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.