Ahmed Salah, speaking in Madrid. Photo by Hanna Nikkanen
I recently met some people involved in the Egyptian Revolution and other movements around the world. The most vital lesson was hope and non-violence. With hope all things are possible and with non-violence it’s possible to communicate hope.
Force Of Nature
One broad trend I saw was that Arab-style revolution seems to be almost a force of nature. Once the conditions are there, the smallest spark can set it off. Activist Ahmed Salah organized small groups of people to attract numbers in the neighborhoods of Cairo. Normal people seeing other people in the street was the catalyst, not Facebook or Twitter. That spark was the product of years of street-level organizing, though it emerged to the media overnight.
It’s like a forest fire, really. If the underbrush is dry enough, a little spark can make it spread. When people in Cairo saw activists demonstrating their patience was dry enough that they felt OK to march with them. By the time the different groups converged on Tahrir Square, they were a roaring flame.
This was possible not because the activists were so organized but largely because Mubarak was so bad. He had reached the limits of the peoples’ endurance years ago and they were just waiting for someone to say that the emperor had no clothes. Every regime depends on consent and that consent is often just silence. Once that silence is broken, anything goes.
For the people who made that change, however, it was by no means easy or guaranteed. The activists were organized, to the utmost of their abilities under an extremely repressive police state. Blogger Khaled Said had his face literally bashed in for sharing videos. Ahmed himself had his nose broken and showed us a photo of himself in front of a tank, like the Phantom of The Revolution. They kept trying and kept believing (indeed, in person he is a focused fountain of hope) and that seems to be what made the difference.
Ahmed said that he had no idea what would happen on the morning of January 25th. They were not planning for a revolution nor were they expecting great success. They had also failed many times before. It seems like a force of nature in hindsight, but it’s not like anyone can really predict forest fires in advance either.
Non-Violence As Tactic
The second lesson was that non-violence is a tactic as much as a moral imperative. It’s called for because it works, not simply because it’s the right thing to do.
Most regimes know how to confront violence and there is generally international support for doing so. They don’t know how to confront non-violence and generally lose face when they try. It seems that many regimes will actually try to goad protesters into becoming violent, to essentially play their game. The challenge for resistance movements is to keep the game on their own territory and keep the regime guessing. It is as much a tactical move as a moral one.
Pillars Of Consent
What these movements are competing for is essentially the consent of the people. Every regime must have the tacit consent of the masses (through silence and cooperation) and active support from certain pillars of the community – the military, business interests, etc. What successful movements seem to do is to target these pillars rather than the edifice on top. They don’t appeal for change from the regime, they appeal to the military and other interests to peel away the regime’s support. Once stripped of consent and support, the emperor has no clothes.
This means that there are more specific tactics involved than simply calling the Leader a tyrant. In Egypt, for example, when the state media began spreading lies, Ahmed and Joseph Rizk said that they tried to contact and influence state media employees directly, peeling them off bit by bit. This becomes much easier to hold if the movement is itself not threatening. American civil rights activists, for example, made a conscious effort to dress well and behave nicely while staging sit-ins at lunch counters.
That again is a specific tactic. Ivan Marovic, a veteran of the student movement that overthrew Slobodan Miloševic said that they also tried humor as a means to give themselves some asymmetrical force.
“If you have 10,000 people in the street it’s news. 10 people? Not news,” he said. “10 people doing something crazy? News”
For example, they set up a barrel in a town square with Miloševic’s picture on it and a bat nearby. People were asked to either donate money for Slobo’s retirement or beat on the barrel if they were angry. This created a scene without getting anyone hurt or arrested. In the end, the police arrested the barrel, making themselves look silly.
Marovic said fear and apathy are the main foundation of a regime. What activists seem to do is essentially pierce that veil which gives silent consent. Keeping that going, however, is a matter of constantly shifting tactics.
“Regimes like protests marches because everything is expected. They’re like, Ok, 10,000 people in the street, we need this many water cannons, this many police,” Marovic said. “Faced with something new, it takes time and cripples them.”
Hence, the lesson seems to be not to master specific tactics but to use new tactics that play on the processing delay within the system.
The Role Of Media
A presenter named Anne-Marie Codur showed a table with different types of communication on it. These ranged from the non-electrical/Internet (like street protests, songs) to the hyper-electrical, like Facebook and Twitter. As much attention as the electrical signals have got, the old-school ones seem to be much more effective. Ahmed said that they had organized failed protests for a while. What made a difference was actually showing people in the streets. That enabled the movement to gather steam and grow organically more than a Facebook invite to Tahrir Square.
While FB, Twitter, electronic and print media get the word out, the word in seems to be largely through word of mouth and line of sight. At least at the beginning. What’s interesting is that all of the powers that be seem to have a time lag before they can digest and respond to something, and this includes the mainstream media. Ahmed said that they knew their phones were tapped but they also knew that it took the security apparatus about 2 days to process any info. Hence they could operate in that gap.
This is not that social media and mainstream don’t matter. I think the preponderance of media in the Arab world has let people know that life can be better whereas in North Korea they’d need an intensive orientation to even understand Friends. In terms of actual organizing, however, nothing seems to beat face-to-face, street-to-street.
What all the activists seem to have neglected is what happens after, the inevitable regression to the mean. In Egypt, Ahmed and Joe complained that the military is not behaving democratically and theye opposed the Constitutional amendments which the caretaker government recently passed. In terms of elections and actually taking power, they seem completely outclassed by the old NDP, Muslim brotherhood and military elites.
In Serbia, the OTPOR movement that galvanized street protests tried to run for office and got like 2% of the vote. So though they showed people power, they didn’t necessarily have it.
“To them we were kids that got arrested,” Marovic said.
Mmm, and that’s all I can think of right now. There’s a lot more ideas, but the central one seemed to be, as Jack Duvall first presented, that nonviolent resistance can work, that it mainly gets messed up when it becomes violent, and that its progress is a constant play of shifting tactics between a small group and a bigger but slower and more regimented adversary.
Where civil resistance works also seems to be heavily dependent on circumstance. When a tyrant pushes things so far it almost becomes inevitable, though it appears extremely dark until the dawn. There is an academic method to the movement, but this almost seems to emerge spontaneously on the ground. While useful, it seems that there is no specific training for this sort of thing. Duvall showed an interesting quote from Frederick Douglass on the subject:
“Find out just what the people will submit to and you have found out the exact amount of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them; and these will continue until they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.” – Frederick Douglass, civil rights activist, Aug. 4, 1857
Basically, at a certain point, people will resist. If they are nonviolent they seem to have a better chance of success, if they understand tactics chances get better, if the media understands them it’s also good, and if they’re organized they have a better chance of holding power after. The only thing constant, however, is change.
Local Note: I should note that I don’t support Egyptian style revolution in Sri Lanka, unless it’s to overthrow the current opposition leader. The Egyptians had to deal with state persecution, torture and murder for things like distributing flyers or organizing protests. It’s not like that here. I am writing this, for example, under my own name. Sri Lanka needs change, but I think that is still possible through the ballot box, if only the opposition would actually run.