The huge throng filled the entire Square and was reminiscent of the historic mass mobilizations in February that brought down the Mubarak dictatorship. The rally was announced as a ‘million man march’ and was backed of a broad cross section of Egyptian activist groups, from liberal secularists to conservative Islamists. The Muslim Brotherhood did not support the march, although many of its youth members joined the crowd. The rally had a positive and hopeful spirit, in sharp contrast to the earlier violent clashes, which we witnessed on November 20.
The atmosphere in the Square on Friday was almost festive. We saw families with children, vendors selling food and drinks, face-painting on children (and thanks to a group of laughing teenagers, painted hands) and everywhere we saw the red, white, and black stripes of the Egyptian flag. It was a diverse crowd, young and old, women and men, middle class and the very poor. We were welcomed and greeted warmly by many.
The crowd was friendly but determined in its commitment to fulfill the promise of the revolution. There were no speeches, but constant chanting rose from groups throughout the Square, all with a similar message: Military rule must end.
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.
Anthony Shadid of the New York Times reports that a song, "Come on Bashar, Leave," is spreading across Syria, boldly calling on President Bashar al-Assad to step down. (Bryan Farrell also wrote about it at the Waging Nonviolence blog.) The article suggests that a young cement layer who chanted it in demonstrations was pulled from the Orontes River this month, his throat having been cut, and, according to residents of the city of Hama, his vocal chords torn out. Hama is where, in 1982, then-president Hafez al-Assad, father of the current president named in the song, gave orders to the army to massacre more than 10,000 in putting down an Islamist upheaval. Today, boys 6-years-old and older vocalize their own rendition of the original warbler's song instead. As the song has sped across Syria, demonstrators have adopted it for themselves.
Erica Chenoweth directs Wesleyan University's program on terrorism and insurgency research, which she established in 2008. Her work will be featured in the upcoming May issue of Sojourners magazine. Erica is doing innovative research on the strategic effectiveness of civil resistance and nonviolent revolution. Recently, she wrote a post at Monkey Cage on why traditional "peace and security" academic programs should include nonviolence and civil resistance tactics as part of their programs. "It is time for security studies to take nonviolent conflict seriously," writes Chenoweth, "and to incorporate such episodes and their dynamics into the canonical literature."