Was Our Hope for the Arab Spring Just Wishful Thinking?

By Metta Spencer

Of course you’re disappointed with the Arab Spring! We all are. The painful question is: Were we naïve two years ago in hoping it would succeed? The so-called “realist” school of international relations says so.

I had ducked the question until recently. While the Egyptian military was cracking down violently on the Muslim Brotherhood’s supporters, I was asked to appear on CBC radio as a person qualified to talk about nonviolence. Unfortunately, the interviewer’s first question threw me. She said, “There was so much hope a couple of years ago in Egypt. What has gone wrong since?” That question was the most obvious one to ask, yet I hadn’t thought of it that way before.

I understood her question to mean: “To win, what should the nonviolent pro-democracy activists have done differently?” The “right” answer was, “If only they had used X, Y, and Z nonviolent methods, their movement would have worked and Egypt would be a democracy today.”

But lacking such a categorical reply, I floundered. I should have said that there is no certain way of ousting a dictator and installing a functioning democracy. Most revolutions lead to disaster. In any one instance, the chance of success is neither 100 percent nor zero. And after it’s over, no one can be sure which factors had been the decisive ones.

Having failed to give an adequate response on the radio, let me give a considered answer here—taking more than the five minutes I had then.

Can nonviolent methods really succeed? (So far, they have failed throughout the Arab Spring.)

My answer will depend partly on what you count as “success”— just getting rid of a dictator, or also installing a democracy that proves stable and liberal?—and partly on whether you want me to predict success with certainty or just improved probability. (Let’s leave aside here the other specific circumstances that are unique to each country, such as the popularity of alternative authoritarian subgroups besides that of the dictator—such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt or other religious factions in Syria.)

Fortunately, peace researchers do know how to improve the odds of ousting a tyrant nonviolently. That’s what sets us apart from so-called political “realists,” who maintain that it’s almost impossible to get rid of a dictator without using violence and that, even if you did, you’d get a chaotic, violent new state instead of the democracy you were hoping for. In short, “realists” predicted rather accurately how the Arab Spring would look by now. And let’s admit, it might have turned out poorly even under more favorable circumstances—but not necessarily so. Indeed, the Egyptian movement probably had a 50-50 chance of getting rid of Mubarak. (The other Arab pro-democracy movements had worse odds because they took up arms.)

Let me divide the “realist” argument into two parts, which should be addressed separately. Their first point is that it is almost impossible to get rid of a dictator without using violence. Their second point is that even if your movement does topple an authoritarian regime, you will not be able to replace it with a stable, functioning democracy. Indeed, your whole project will probably make matters worse than if you had just left the dictator in power.

How to Oust a Tyrant

We can begin with the first question: about how to oust a tyrant. Contrary to the “realist” belief, the evidence is definitely in favor of nonviolence rather than violence. Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan studied 323 cases of violent and nonviolent resistance campaigns between 1900 and 2006, and reported their findings in their book, Why Civil Resistance Works. (See my interview with Chenoweth in Peace, Jan-Mar 2013.) To their surprise, nonviolent resistance campaigns were nearly twice as likely to succeed fully or partially as their violent counterparts. By nonviolent, the authors meant movements where unarmed civilians confronted their opponents using such tactics as protests, strikes, boycotts, and stay-at-home demonstrations.

The greater success of nonviolence can be explained by the fact that the size of a movement (the numbers of participants) as well as its diversity were the factors that best predicted success. Since people are typically reluctant to get killed or injured, they are usually more willing to join nonviolent movements than violent ones; thus nonviolent movements tend to be larger and more successful. Also, it is easier for people to defect from the government’s side to the rebels if the latter group remain nonviolent.

Of the 323 cases studied, Chenoweth and Stephan found that violent campaigns succeeded only 26 percent of the time, whereas nonviolent campaigns succeeded fully 53 percent of the time.

A common assumption is that nonviolent resistance can succeed only against liberal democratic regimes, and cannot defeat a brutal regime. That is not true. Nonviolence sometimes works against both types of states, and also sometimes fails against both types. The cruelty or mildness of the regime is not the determining factor.

In general, Chenoweth and Stephan assessed the success or failure of a movement by whether its immediate goals were met. Using that indicator, nonviolence worked slightly more than half the time and violence only a quarter of the time. In comparative terms, nonviolence is definitely superior, but nevertheless it fails almost half the time. Those pessimistic realists are not altogether wrong.

Building a Stable Democracy

Now let’s address the realists’ second point: that bringing down a dictator probably won’t bring about a stable democracy. Chaos and inter-group strife are the more likely outcome.

Again, the realists are not completely mistaken, but Chenoweth and Stephan found that nonviolent civil resistance campaigns were much more likely than violent campaigns to have a democracy several years after the authoritarian ruler was forced out. They also found that nonviolent campaigns were less likely lead to a civil war. Indeed, their book has an epilogue (which was written while the nonviolent, pro-democracy Egyptians were occupying Tahrir Square in 2011) and in it they ventured an optimistic projection: Egypt had a thirty percent chance of establishing a democracy that would remain democratic several years later.

This, Chenoweth and Stephan admit, may sound unpromising, but it represents odds twice as favorable as if the protesters had used violence or if there had been no resistance movement at all against Mubarak.

Still, this means that they considered it highly probable—7 chances out of 10—that the Egyptian secular anti-Mubarak activists would fail to bring a lasting democracy to power. This deplorable prospect indicates the continuing challenge of establishing democracy even after a dictator has been ousted nonviolently. The transition to a stable democracy is perilous at best. Even if you get rid of a dictator your challenges are just beginning. Don’t expect democracy to come easily.

So were we na&ium;ve in believing it worth the attempt in Egypt? Some think so. When I expressed my dismay on Facebook about the collapse of democracy in Egypt, a dear Russian friend chimed in by scoffing.

“Come on! The outcome was obvious to everyone who thought or spoke about it in Russia.

“‘There was so much hope a couple of years ago in Egypt. What has gone wrong since?’ It’s just the wishful thinking of Western media and the population’s exposure to its brainwashing effect.

“How could the things go right if there are illiterate hordes in the country, a widespread aggressive religion/ideology, and a semi-terrorist organization that is being constantly infused with endless oil budgets from the Saudis?”

This comment probably represents the most typical attitude in the Russian population today: the “realist’s” vague wish that Russia were democratic, offset by the belief that it would be futile and even counterproductive to demand it. Since I care deeply about Russia, I am troubled to hear my friends express this pessimistic attitude. But I cannot easily dismiss their argument, especially after witnessing the violent aftereffects of the struggle for freedom in Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, and Syria.

And the Russian skeptics are certainly not alone. Another self-described “realist” and former Canadian ambassador to Egypt, Michael Bell, made a similar point, though somewhat more politely, in the Globe and Mail of August 16. Unlike the more cynical Russians, he acknowledged that,

“Striving for change, even against seemingly insurmountable challenges, remains nevertheless honorable and worthy. But such effort, when it ignores social reality, leads to bad decision-making at sometimes horrific cost.”

We peace workers should not ignore Bell’s point. In societies that lack sufficient institutions for handling conflicts, many people feel they need a “strong man” to suppress fights. Josip Broz Tito, Bashar al Assad, Hosni Mubarak, and even Stalin served that function in Yugoslavia, Syria, Egypt, and the Soviet Union. When such a population wins freedom from the dictator, their first reaction may be to attack other ethnic, religious, national, or political groups. Until institutions are created to support a rule of law and the protection of minorities’ rights, even elections are mainly occasions for violence and cheating. That is why post-authoritarian democracies are likely to become “illiberal democracies” that hold elections without being truly accountable to their citizens, especially their minorities.

Russians know this all too well, and therefore most of them are reluctant to engage in civil resistance. They suppose that any hope that the Arab Spring might lead to democracy was just “wishful thinking,” and they are even more convinced that no “Russian Spring” against Putin could succeed. Of course, that pessimism is a self-fulfilling prophecy, for their expectation of failure keeps them from from attempting any pro-democracy civil resistance movement on a scale large enough to succeed.

Success depends on the numbers and diversity of the participants. Whereas the Otpor activists brought 800,000 protesters to the streets of Belgrade, and the Pora activists brought a million protesters to the streets of Kiev, the Moscow activists in a city of about 16 million could attract a one-day maximum of 100,000 protesters two years ago. A crowd of that size is impressive to watch in the streets, but not good enough to bring down a dictator. Most Moscow residents complain bitterly about their state, but very few are willing to take action to oppose it. Indeed, they regard civil resistance activists with contempt and resentment.

Are they right? Are pro-democracy activists naïve? Yes, sometimes. I admit it. But if we are naïve, the “realists” are wrong in a deeper sense. At least, their first point is terribly wrong.

On moral grounds alone one must not acquiesce to tyranny. Any failure to resist authoritarian governance is simply evil. It is not that democratic regimes necessarily make better decisions than authoritarian rulers. Rather, it is that democracy and freedom are necessary for the citizenry themselves to live flourishing human lives. Normal human personalities invariably experience empathy for others and prefer to manage their own lives. These are the defining possibilities resulting from liberal democracy. The “realist’s” acceptance of injustice and tyranny indicates a stunting of personal development.

Yet it is also true that peaceable debate and the respect for minority rights are not practices that spring up spontaneously whenever one is freed from authoritarian repression. Even Gandhi’s exemplary campaign for independence was followed by a bloodbath between Hindus and Muslims. It is true that pro-democracy activists too often underestimate the troubles that will emerge when they open Pandora’s jar. Human nature is inherently neither peaceable or violent; our decency is not just an individual accomplishment but the proper functioning of political institutions that have been invented over the centuries.

Fortunately, newly free societies do not have to invent such institutions for themselves; they can import political systems of foreign origin and save centuries of difficulty. Nevertheless, becoming a democrat is not necessarily easy or instantaneous. This process should be part of the planning and strategizing that pro-democracy civil resisters do before launching their campaigns.

There are many ways of carrying on such work, both before and throughout the civil resistance movement. The most elementary step is simply to develop civil society organizations that bring together participants of diverse backgrounds and interests. Whatever the purpose of the organization may be, it will build habits of tolerance by bringing people together to work on a common project despite their differences and disagreements. The campaign for political reform need not always begin with protests against a stolen election. It can begin in secret as a series of meetings where various sectors of society discuss their vision of tomorrow, before launching mass actions.

Elections should usually be delayed a while after the dictator has handed over the keys to the presidential palace. Before fair elections are possible, sufficient time is required for bringing leaders of all traditionally hostile groups together to create political parties; write a mutually acceptable constitution; clean up the corrupt bureaucracy, armed forces, and police; and establish a rule of law with mechanisms for protecting the rights of minorities. Often it is possible and strategically wise to begin these processes even before calling for nonviolent civil resistance against the dictator.

There are several explanations for the failure of the Arab Spring. The secular protesters in Tahrir Square were wise in maintaining nonviolent discipline but woefully unprepared for the process of developing a new political regime. The two processes—ousting the dictator and creating a new state—should not be planned separately, for they go together. The protesters more recently in Istanbul’s Taksim Square were also nonviolent, but they had not planned for the day after their victory.

In most of the other Arab states, especially Syria, there was no sustained commitment to nonviolence, nor had consultations occurred to prepare for future cooperation. Too often the prevailing notion of democracy is simply this: Whatever element of society wins the first election is entitled to dominate all the others, for, having been defeated, minorities have no rights. Democratization requires the overturning of that assumption.

That’s what I should have said on the CBC.

Metta Spencer is editor of Peace.

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Peace Magazine Oct-Dec 2013

Peace Magazine Oct-Dec 2013, page 13. Some rights reserved.

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