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Why nonviolence is working in Egypt

Analysis: Civil resistance is more effective than violence in achieving democracy.

Egyptian protesters pray
Egyptian anti-government protesters pray next to an army tank in Tahrir Square on February 7, 2011 in Cairo, Egypt. An uneasy stand-off between anti- and pro-government factions in Egypt's central square continues February 7, with protests continuing unabated. (Chris Hondros/Getty Images)

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.