Did the Libyan Uprising Have to be Violent?

By Erica Chenoweth 08-25-2011

Could nonviolent resistance have succeeded in Libya? Here are four points worth considering:

1) The movement was fairly spontaneous, unlike the highly coordinated campaign in Egypt. As Peter Ackerman consistently points out, planning is an essential element to a successful nonviolent revolution. As with any battlefield, a nonviolent campaign requires extensive preparation. But reports seem to indicate that Libyans began protesting in earnest around Feburary 15th, likely inspired by events in neighboring Egypt and Tunisia. Gadhafi seemed prepared for this and immediately cracked down using overwhelming violence. By February 19th, the movement had become violent in response to these crackdowns. Four days of civil resistance doesn't give it much time to work. Egyptian pro-democracy activists struggled for years before seeing Mubarak fall. Syrian oppositionists, thousands of whom have been killed by Bashar al-Assad's regime, have toiled along for the past six months. So, we can't really say whether or not nonviolence would have worked in Libya. It never had a chance to materialize in the first place.

2) The peaceful part of the Libyan campaign primarily consisted of protest activity. Such tactics are visible and disruptive, but also highly vulnerable to repression. In Unarmed Insurrections, Kurt Schock argues that when movements rely too much on rallies or protests, they become extremely predictable. Successful movements will combine protests and demonstrations with well-timed strikes, boycotts, go-slows, stay-aways, and other actions that force the regime to disperse its repression in unsustainable ways. During the Iranian Revolution, oil workers went on strike, threatening to cripple the Iranian economy. The Shah's security forces went to the oil workers' homes and dragged them back to the refineries, only for the workers to work at half pace before staging another walk-out. This type of repression is untenable because it requires a massive coordination of regime resources and effort. The bottom line is that nonviolent movements always have options when they face violent repression -- options that do not involve selecting violence. The downside is that these methods take time to plan and coordinate. But choosing violence carries just as many downsides -- including the fact that violent rebellion tends to succeed about 50 perecent less often than nonviolent resistance.

3) If anything, the Libyan example makes a strong case for the importance of maintaining nonviolent discipline. By February 22 -- the date of Gadhafi's infamous speech that motivated NATO's intervention -- the uprising had already turned violent. Reports indicate that oppositionists had already captured or killed hundreds of Gadhafi's thugs by then, and Gadhafi was really, really pissed. In his speech, he remarked that "peaceful protest is one thing, but armed rebellion is another," indicating that it was the use of violence that made him pull off the gloves. In the speech, he promised to go "house to house" to hunt down the "rats." Now, I'm no apologist for Gadhafi, and I have no doubt that he would have continued to use violent crackdowns against peaceful protestors even if they had remained nonviolent. But I think that his particularly vitriolic reaction demonstrates that when part of a movement adopts violence, oppressors use this as a pretext for adopting extremely harsh (and at times, indiscriminate) repression against the entire movement. Because Gadhafi was so hated, his repression backfired anyway. But adopting violence put the rebels at a major force disadvantage, and it's unlikely that they would have succeeded without NATO's air support.

4) The success of the Libyan uprising will, no doubt, be remembered as a successful case of violent insurgency. But Juan Cole has argued that there was considerable civil resistance prior to the opposition's overtaking of Tripoli. In an August 22 interview on Democracy Now, he said that "the city had already overthrown the regime" when rebels arrived. He writes, "Beginning Saturday night, working-class districts rose up, in the hundreds of thousands, and just threw off the regime." (Thanks to Stephen Zunes for directing me to this source). Khaled Darwish's op-ed in the New York Times today seems to corroborate this account, describing how women and children rushed into the streets of Tripoli before the rebel advance, how civilians blocked apartment rooftops from snipers, and how they sang and chanted over loudspeakers in unity against Gadhafi's regime. If these descriptions are true, then civil resistance had a pretty important part in the "endgame" of the Libyan revolution, and as such, deserves at least some credit for the opposition's victory.

[This article appears courtesy of a partnership with Waging Nonviolence.]

Erica Chenoweth is an assistant professor of government at Wesleyan University and co-author with Maria J. Stephan of the forthcoming book Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict.

+ Read Erica Chenoweth's article in Sojourners magazine: "People Power: From Cairo, Egypt, to Madison, Wisconsin, civil society is fighting back through massive nonviolent resistance. But what makes for a successful campaign? The data is in."

+ Read more about Libya in Sojourners magazine: "What About Gadhafi? Does bloody civil war in Libya mean nonviolence has its limits?"

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