Saturday, February 12, 2011

Paving the Way for a People's Democracy

The current Egyption revolution adds to the ever-growing list of countries that successfully apply strategic nonviolent action to regimes that prefer violence and repression over peaceful civil democratic methods. Yet many will remain unconvinced that nonviolence is an alternative to violence in most "normal" situations. Soon Egypt will become one more aberration that cannot be applied to the "general" situation. This is a dynamic that must be resisted. By the Egyptian people and by all who envisage a world where peace reigns and violence is the forgotten realm of a less enlightened period of human history.

For the Egyptian people The Nonviolent Story celebrates February 11th as the day Mubarak resigned as president and relinquished the power of his dictatorship to the military. We stand with you as you continue to struggle for real democracy.

One recent article by John Horgan in Scientific American argues that the Nile Revolution lends support to Gene Sharp's theories on nonviolent change. Imagine the carnage that could have ensued had the Egyptian people tried to oust Mubarak with violence. Instead only (and tragically) a few people have lost their lives working to oust the regime.

Now that this has finally happened the country begins the long road to democracy. Ousting the dictator successfully resisted the evil, now it is time to work with and for the good.

One key element in this journey will be reconciliation. In particular, accounting for the actions of the secret police, dissapearances, deaths, torture, compliance with foreign governments, and usage of the massive military aid budget from the US.

Walter Wink writes in Healing a Nation's Wound of the many successful, not-so-successful and failed attempts at national reconciliation including Namibia, Uruguay, Guatemala, El Salvador, Brazil, Argentina, Chile, South Africa. He particularly cautions of the many ways in which reconciliation processes can be railroaded by remaining elements of past regimes that hold onto power and refuse to admit to the death and destruction under their watch.

A vital process for the healing of surviving family members of those "disappeared" is for the truth to come out. This is no pie-in-the-sky truth but a concrete truth. Names, places, dates, reasons and methods relating to the victims' disappearance and death. Once people have the full information there is an opportunity to move forward. Even in the grisly truth of death by torture, family members can finally know what happened to their loved ones. This gives people the power to offer forgiveness to the perpetrators, where possible. And forgiveness, it seems, is only partially for the benefit of the perpetrator. Mostly forgiveness is to allow the survivors to let go of the pain, hatred, anger and grief that has remained welled up inside. It is a releasing of emotional poison.

So let us hope, pray and work in solidarity with Egypt and the many other countries freeing themselves from years of captivity to work for truth and reconciliation in Egypt. This means setting up mechanisms and procedures to deal with 60 years of dictatorial rulerships.

Why is this so important? Nonviolent strategic change is a relatively recent "science". The practice has been around for millennia but rarely well understood. Only in the last century or so has there been devoted efforts to understand why nonviolence is so effective at producing change. Since the beginning of the last century dozens of countries have experienced nonviolent regime change and Walter Wink in Jesus and Nonviolence estimates that a significant proportion of the human race of the 20th Century participated in those events.

But as with all change processes, the immediate change, say from a dictator to a democratically elected government, is the "easy" part (or perhaps the speedier part). While civil society has been battling Mubarak for 30 years it took just 18 days to topple his regime in direct popular resistance. No armed movement could have hoped to achieve a victory like that. Maoists in Nepal tried for 30 years to overtake the royalist government, failed and successfully killed and displaced tens of thousands of victims. The legacy of their failed movement lasts today and will do for generations to come.

The Orange Revolution was hailed as a great success, which it was, but quickly succumbed to real politic and the Ukraine is perhaps back to where it started. Not because nonviolent change didn't work, but because it wasn't converted into sustainable change of the political structures. It's not that big of a surprise. There are significant incentives for governments to betray the people they were elected to serve.

My hope is that the Egyptian activists and civil society have not simply ousted (yet another) US-backed dictator, but that they will create a new Egypt controlled by the will of the Egyptian people, no longer compliant to regional or global politics and economic "realities". The Egyptian people have proven, once more, that nonviolence is a reality with the power to challenge deeply ingrained repressive governments. It's now up to them to prove that nonviolence can also be the guiding light for the day-to-day of life, whether it be in politics, economics, education, families, small businesses, child rearing, Christian-Muslim relations, you name it. And I think they have what it takes because right from the beginning of the resistance campaign activists and everyday Egyptians made their resolve to see this through visible to the world.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Friday, February 4, 2011

A Recent Conversation on Egypt and Nonviolent Protest

Friend 1: "It's amazing that it's possible to bring down a government simply by amassing large numbers of people (peacefully). Thoughts on why demonstrations and protests are so much less efficacious in America?"

Friend 2: "I feel like it's because in general we are more content with our lives and the government. Although it does seem like when I read the news, people seem less and less satisfied with the government but honestly, I think most people realize how good they have it there (in the US)."

Me: "Great blog to check out on this very issue is They go into why nonviolence is/isn't effective in specific situations. My guess on the US is that many protests are purely symbolic, no one is really putting their lives/careers on the line for the cause. Whereas in Egypt the simple act of a public gathering is a seditious act and not just symbolic. It shows the strength of people's commitment to change. Of course, if this drags on, their tactics will need to evolve. There may be other issues to, like perhaps the US is better able to co-opt the message of any protesting group. There is a veneer of respectability in the US that is harder to penetrate, whereas someone who is openly a dictator is a much easier target. If one hundred thousand US citizens engaged in obvious public nonviolent civil disobedience, eg over immigration reform or to close Guantanamo, daily for ten days you will probably see more effectiveness."

Friend 3: "I agree. There are protests and protests. Symbolic protests are just so. Real protests in countries where the very right of protesting is almost nonexistent can be quite effective. But look what happens in Egypt. Almost two weeks of protests and the dictator won't budge..."

Friend 4: "let's not kid ourselves: the protests we are seeing in the middle east are not entirely peaceful. the implicit threat that the large groups of people become more unhappy and less peaceful if their demands are not met is part of the reason behind their effectiveness."

Me to Friend 3: "It may look like the dictator isn't budging, but he's making all the classic moves of a dictator in his last throws of power."

Me to Friend 4: "The protesters are not less peaceful because their demands are not being met, rather because of provocation by hired thugs. It's a strategy used by incumbent regimes of all kinds to turn public sentiment away from the core concerns. The protesters need to gain better discipline. As far as I know, there have been no threats made otherwise. The large group can be seen as a a potentially violent threat. It can also be seen as a statement saying, "do what you like, you are no longer relevant and we will choose how to live from now on.""