Nonviolence and Social Transformation
We live in a world where governments have the power to control people, impose discriminatory laws, and silence those who dissent. Oftentimes, these vast systems of oppression, like in Palestine, only transform through an awakened public conscious as well as organized, nonviolent, mass revolution. In the words of Martin Luther King Jr., “The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it.Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth.” In this article, we will explore the successes of nonviolent social movements in the 20th and 21st centuries so that we may learn to apply the lessons learned to situations around the world in need of remedy.
Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution (2010-2011)
Protesters during Tunisia's Jasmine Revolution demanding economic freedom
For several decades, the country of Tunisia had been characterized by widespread poverty, high food prices, and high unemployment. In December 2010, people were sparked to take to the streets by the desperate actions of Mohammed Bouazizi. He had covered himself in paint thinner and lit himself on fire in front of the Sidi Bouzid municipal office, which had declinined to listen to his complaints regarding violent treatment by the police. Devastated, his friends, family and many others were moved to publicly voice their outrage regarding violence by the police, a lack of economic opportunity, and little protection of human rights. Unrest spread and the region soon became filled with protesters in the streets crying out for solutions to help address unemployment. Although the development minister offered a $10 million employment program, protests did not cease.
Police began forcibly cracking down on protesters, many of whom were beaten and arrested. Although protesters were gathering in peace, several had been shot and killed. The government also initiated a media blackout and the President threatened dissenters with firm punishment on state television. However, that very day 300 lawyers gathered and protested near the government’s palace. Additionally, Nessma TV, an independent news channel began covering protests within 12 days. Even the ‘hactivist’ group Anonymous worked to shut down government websites. Security continued to clash with demonstrators, many of whom were injured and killed, some even tortured. By January 13th, (23 year) President Ben Ali promised sweeping reforms, and that he wouldn’t run for reelection, but by January 14th, he was forced into exile. Citizens continued to protest the interim government until all members of the RCD (Constitutional Democratic Rally) were removed. 2,000 police joined the protesters by July 20th. A strike by the country’s general labor union shut down Sfax, a major economic center on July 26th. On July 27th, Tunisia’s foreign minister officially resigned and Prime Minister Ghannouchi announced the dismissal of several more RCD members. These successes in Tunisia were critical for encouraging nonviolent protests in many other countries during the Arab Spring and even inspired action in China’s 2011 pro-democracy protests.
The Egyptian Revolution - 2011
Former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak had led the autocratic government for 29 years. A legalized state of emergency had been implemented during its entirety, and widespread security measures had been constructed to control dissent. In 2006, frustrated textile workers launched a wave of strikes which spread across the country, the beginning of many public protests to come. In 2008, industrial protesters began to organize using social media tools such as Facebook and Twitter. According to the Global Nonviolent Action Database, the Serbian group Otpor! helped train these protesters based on their experience using nonviolent means to overthrow Slobodan Milosevic.
Leading up to January 25th, 2011, Egypt’s National Police Day, individuals began to organize into groups, planning nonviolent protests to demonstrate against the state. Participants included those from the Kefaya (Enough) Movement, the National Association for change, and even Google Executive Wael Ghonim. On the 25th, tens of thousands took to the streets in Tahrir (“Liberation”) Square. Although some protesters used rocks against security forces when confronted, the majority remained nonviolent even in the face of batons, rubber bullets, water cannons, and tear gas. Civil disobedience continued into the next day and the use of excessive force by state security brought international attention and scrutiny. Protesters went online to organize a “Day of Rage” for Friday January 28th, which the government tried to quell by shutting down internet service providers and cell providers countrywide. However, hundreds of thousands poured into the streets on the 28th, guided by printed signs youth organizers had posted to direct the masses of protesters. Participants were encouraged to march and gather their neighbors as they moved toward the city center. A positive attitude and nonviolence were emphasized by protest leadership. Once the mass reached Cairo, the national army replaced state police, and protesters cheered and chanted to celebrate the unity of themselves and the army. Organizers encouraged protesters to refrain from promoting any political party, but rather emphasized unity and protection for all people of Egypt regardless of race, class, religion, or gender. By February 1st, two million people had entered Tahrir Square, which had been developed into a barricaded tent city. In the following weeks, clashes broke out between protesters and pro-Mubarak forces. Meanwhile, workers joined by striking and thousands of doctors and lawyers entered the Square after Mubarak still refused to resign. Egypt again erupted in protest February 11th after Mubarak’s refusal. However, by the early evening, his resignation was announced and protest burst into celebration. Hundreds in Egypt lost their lives during the uprising, and the country has continued to see an unsettled population and conflict. However, international attention and support had been given to the people of Egypt, and the protester’s goal of ending Mubarak’s autocratic rule was achieved.
Lessons from Gandhi's Nonviolent Uprising Against British Imperialism
On March 12, 1930, Gandhi, along with a group of trained individuals from his ashram began a 200 mile march to the sea. Arriving three and a half weeks later, now with thousands of marchers present, Gandhi went to the edge of the ocean where evaporating water had left a dried bank of mud. Here, he reached down to scoop up a handful of salt, defying the British Raj outlawing Indian’s from sourcing salt outside of the imperial government. This act was a symbol of resistance and civil disobedience which sparked a nationwide campaign of non-compliance and ultimately led to the arrest of over 100,000.
In mass movements, there are two main types of demands: instrumental demands, and symbolic. Instrumental demands are primarily practical and tangible policy reforms that aim to be implemented in laws. Symbolic demands portray the greater moral issues at stake, and effective ones will inspire the public’s need to reclaim autonomy and alleviate injustices. Symbolic demands, like defying salt laws, bring social issues into the public conscious and can inspire whole countries to recognize the greater instrumental issues at stake. Rallying massive crowds through the salt marches, Gandhi was able to use symbolic resistance to garner widespread awareness and support for instrumental decisions, such as India’s self-rule. Equally important to those participating were those in the audience of this political theater. As a result of the salt marches, hundreds of Indian officials working for the imperial government resigned from their posts. From there, the movement grew from hundreds of thousands to millions of Indians focusing on boycotting British clothing and liquor, refusing to pay taxes, and resigning from their positions. The success of this mass social movement depended largely on two factors. First, the movement was able to spark insight and shift public consciousness towards an issue. Second, and equally importantly, it had the power and potential to effectively grow in size until goals were reached. Although India did not gain independence until 1947, Gandhi recognized that the successes of the salt marches gained little instrumentally at first, but over the years their symbolic significance would ultimately lead to India’s tangible freedom from imperialism.
Gandhi is perhaps the most famous nonviolent leader in civil resistance
There are many situations around the world to this day that are characterized by unequal treatment, social discrimination, and human rights abuses, Palestine included. For many of these instances, arguably, they will only be solved by mass movements led by the people, not violence. We have observed that often times these upheavals have a spark, a specific incidence that fills a group of people with passion which they take to the streets to voice. If this initial group is able to rally others behind a particular message or objective, the masses will join. With persistence and organization, self-sacrifice and group action, the movement often gains support of students, industry workers, doctors, lawyers, internet activists, dignitaries, international players, media, and even police. Peaceful resistance movements recognize the bigger picture and depend on a clear and cohesive message of nonviolence, even when dealt with arrests, assault, and death. In Palestine, for example, organizers must avoid selfish goals, like furthering one’s own political agenda, resulting in a fracturing movement. Successful movements rally popular support through symbolic significance in order to garner instrumental results. Perhaps most importantly, as the people of Palestine know, is persistence. Nonviolent movements may only achieve one instrumental gain at a time, but true social transformation will only come after many years, sometimes decades, of dedicated individuals and organized groups tirelessly working for the change that their people deserve.
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