Paths to change: peaceful vs violent

The diverse experiences of the Arab spring renew the question of whether non-violent movements are more effective than armed struggle in achieving the overthrow of authoritarian regimes, says Martin Shaw.

Martin Shaw
Martin Shaw
5 February 2013

It is now two years since the "Arab spring" spread popular protest across the one world-region still overwhelmingly dominated by authoritarian rulers, and thus heralded a major new phase of the democratic upheavals that have transformed the world over recent decades. These largely peaceful mass movements achieved remarkable, if qualified, successes in Tunisia and Egypt: qualified, because their transformation remains conflicted, their aspirations to fundamental political change have been contained, and their very impact has released many new social problems that they are not yet in a position to solve.

In two countries, moreover, non-violent protests were largely overtaken by violent campaigns. In Libya, activists took up arms after peaceful protests were brutally repressed,  improvising an insurgency that the west first saved from defeat and then aided to victory; and in Syria, an initially peaceful uprising equally met with repression slowly turned into a destructive and messy civil war that ended hopes of peaceful change and, after two years, offers an increasingly bleak prospect. If Libya can be counted a success of sorts, Syria's suffering represents a terrible failure that casts a shadow over the hopes for democratic change in the entire Arab world.

The experiences of Libya and Syria, in the context of the Arab spring as a whole, pose questions about the relationship between violence and non-violence in political change, and whether alternative roads and results were possible:

* Could the original peaceful Libyan opposition have survived Gaddafi's violence and re-emerged, either in the short or medium term, to remove the regime without taking up arms?

* Why did the Syrian opposition, which followed a peaceful course much longer, finally succumb to violence? Did this shift genuinely improve the chances of overthrowing Bashar al-Assad's regime? If it did, has it been worth the additional suffering caused to so many people? Was there another, better path that could have been based on expanding the non-violent opposition?

Choices and costs

The questions are too complex for short or easy answers. But what these intractable situations make clear is that peaceful movements have offered no guarantee of change, and that violent opposition has succeeded only with substantial external help, which brings its own problems. This very lack of clarity is an invitation to revisit the fundamental choice between peaceful and violent methods in political change. In this respect, a timely academic study by Erica Chenoweth and Maria J Stephan - Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict - offers valuable insight.

The authors use the methods of political science to test the strategic alternatives of violent and non-violent resistance across 323 cases from 1900-2006. They both attempt to quantify "successes" and "failures" (defined according to the stated goals of resistance movements, and discernible evidence that their actions have contributed to their achievement) and develop in-depth case-studies and nuanced arguments that reflect the diversity of historical experience. This multi-method framework raises its own questions, from the inevitable difficulties faced by generalists in understanding and classifying many different examples (and some of the authors' specific judgments are certainly open to debate); but the approach seems broadly successful in neutralising any fundamental challenge to their arguments and conclusions.

Chenoweth and Stephan argue that the "participation advantage" of civil resistance ensures it works better than armed resistance. The evidence, they say, shows that non-violence is capable of mobilising large sections of a population against an authoritarian regime, of undermining regime support, and even of securing significant defections from within the elite. The broader support gained by non-violent movements typically increases the costs to regimes of resisting change, and repression against non-violent movements is much more likely to backfire. But if such movements fail to achieve sufficient breadth, they may fail to achieve their goals.

The authors also recognise, however, that armed resistance can work when it is more successful in mobilising popular support, or (a crucial factor) when it has external support. Non-violent movements often benefit from some limited types of international backing, but rarely depend as much on the latter as do armed movements. But the success of arms often carries a further cost in the aftermath of change, say the authors, in that armed movements are much less likely than non-violent ones to lead to the establishment of a democratic regime.

In comparing violent and non-violent campaigns in the same national contexts, the study shows that the latter are invariably more effective both in mobilising larger numbers of people, and generally so in achieving their objectives. But the authors are sceptical of the argument proposed by some scholars that a violent campaigns can act as a complement to larger social movements - a sort of "radical flank" that enables "moderates" to win; rather, they say, violence is likely to harden regime support that might otherwise crumble in the face of peaceful protest. They note that while violence is often justified as a "last resort" where non-violence is supposed to have failed, it is rare that movements resorting to violence have come near to exhausting the possibilities of non-violence.

At the same time, the study does not fully address the question of whether taking up arms cuts off possibilities of peaceful change and damages wider non-violent movements. Why Civil Resistance Works appears to have been completed in the initial phases of the Arab spring, since when the hard cases of the Arab spring have got even harder, so it cannot tell activists in Benghazi or Aleppo or what they should have done or should be doing.

Yet the work offers a sobering basis for reflection of the present course of events. The bloody stalemate in Syria's civil war, and the recharging of the ill-judged "war on terror" in the linked Malian/Algerian crises, make it even more relevant to question the primacy of violent methods as a way to achieve change. They also highlight the need to ask what might have been, if rigorous and imaginative policies of non-violent resistance had been universally maintained.

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