When Does Nonviolent Action “Work”?

Why do some political uprisings succeed when others are brutally crushed?   What part does dialogue play in such movements?  And then, what constitutes success after the big demonstrations are over?

My head has been spinning from all that has transpired in the world in the last two months, starting with the spirited uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt.  Then dramatic, on-going, nonviolent protests in our own country, in Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana and Michigan raised more questions.   Below you will find links to three commentaries that have helped to keep my feet on the ground.

Let’s start with the dialogue question.  I have noticed that in successful political change, dialogue – that is, open and respectful communication — is the glue that holds people together as they strategize among themselves and as they negotiate with people holding power.    A nice example of dialogue at work in Egypt comes from The Daily Cartoonist, a comic strip blog which tells the story of a comic about the nonviolent methods of Martin Luther King that was translated into Arabic and circulated in Tahrir Square by the American Islamic Congress.

According to the blog: “When, at first, we [organizers] went to print the comic book, a security officer blocked publication. So we called him and demanded a meeting. He agreed, and we read through the comic book over coffee to address his concerns. At the end, he granted permission to print and then asked: ‘Could I have a few extra copies for my kids?’”  That is dialogue at work.  A demand on the one side was met by a willingness on the other side to talk.  In the talks, the parties formed a respectful relationship and worked out an agreement.

Another example:  As events unfolded in Egypt, the military remained “neutral” at first.  An image that stays with me is one of demonstrators sitting on tanks and chatting with soldiers.   Those soldiers were not likely to fire on their people.

An array of methods used in strategic non-violence gained a new respectability in the mainstream media during the uprising in Egypt, particularly as those are developed in the work of American political scientist Gene Sharp.    Reports in outlets like The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal noted that years of civil society and labor organizing laid the groundwork that preceded the massive demonstrations when they came.  This kind of organizing was not as substantial in Libya and the other Gulf states that have seen protests met with brutal repression.  If you have half an hour or so, follow the link below and tune into the Stephen Zunes interview on the subject of strategic nonviolence on Wisconsin Public Radio.

Next the question of what constitutes success.   Juan Cole celebrates a victory for the uprising in Tunisia in his blog.  The new prime minister announced the dissolution of the country’s secret police and also abolished the “Ministry of Information” that had been in charge of censorship, allowing a free press to flourish.   If consolidated, these changes “would represent an epochal transformation of culture and politics,” Cole writes.

I guess we wait and see what will become of the seeds of change that have been planted so far in 2011.  Here are the links mentioned above:

http://dailycartoonist.com/index.php/2011/02/11/martin-luther-king-jr-comic-book-distributed-in-tahrir-square/

http://www.wpr.org/hereonearth/archive_110302k.cfm

http://www.juancole.com/2011/03/its-official-tunisia-now-freer-than-the-u-s.html

About networkforpeace

Network for Peace through Dialogue (formerly the Center of International Learning) was begun in 1985 by sociologists, theologians, and educators from Germany, the Philippines and the United States united by their world view and wanting to participate in transformative change. The Center was to provide ongoing learning, analysis and collaboration between people of the Northern and Southern hemispheres. There were two specific goals: to promote democratic processes and to work toward de-militarization. Thus since 1985 The Network for Peace through Dialogue has been dedicated to connecting grassroots communities, both local and global in order to identify and research common issues and solutions in the areas of making peace and promoting just action. Our objective is to provide a platform so that communities and societies can expand understanding and discuss their differences within a dynamic environment to help resolve conflicts and cooperate more fully. In all our programs we do so by analyzing, facilitating, and fostering dialogue, identifying solutions and sharing information.
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