when demonstrators in Cairo's Tahrir Square were attacked by thugs and security forces, few retaliated. Most of the people taking to the streets have faced repression with remarkable restraint and bravery. While the movement does not fit the classic Gandhian model of nonviolent civil disobedience, the protesters seem to know instinctively that violence is counter-productive to their cause.

The protesters in Egypt and elsewhere are wise to choose nonviolence. Retaliation may be a natural instinct, but it is contrary to the strategy of effective resistance. Gandhi, King, and other pioneers of social transformation emphasized the necessity of nonviolent discipline, not merely as a moral choice (it’s the right thing to do), but as a practical requirement for winning the sympathy of bystanders and encouraging loyalty shifts within the military and police (it works).

A widely cited study published in the prestigious journal International Security in 2008 found that civil resistance is twice as effective as armed struggle in achieving significant political change. A similar study by Freedom House found that nonviolent forms of struggle are more likely than armed struggle to move a society toward greater freedom and democracy.

In the velvet revolutions of eastern Europe and the “colored revolutions” of Ukraine and other former Soviet republics, resisters won in part by convincing the military to remain neutral or side with the people.

That lesson was evident in Tunisia, where the police openly joined the ranks of the resisters. In Egypt, protest leaders have urged demonstrators to “hug a soldier” as a way of saying that the struggle is against the dictatorship not rank and file soldiers. In some instances protesters clamored atop tanks and waved the V sign for victory.

The protesters in Egypt have achieved significant gains already including Mubarak’s pledge to leave office in September, the sacking of government ministers and wage increases for workers. But expectations that Mubarak would go quickly, as was the case with Tunisia’s President Ben Ali, may be premature. Mubarak and his cronies are digging in their heels and attempting to slow the process, claiming that Egypt is not yet ready for democracy. The struggle is likely to be a long one and will require persistence and discipline from the protesters.

A key factor in the outcome will be the role of Egypt’s armed forces. Mubarak has used the military as the bulwark of his oppressive rule, but there are signs that military officials may be hedging their bets. As the protesters gathered momentum last week, the armed forces declared they would not use force “against our great people.” The military seems to be attempting to remain neutral.

This is good news for the democracy movement. During the Orange Revolution in Ukraine resistance leaders negotiated with senior commanders to reassure the military and keep it on the sidelines. In Egypt protesters must attempt to do the same and must avoid violent or confrontational tactics that might force the military to choose sides against them.

It’s too early to tell whether these events will lead to genuine democracy and a more peaceful future for the region. One thing is certain. Nonviolent resistance has emerged as a potent force for social change and is transforming the politics of Egypt and the wider Middle East.

David Cortright is the director of policy studies at the University of Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, where he has taught since 1989. He is the author or editor of 17 books, including “Peace: A History of Movements and Ideas” (Cambridge University Press) and “Uniting Against Terror: Cooperative Nonmilitary Responses to the Global Terrorist Threat” (MIT Press), with George A. Lopez. Cortright blogs at http://davidcortright.net.