The overwhelmingly nonviolent pro-democracy revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt followed scores of successful unarmed civil insurrections over the past few decades that have brought down dictatorships from the Philippines to Serbia, from Chile to Poland, and from Bolivia to the Maldives. Nonviolent pro-democracy protests subsequently have erupted in other Arab countries as well, including Yemen, Bahrain, Morocco, and Oman.
Yet in Libya, the pro-democracy struggle deteriorated into a bloody civil war and massive Western aerial attacks. Some analysts tried to attribute this solely to the repressive and mercurial Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi, arguing that nonviolence “can’t work” when faced with such a ruthless tyrant.
History, however, has shown repeatedly that dictators quite willing to unleash massive violence against unarmed citizens were, nevertheless, overthrown through large-scale nonviolent action.
From the Philippines to East Germany, autocratic rulers facing nonviolent civil insurrections ordered their troops to fire on unarmed crowds, only to have the troops refuse. On Jan. 14, Tunisian dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali declared a state of emergency and banned gatherings of more than three people, threatening that “arms will be used if orders of security forces are not heeded.” In response, thousands of Tunisians defied the regime, bravely marching upon the dreaded Interior Ministry, and a general strike effectively shut down the country. When the head of the armed forces informed the president that he would refuse orders to attack nonviolent protesters, Ben Ali and his family fled the country.
In Libya, the protests were almost exclusively nonviolent during the first week, the period during which the pro-democracy movement made the most gains, taking over most of the cities in the eastern part of the country. In the liberated areas, popular democratic committees were set up to serve as interim local governments. Benghazi—a city of more than a million people—subsequently was run by an improvised organizing council of judges, lawyers, academics, and other professionals who generally were successful at restoring order and services to the country’s second largest city.
It was also during this period that most of the resignations took place of cabinet members and other influential aides of Gadhafi, Libyan ambassadors in foreign capitals, and top military officers. Pilots deliberately crashed their planes, flew into exile, or otherwise refused orders to bomb and strafe protesters. Thousands of soldiers defected or refused to fire on crowds, despite threats of execution. The government of Malta, the Mediterranean island nation located between Libya and Italy, agreed to grant political asylum to Libyan pilots who defected rather than bomb civilians.
When the rebellion took a more violent turn, however, progress was reversed.
As a “rentier state,” which derives national wealth from selling oil to foreign clients rather than the labor of its people, the Libyan regime is more resistant than many to sustained nonviolent action. However, this does not mean that armed struggle has any greater chance of success. Military force challenges Gadhafi at his strongest point where he clearly has the advantages. With all land approaches to the capital, Tripoli, through flat open desert, it is hardly an ideal situation for insurrectionary warfare either. The slaughter has only increased since the movement turned violent.
Smart strategy is key to effective civil resistance. The largely spontaneous Libyan uprising focused almost exclusively on mass protests, making it an easy target for Gadhafi’s repression, rather than relying on more diverse tactics—including strikes (which could have been particularly effective in the oil industry), boycotts, slowdowns, and other forms of noncooperation. In short, the failure of the nonviolent struggle was not because it was nonviolent, but because it was not well-organized strategically.
Rather than being portrayed as an example of how nonviolence “doesn’t work,” Libya may instead prove why strategic nonviolent preparation is so necessary.
Stephen Zunes is a professor of politics and chair of Middle Eastern studies at the University of San Francisco and chairs the academic advisory committee of the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict.