The timing could not be more perfect. Just as frustrated Arab protesters are feeling tempted to resort to violence, two events should remind them that nonviolent tactics have a winning track record.
One is the opening of a memorial in Washington this past weekend to Martin Luther King Jr. The granite statue aptly depicts the civil rights leader for his stern, principled commitment to peaceful resistance against racism and other injustices.
The other event is a successful nonviolent movement in India that pushed the government on Saturday to take strong steps against corruption. Parliament was forced to act after throngs of middle-class Indians came out in support of Anna Hazare, an elderly activist who waged a 13-day hunger strike. His tactics evoked those of independence fighter Mohandas Gandhi, the 20th century’s icon of nonviolence.
These events are important because the violent overthrow of Libya’s longtime dictator, Muammar Qaddafi, should not be allowed to eclipse the model set by the largely nonviolent revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt.
Since the fall of the Qaddafi regime, some Syrian activists have argued for taking up arms. The Assad regime has so far killed more than 2,000 protesters and jailed tens of thousands. There is a worry that Syria may become like Iran, where pro-democracy dissidents have been suppressed since a 2009 peaceful uprising.
Syria’s cause for freedom would be lost, however, if impatient protesters now take up arms. In practical terms, rifles are no match against the military’s heavy weapons, even if NATO imposes a no-fly zone. And the opposition would also lose moral and political support abroad and, most critically, among many Syrians.
Right now, Syrians are largely united around the idea of liberty – an idea more powerful than guns. In Libya, the initial fight against Mr. Qaddafi was not well united around creating a democracy and it too quickly fell into a battle between tribes of the east and west. When a huge massacre appeared imminent, the United Nations authorized NATO to intervene.
After a while, Libya’s opposition did finally find a unity based on a democratic footing. But by then the civil war was clearly headed for violent regime change. It is possible that more Libyans have been killed in the war than if a well-organized, nonviolent movement had been well established – as it was in Egypt and, to a large degree, in Tunisia.
History shows that nonviolent tactics, if successful, create the most durable conditions for later democracy. Not only do they bring out more popular support, they appeal to the hearts of those supporting a regime.
As Gandhi pointed out during his campaign to end British rule, moral action has power: “We should meet abuse by forbearance. Human nature is so constituted that if we take absolutely no notice of anger or abuse, the person indulging in it will soon weary of it and stop.”
This helps explain why the militaries in Egypt and Tunisia turned on the ruling despots, as some have already done in the Syrian Army.
The Gandhian strategy has proved itself. A study of insurgencies from 1900 to 2006 by scholars Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan found that campaigns of nonviolent resistance were more than twice as effective as their violent counterparts.
These tactics are not the same as personal pacifism. Civil resistance requires disciplined organization, masses of courageous people, and a clever shifting of tactics, such as sit-ins, boycotts, or strikes, depending on the circumstances. The smart use of social media and cellphone images has lately been added to the mix.
Some tactics are quite local in style. In Cuba, for example, unarmed women dressed all in white have recently taken to the streets on behalf of political prisoners. They were brutally arrested, drawing foreign attention again to the Castro regime.
Nonviolence remains the best means to shred the legitimacy of autocrats in North Africa and the Middle East and to win democracy. Syrians need to try more and different peaceful tactics, and better unify their various sects and ethnicities. The many sacrifices of unarmed protesters so far has already brought critical scrutiny from the UN Human Rights Council and the Arab League.
Such a strategy is not only on the right side of history. It is on the right side of humanity.