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The awesome power of non-violent action

From Armenia to Algeria, non-violent protest has brought about radical change, writes IAN SINCLAIR

SPEAKING on the Arab Tyrant Manual podcast recently, Jamila Raqib discussed the widespread ignorance that surrounds non-violent struggle.

“It’s not very well known. We don’t really highlight the history. We think that progress and human rights are won through violence. We think that it [violence] is the most powerful thing you can do,” she explained.

Raqib is as well-placed as anyone to speak about non-violence. Since 2002 she has worked at the Albert Einstein Institution (AEI), set up in 1983 “to advance the study and use of strategic non-violent action in conflicts throughout the world,” according to its mission statement. 

Moreover, she worked closely with the legendary Dr Gene Sharp — often called “the Clausewitz of non-violent warfare” — until he passed away last year.

“There is thousands of years of rich history that I don’t think people are very aware of,” Raqib, the AEI’s executive director, says about non-violence. 

“We are not aware of our own societies that have used these means, and we are not aware of how they have been used globally.”

Part of the problem is that the mainstream media rarely frames examples of strategic non-violent struggle and activism for what it is. However, successful non-violent action is happening all the time: you just need to read the news with this in mind.

For example, before April 2018 the Guardian reported that “the ruling Republican party’s stranglehold” on Armenia’s political system “appeared intact.” 

Presumably confident any public response could be contained, the president of the former Soviet republic, Serzh Sargsyan, moved to install himself as prime minister after term limits had forced him to step down from the presidency. 

This move proved especially controversial because “the constitution was amended to give more power to the prime minister and transform the presidency into a ceremonial role,” the Guardian explained.

A non-violent movement quickly grew in response, with thousands of people protesting for days in the capital Yerevan, blocking streets and staging sit-ins. 

The leader of the opposition, Nikol Pashinyan, was imprisoned, but the demonstrations continued. With groups of soldiers joining the opposition in the streets, Pashinyan was released. 

Sargsyan resigned on April 23 2018. “Nikol Pashinyan was right. I was wrong,” Sargsyan announced. “The street movement is against my tenure. I am fulfilling your demands.” 

On May 8 2018 Pashinyan became prime minister. “We took down a powerful man with no help from outside, with no violence,” a pensioner in Armenia told the Guardian.

Earlier this year a similar set of events took place in Algeria. In February the autocratic president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, announced he would seek a fifth term in office after two decades in power. 

Again a protest movement grew in response, with peaceful mass demonstrations occurring every Friday, centred on the capital, Algiers.

“In the face of fully armoured riot police, Algeria’s young and old have been seen distributing flowers to security forces during the marches, chanting passionately ‘Pacifism, Pacifism’,” noted Ahmed Mitiche, a graduate student in the Centre for Middle Eastern & North African studies programme at the University of Michigan in The New Arab last month.

As in Armenia, the impact of this civil resistance has been huge. On March 11 Bouteflika announced he wouldn’t seek re-election. 

The protests continued, and on April 2 Bouteflika was forced to step down, with Abdelkader Bensalah, the head of the upper house of parliament, installed as interim president. 

“By keeping protests peaceful, and forcing the army to support them — it was an intervention by the army chief of staff, Gen Ahmed Gaid Salah, that finally persuaded Bouteflika to go — Algeria’s reformists have already achieved more than most of their predecessors in the 2011-12 Arab spring revolts,” the Guardian’s foreign affairs commentator Simon Tisdall noted.

In Sudan, people have been taking to the streets since December 2018. “The trigger of the revolt was the increase in bread prices after the state cut subsidies at the behest of the IMF,” Gilbert Achcar, professor of development studies and international relations at Soas, recently explained in an interview with Jacobin magazine. 

These grievances soon evolved into demonstrations against the 30-year rule of authoritarian president Omar al-Bashir. 

In an attempt to quell the protests, Bashir declared a state of emergency in February. This gave security services “expanded powers to search buildings, restrict movement of people and public transport, arrest suspects and seize assets or property during investigations,” Reuters reported in March. 

Bashir also “announced a raft of other measures, including setting up emergency courts and prosecutors across the country. Activists say more than 800 people have been tried in the courts.”

Despite the crackdown, the non-violent protests continued, with Bouteflika’s resignation in Algeria in early April seeming to energise the Sudanese opposition. 

Days-long sit-ins and protest camps attended by tens of thousands of people were held outside Bashir’s official residence and military headquarters in the capital Khartoum. 

News reports noted that when forces loyal to the president fired live rounds at the protest camps, soldiers protected the protesters — giving them shelter, firing shots in the air and blocking the approaches to their protest camps.

On April 11 Bashir was placed under house arrest, replaced by the defence minister Ahmed Awad Ibn Auf as transitional leader. However, “the protesters rejected Ibn Auf’s leadership because he was the head of military intelligence during the brutal campaign to suppress the Darfur insurgency in the 2000s,” The Guardian reported. On April 13 Ibn Auf was forced to resign, as was Salah Gosh, head of the unpopular National Intelligence and Security Service.

Today, the pro-democracy movements in Sudan and Algeria are in an ongoing power struggle with the military. Though the future of both nations remains uncertain, the power of non-violent struggle is clear.

Protesting violently is “foolish,” Sharp told me, when I interviewed him in 2012. Why? “If your enemy has massive capacity for violence — and modern governments today have massive capacity for violence — why deliberately choose to fight with your enemy’s best weapons?”

Though they weren’t on the same mass scale as the demonstrations in Armenia, Algeria and Sudan, the recent Extinction Rebellion protests in London have nevertheless had a huge impact on British politics. 

Explicitly non-violent — Roger Hallam, a lead strategist, has repeatedly cited as influences the US civil rights movement and Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephen’s seminal book Why Civil Resistance Works — the group’s occupation of several locations in central London wrongfooted the authorities. 

In particular the willingness of so many activists to seek arrest meant “the police are genuinely confused,” as Labour Party environmental adviser Alan Simpson explained in the Morning Star. 

The Guardian confirmed this uncertainty, noting “anecdotal evidence from those on the ground suggests police are approaching the protests with a light touch.” 

The report went on to highlight the College of Policing’s guidelines on public-order policing, which advises “commanders need to set the policing style and tone at the start of an operation and be aware of the potential impact on public perceptions.”

Along with David Attenborough’s BBC documentary Climate Change — The Facts and the ongoing school strikes, Extinction Rebellion has significantly shifted the debate about climate change in Britain. 

Within days of the protests, Extinction Rebellion activists held meetings with Tory Environment Secretary Michael Gove, Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn and shadow chancellor John McDonnell.

“They are a massive and necessary wake-up call. Today we have the opportunity to say: ‘We hear you’,” Corbyn said about the Extinction Rebellion protests as he introduced a motion asking Parliament to declare a “climate emergency.” 

Labour’s motion won a historic victory — on May 2 2019 the British Parliament became the first parliament in the world to declare a climate emergency. 

In Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon’s government has ditched its planned cuts to aviation tax and is reportedly considering withdrawing its support for a third runway at Heathrow. 

The climate-change bug has even reached the Tory Party, with the Guardian reporting: “The 60-strong One Nation group of senior Tories” is “urging contenders for their party’s leadership to put the battle against the climate emergency at the forefront of the contest.”

“If we don’t take action, the collapse of our civilisations and the extinction of much of the natural world is on the horizon,” Attenborough warned recently. 

With the climate emergency creating such high stakes for humanity, it is more important than ever that people understand the immense power of strategic non-violent struggle and activism.

Follow Ian on Twitter @IanJSinclair.

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