Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Nonviolent Wave?

Nearly every morning lately, I wake up thinking that I'll blog about stories related directly to themes of my book. Today was no different. For the third consecutive day, I sat down hoping to review a book on the decline of the U.S. car industry. Then I checked the news from the Arab world, which is stunning again, as it has been every day for the past few months.

And now I need to say something else. 2011 will be known as a decisive year in world history for its dramatic upheavals: the year of the Arab Wave. But the question is whether it will remain a nonviolent wave.

The king of Morocco and the president of Yemen both announced yesterday that they will advance political reforms that partially meet protestors' demands. In Morocco, King Mohammed VI announced that the country would go through "comprehensive constitutional reform" (for full text of the speech click here). In Yemen, President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has been facing daily protests against his regime, said in an address carried on national TV that he wanted to introduce a new constitution to make Yemen's government a parliamentary system. Nonviolent protestors have pushed these regimes to do something that was unthinkable a few months ago. 

Dramatic changes are sweeping across the Arab world in a wave of mostly peaceful unrest (Libya excepted). I see at least two forces pushing this wave.

First is globalization:

  • Economic globalization contributed to uneven living standards. On the one hand, it improved health and sanitation standards, causing the population to boom. On the other hand, it didn't do enough to get Arab economies moving to create enough jobs for young people.
  • Political globalization--specifically, the global institution of the sovereign state as the authoritative political structure--leads the protestors to demand specific changes within their own countries, rather than pan-Arab or pan-Islamic changes. Because the structures of authority are now unchallenged, there is little possibility of linking protest movements across national boundaries (a version of this argument about the impossibility of transnationalism was made by the French scholar Olivier Roy way back in the 1990s). Instead, we have seen distinctly different movements within each country, tied to their unique political histories.
  • Cultural globalization--the exploding awareness of global trends within the region, driven by the Internet and satellite television--has led to a speedy spread of stories, ideas, and images. People see what their neighbors in other Arab countries are doing. Demonstrations and people power toppled the regimes in Tunisia and Egypt, while it continues to generate revolutionary fervor in every Arab country but Syria. Globalized media breed intense awareness, the possibility of networking, the desire to imitate others, and the consciousness of regional and global solidarity. During the Egypt crisis, I found it amazing that pro-democracy demonstrations were organized outside Egyptian embassies around the world within a few days. People abroad felt connected to Egyptian protestors and felt compelled to support them.

The other factor here is non-violence, which is sorely lacking only in Libya. In a piece in today's New York Times, Erica Chenoweth of Wesleyan University argues that non-violent protests are actually more successful in bringing about transitions to democracy. As she puts it,
Although the change is not immediate, our data show that from 1900 to 2006, 35 percent to 40 percent of authoritarian regimes that faced major nonviolent uprisings had become democracies five years after the campaign ended, even if the campaigns failed to cause immediate regime change. For the nonviolent campaigns that succeeded, the figure increases to well over 50 percent.
The good guys don’t always win, but their chances increase greatly when they play their cards well. Nonviolent resistance is about finding and exploiting points of leverage in one’s own society. Every dictatorship has vulnerabilities, and every society can find them.
Alas, the rebellion in Libya failed to stay non-violent (not that one can blame the rebels, who were facing violent crackdowns by the Qaddafi regime). But the details in Chenoweth's forthcoming co-authored book, Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict (Columbia University Press, 2011), suggest that non-violence may be a more successful strategy than violent resistance.*

If the protestors stay non-violent across the region, we may see a number of new democracies emerge. Or if they take the Libyan route, we could see lots of bloodshed and a possible triumph of tyranny.

I know which route I'm praying for, and it ain't Libya's.
* The same day I wrote this, Sojourners published a blog post on Chenoweth's work.

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