The Power of Truth

Egypt and the Reaffirmation of Nonviolent Political Change

Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite explores some of the key U.S. policy lessons from the nonviolent democracy demonstrations across the Arab world.

Anti-government protesters, and Egyptian soldiers on top of their vehicles, make traditional Muslim Friday prayers at the continuing demonstration in Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo. Nonviolence as an effective method of social and political change may be making some headway in the Arab world.
<br /> (AP/Ben Curtis)
Anti-government protesters, and Egyptian soldiers on top of their vehicles, make traditional Muslim Friday prayers at the continuing demonstration in Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo. Nonviolence as an effective method of social and political change may be making some headway in the Arab world.
(AP/Ben Curtis)

Nonviolence as an effective method of social and political change may be making some headway in the Arab world, as the events in Tunisia and especially Egypt demonstrate. President Barack Obama in his remarks on the announcement that President Hosni Mubarak had resigned, spoke of the “moral force of nonviolence.” It was this moral force, he said, “not mindless killing, but nonviolence” that “bent the arc of history toward justice once more.”

Will the nonviolence of Egyptian activists, and before them Tunisian activists, be the take-away lesson from these extraordinary weeks? Did we just witness a small opening for an attitudinal shift in the Arab world away from the violence of terrorism? And what about policy shifts in our own country?

Nonviolence in both religious and universal moral perspectives has a practical history of achieving positive social change around the world. Mahatma Gandhi’s “satyagraha” movement of nonviolence against British rule in India and the U.S. civil rights movement led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. are the two most famous examples, but nonviolent political protests led to the ascent of democracy in many parts of Eastern Europe, East Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, and Latin America in the 20th century.

Today, with the Internet and social media, nonviolent direct action is changing and expanding into the Arab world. Changes in U.S. policy can assist in this effort by promoting the full range of tools of nonviolence in theory and practice. Here’s why:

  • Nonviolence is a powerful tool for social change and thus should be better understood and promoted in foreign policy circles for its capacity to effect long-term, democratic change even in the face of violent opposition.
  • The use of new media is now part of the theory and practice of nonviolence, enabling the Internet and especially social media to promote direct nonviolent action to foster democratic change. Supporting what Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has called “the freedom to connect” is a critical step forward in U.S. policy in promoting these efforts.
  • The Internet and especially social media do not automatically result in nonviolent, positive political change or lead to nonviolent change alone. Classic forms of nonviolent protest such as demonstrations and marches are also required for mass movements to achieve regime change. Alongside promoting “the freedom to connect,” the United States should also promote the full range of the practices of modern nonviolence.

So let’s see how these three nonviolent political dynamics played out in Egypt to see how applicable they could be elsewhere in the Arab world.

Nonviolence in theory and practice

The theory and practice of nonviolence were influential on the pro-democracy demonstrators in Egypt. Yet, in many policy circles, nonviolence, when not dismissed as “naive” by conservatives, is still thought to be very limited by the real world conditions of violence, as seen even in President Obama’s Nobel Prize speech, in which he noted both Hitler and al Qaeda as reasons why “we will not eradicate violent conflict in our lifetimes.”

Nonviolent direct action, however, is designed to deal with the real world conditions of violence and injustice. Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. are credited with creating the modern methods of nonviolent direct action. Their work produced long-term change in spite of violent tactics on the part of those who wanted to prevent progressive social change. Other political reformers, from South Africa’s Nelson Mandela to South Korea’s Kim Dae Jung, led similar nonviolent political reform, as did others in the Philippines and Poland, Ukraine and Equador, Czechoslovakia and Mongolia.

The antigovernment demonstrators in Egypt employed these same practices on nonviolent direct action, including strikes, demonstrations, marches, and boycotts. In addition, these young Egyptians used new technologies, especially social media, in innovative and productive ways to expand their work.

The role of new media

The events in Egypt this winter are already being called “Revolution 2.0” and the role of social media touted as pivotal in this shift. Yet, it is important to realize that the use of the media has been part of the development of nonviolent direct-action theory and practice for a long time now. Both Gandhi and King employed the media as a big part of their nonviolent campaigns. Gandhi was in regular touch with the world media, and the distribution of the relatively new technology of newsreels of the mass demonstrations in India was a significant source of leverage for his movement.

The U.S. civil rights movement gained enormously from newer mass media coverage when a mainstream publication such as Life magazine showed high school students being pummeled by high-pressure fire hoses in Birmingham, Alabama, drawing international attention that helped promote social and political change.

Yet the role of the Internet, and especially social media, is clearly a new factor in nonviolent direct action as it is being used not only, as King and Gandhi did, to move world opinion, but also as a tool of effective organization. There is nothing in Internet communication or social media per se, however, that guarantees they will serve the purposes of nonviolence. Indeed, the Internet has been a boom for online recruiting for terrorism of all kinds.

Nevertheless, it is critical that the United States support Internet freedom. This is a crucial stance for U.S. policy, and one that supports the kind of cyberfreedom so essential to the work of nonviolent activism today, while also tracking and stopping online terrorism and criminal activity. In articulating this policy, Secretary Clinton noted that the U.S. will “pursue these goals in accordance with our values [of] Liberty and security, transparency and confidentiality, freedom of expression and tolerance.” If those sound somewhat incompatible, the secretary noted, it’s because they are and supporting all those values will surely “raise tensions and pose challenges.”

Nonviolent direct action goes beyond social media

But the Internet alone did not achieve the changes in Egypt to date. Indeed, cutting off Internet access as Mubarak did on January 27, 2011, despite the alarm expressed in the online world, precipitated more nonviolent direct change. The cut in Internet services had the effect of concentrating demonstrators in Tahrir Square, resulting in a more “classic” example of public marches and demonstrations as described in the practices of nonviolent direct action.

In addition to promoting “the freedom to connect” and online activism for nonviolent direct action, it is crucial that U.S. policy expand to include helping to provide activists around the world who are seeking nonviolent democratic change to obtain the full range of tools of nonviolence that have been developed in the 20th century, and are now proving so helpful to young activists in the twenty-first. Studying the work of Gene Sharp, perhaps the foremost academic expert on nonviolence theory and practice, and learning from his 50 years of expertise is a great place to start. Studying Sharp’s work, and its use by a Serbian youth movement, is where the young Egyptian activists started.

U.S. policy on the “freedom to connect” today should expand to include support for the many fine nongovernmental groups that are already working to teach nonviolent direct action around the world, not only in cyberspace, but on the ground in neighborhoods, towns, and whole countries.

Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress.

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Rev. Dr. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite