Weapons of Mass Democracy

On the outskirts of a desert town in the Moroccan-occupied territory
of Western Sahara, about a dozen young activists are gathered. They are
involved in their country's long struggle for freedom. A group of
foreigners-veterans of protracted resistance movements-is conducting a
training session in the optimal use of a "weapons system" that is
increasingly deployed in struggles for freedom around the world. The
workshop leaders pass out Arabic translations of writings on the theory
and dynamics of revolutionary struggle and lead the participants in a
series of exercises designed to enhance their strategic and tactical

These trainers are not veterans of guerrilla warfare, however, but
of unarmed insurrections against repressive regimes. The materials they
hand out are not the words of Che Guevara, but of Gene Sharp, the
former Harvard scholar who has pioneered the study of strategic
nonviolent action. And the weapons they advocate employing are not guns
and bombs, but strikes, boycotts, mass demonstrations, tax refusal,
alternative media, and refusal to obey official orders.

Serbs, South Africans, Filipinos, Georgians, and other veterans of
successful nonviolent struggles are sharing their knowledge and
experience with those still fighting dictators and occupation armies.

The young Western Saharans know how an armed struggle by an older
generation of their countrymen failed to dislodge the Moroccans, who
first invaded their country back in 1975. They have seen how Morocco's
allies on the U.N. Security Council-led by France and the United
States-blocked enforcement of U.N. resolutions supporting their right
to self-determination. With the failure of both armed struggle and
diplomacy to bring them freedom, they have decided to instead employ a
force more powerful.

The Rise of Nonviolence

The long-standing assumption that dictatorial regimes can only be
overthrown through armed struggle or foreign military intervention is
coming under increasing challenge. Though nonviolent action has a long and impressive history
going back centuries, events in recent decades have demonstrated more
than ever that nonviolent action is not just a form of principled
witness utilized by religious pacifists. It is the most powerful
political tool available to challenge oppression.

It was not the leftist guerrillas of the New People's Army who
brought down the U.S.-backed Marcos dictatorship in the Philippines. It
was nuns praying the rosary in front of the regime's tanks, and the
millions of others who brought greater Manila to a standstill.

It was not the 11 weeks of bombing that brought down Serbian leader
Slobodan Milosevic, the infamous "butcher of the Balkans." It was a
nonviolent resistance movement led by young students, whose generation
had been sacrificed in a series of bloody military campaigns against
neighboring Yugoslav republics, and who were able to mobilize a large
cross-section of the population to rise up against a stolen election.

It was not the armed wing of the African National Congress that
brought majority rule to South Africa. It was workers, students, and
township dwellers who-through the use of strikes, boycotts, the
creation of alternative institutions, and other acts of defiance-made
it impossible for the apartheid system to continue.

It was not NATO that brought down the communist regimes of Eastern
Europe or freed the Baltic republics from Soviet control. It was Polish
dockworkers, East German church people, Estonian folk singers, Czech intellectuals, and millions of ordinary citizens.

Similarly, such tyrants as Jean-Claude Duvalier in Haiti, Moussa
Traore in Mali, King Gyanendra in Nepal, General Suharto in Indonesia,
and, most recently, Maumoon Gayoom in the Maldives were forced to cede
power when it became clear that they were powerless in the face of
massive nonviolent resistance and noncooperation.

The power of nonviolent action has been acknowledged even by such groups as Freedom House,
a Washington-based organization with close ties to the foreign policy
establishment. Its 2005 study observed that, of the nearly 70 countries
that have made the transition from dictatorship to varying degrees of
democracy in the past 30 years, only a small minority did so through
armed struggle from below or reform instigated from above. Hardly any
new democracies resulted from foreign invasion. In nearly
three-quarters of the transitions, change was rooted in democratic
civil-society organizations that employed nonviolent methods. In
addition, the study noted that countries where nonviolent civil
resistance movements played a major role tend to have freer and more
stable democratic systems.

A different study, published last year in the journal International Security,
used an expanded database and analyzed 323 major insurrections in
support of self-determination and democratic rule since 1900. It found
that violent resistance was successful only 26 percent of the time,
whereas nonviolent campaigns had a 53 percent success rate.

From the poorest nations of Africa to the relatively affluent
countries of Eastern Europe; from communist regimes to right-wing
military dictatorships; from across the cultural, geographic and
ideological spectrum, democratic and progressive forces have recognized
the power of nonviolent action to free them from oppression. This has
not come, in most cases, from a moral or spiritual commitment to
nonviolence, but simply because it works.

Why Nonviolent Action Works

Armed resistance, even for a just cause, can terrify people not yet
committed to the struggle, making it easier for a government to justify
violent repression and use of military force in the name of protecting
the population. Even rioting and vandalism can turn public opinion
against a movement, which is why some governments have employed agents
provocateurs to encourage such violence. The use of force against
unarmed resistance movements, on the other hand, usually creates
greater sympathy for the government's opponents. As with the martial
art of aikido, nonviolent opposition movements can engage the force of
the state's repression and use it to effectively disarm the force
directed against them.

In addition, unarmed campaigns involve a range of participants far
beyond the young able-bodied men normally found in the ranks of armed
guerrillas. As the movement grows in strength, it can include a large
cross-section of the population. Though most repressive governments are
well-prepared to deal with a violent insurgency, they tend to be less
prepared to counter massive non-cooperation by old, middle-aged, and
young. When millions of people defy official orders by engaging in
illegal demonstrations, going out on strike, violating curfews,
refusing to pay taxes, and otherwise refusing to recognize the
legitimacy of the state, the state no longer has power. During the
"people power" uprising against the Marcos dictatorship in the
Philippines, for example, Marcos lost power not through the defeat of
his troops and the storming of the Malacanang Palace but when-due to
massive defiance of his orders-the palace became the only part of the
country he still effectively controlled.

Furthermore, pro-government elements tend to be more willing to
compromise with nonviolent insurgents, who are less likely to
physically harm their opponents when they take power. When massive
demonstrations challenged the military junta in Chile in the late
1980s, military leaders convinced the dictator Augusto Pinochet to
agree to the nonviolent protesters' demands for a referendum on his
continued rule and to accept the results when the vote went against him.

Unarmed movements also increase the likelihood of defections and
non-cooperation by police and military personnel, who will generally
fight in self-defense against armed guerrillas but are hesitant to
shoot into unarmed crowds. Such defiance was key to the downfall of
dictatorships in East Germany, Mali, Serbia, the Philippines, Ukraine,
and elsewhere. The moral power of nonviolence is crucial to the ability
of an opposition movement to reframe the perceptions of the public,
political elites, and the military.

A Democratizing Force

In many cases, armed revolutionaries-trained in martial values, the
power of the gun, and a leadership model based upon a secret, elite
vanguard-have themselves become authoritarian rulers once in power. In
addition, because civil war often leads to serious economic,
environmental, and social problems, the new leadership is tempted to
embrace emergency powers they are later reluctant to surrender. Algeria
and Guinea-Bissau experienced military coups soon after their
successful armed independence struggles, while victorious communist
guerrillas in a number of countries simply established new

By contrast, successful nonviolent movements build broad coalitions
based on compromise and consensus. The new order that emerges from that
foundation tends to be pluralistic and democratic.

Liberal democracy carries no guarantee of social justice, but many
of those involved in pro-democracy struggles have later played a key
role in leading the effort to establish more equitable social and
economic orders. For example, the largely nonviolent indigenous peasant
and worker movements that ended a series of military dictatorships in
Bolivia in the 1980s formed the basis of the movement that brought Evo Morales and his allies to power, resulting in a series of exciting reforms benefiting the country's poor, indigenous majority.

Another reason nonviolent movements tend to create sustainable
democracy is that, in the course of the movement, alternative
institutions are created that empower ordinary people. For example,
autonomous workers' councils eroded the authority of party apparatchiks
in Polish industry even as the Communist Party still nominally ruled
the country. In South Africa, popularly elected local governments and
people's courts in the black townships completely usurped the authority
of administrators and judges appointed by the apartheid regime long
before majority rule came to the country as a whole.

Recent successes of nonviolent tactics have raised concerns about
their use by those with undemocratic aims. However, it is virtually
impossible for an undemocratic result to emerge from a movement based
upon broad popular support. Local elites, often with the support of
foreign powers, have historically promoted regime change through
military invasions, coup d'etats, and other kinds of violent seizures
of power that install an undemocratic minority. Nonviolent "people
power" movements, by contrast, make peaceful regime change possible by
empowering pro-democratic majorities.

Indeed, every successful nonviolent insurrection has been a
homegrown movement rooted in the realization by the masses that their
rulers were illegitimate and that the political system would not
redress injustice. By contrast, a nonviolent insurrection is unlikely
to succeed when the movement's leadership and agenda do not have the
backing of the majority of the population. This is why the 2002-2003
"strike" by some privileged sectors of Venezuela's oil industry failed
to bring down the democratically elected government of Hugo Chavez,
while the widely supported strikes in the Iranian oil fields against
the Shah in 1978-1979 were key in bringing down his autocratic regime.

Homegrown Movements

Unlike most successful unarmed insurrections, Iran slid back under
autocratic rule after the overthrow of the Shah. Now, hard-line clerics
and their allies have themselves been challenged by a nonviolent
pro-democracy movement. Like most governments facing popular
challenges, rather than acknowledging their own failures, the Iranian
regime has sought to blame outsiders for fomenting the resistance.
Given the sordid history of U.S. interventionism in that
country-including the overthrow of Iran's last democratic government in
1953 in a CIA-backed military coup-some are taking those claims
seriously. However, Iranians have engaged in nonviolent action for
generations, not just in opposition to the Shah, but going back to the
1890-1892 boycotts against concessions to the British and the 1905-1908
Constitutional Revolution. There is little Americans can teach Iranians
about such civil resistance.

Citing funding from Western governments and foundations, similar
charges of powerful Western interests being responsible for nonviolent
insurrections have also been made in regard to recent successful
pro-democracy movements in Serbia, Georgia, and Ukraine.

However, while outside funding can be useful in enabling opposition
groups to buy computers, print literature, and promote their work, it
cannot cause a nonviolent liberal democratic revolution to take place
any more than Soviet financial and material support for leftist
movements in previous decades could cause an armed socialist revolution
to take place.

Successful revolutions, whatever their ideological orientation, are
the result of certain social conditions. Indeed, no amount of money
could force hundreds of thousands of people to leave their jobs, homes,
schools, and families to face down heavily armed police and tanks and
put their bodies on the line. They must be motivated by a desire for
change so strong they are willing to make the sacrifices and take the
personal risks to bring it about.

In any case, there is no standardized formula for success that a
foreign government could put together, since the history, culture, and
political alignments of each country are unique. No foreign government
can recruit or mobilize the large numbers of ordinary civilians
necessary to build a movement capable of effectively challenging the
established political leadership, much less of toppling a government.

Even workshops like the one for the Western Saharan activists,
usually funded through nonprofit, nongovernmental foundations,
generally focus on providing generic information on the theory,
dynamics, and history of nonviolent action. There is broad consensus
among workshop leaders that only those involved in the struggles
themselves are in a position to make tactical and strategic decisions,
so they tend not to give specific advice. However, such
capacity-building efforts-like comparable NGO projects for sustainable
development, human rights, equality for women and minorities, economic
justice, and the environment-can be an effective means of fostering
international solidarity.

Back in Western Sahara, anti-occupation activists, building on their
own experiences against the Moroccan occupation and on what they
learned from the workshop, press on in the struggle for their country's
freedom. In the face of severe repression from U.S.-backed Moroccan
forces, the movement continues with demonstrations, leafleting,
graffiti writing, flag waving, boycotts, and other actions. One
prominent leader of the movement, Aminatou Haidar, won the Robert F.
Kennedy Human Rights Award last November, and she has been twice
nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Those in the Western Sahara resistance are among the growing numbers
of people around the world struggling against repression who have
recognized that armed resistance is more likely to magnify their
suffering than relieve it.

From Western Sahara to West Papua to the West Bank, people are
engaged in nonviolent resistance against foreign occupation. Similarly,
from Egypt to Iran to Burma, people are fighting nonviolently for
freedom from dictatorial rule.

Recent history has shown that power ultimately resides in the
people, not in the state; that nonviolent strategies can be more
powerful than guns; and that nonviolent action is a form of conflict
that can build, rather than destroy.

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This article was written for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas and practical actions. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License.