democracy activists

Did the Libyan Uprising Have to be Violent?

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.

How Egypt Changed the Conversation

In the aftermath of the world-changing events in Egypt, the story of how the uprising came about was slowly revealed. It was clear that such a thing doesn’t “just happen.” The grievances in Egypt had built up over 30 years of dictatorship. An educated new generation was coming of age. They didn’t fall into the old political categories; rejecting both autocracy and theocracy, they were not willing to settle any longer for stability over democracy.

As I watched them in Tahrir Square each night on television, it also seemed that they knew what they were doing in regard to security, logistics, and tactics. When they were attacked by the street thugs Hosni Mubarak’s government sent against them, they responded with disciplined nonviolence. They brought new social media to the old drama of fighting for democracy against tyranny.

I could see that those who were leading this nonviolent youth revolution had some training. Sure enough, we learned how the best tools of nonviolent resistance had been passed on, over the last several years, between activists across national boundaries. They drew on the work of seasoned nonviolent scholars and tacticians such as Gene Sharp, whose books on how nonviolent action could bring down dictators helped create the playbook for young Egyptian activists. It was clear that these young Middle East protesters were drawing from King and Gandhi, and that focused study, key relationships, and serious training had all preceded the public events.

It also became clear that these protesters were not radical Islamists eager for a new caliphate, but rather were young professionals, secular youth, and radically moderate Christians and Muslims working together, taking to the streets with both courage and discipline.

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Beyond Egypt

The popular mass uprising that deposed Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and the dramatic events in Tunisia, Yemen, and elsewhere have made clear inconvenient truths about the U.S. role in the region, showed the fallacy of the so-called “clash of civilizations” theory, and helped deconstruct the ignorance and fear about Islam that has fueled Islamophobia in the U.S.

The U.S. has long publicly extolled the virtues of democracy, self-determination, human rights, and economic opportunity. But for more than three decades, the autocratic, corrupt, and oppressive regime of Mubarak has been a close ally of the U.S., and second only to Israel as a recipient of foreign aid. Strong support for a “useful autocrat” like Mubarak can be linked to the peace treaty with Israel and Egypt’s role in combating international terrorism—but at what price?

The world watched the Mubarak regime employ every tactic in the police-state handbook: arresting and torturing protesters, harassing journalists, and dispatching pro-regime thugs to incite violence. Across the U.S. media spectrum—from Fox News to CNN and MSNBC—reporters acknowledged the political corruption, economic exploitation, and human rights abuses that have been hallmarks of Egypt’s rule.

Now we can see clearly what people in the Middle East have experienced for decades: the sharp disconnect between the high-minded ideals of the U.S. and its actual policies. Now the political expediency that informed U.S. support for the Shah of Iran for three decades and Saddam Hussein in the 1980s appears strikingly similar to patterns in Egypt, Tunisia, and Yemen.

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