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Libya and the future of nonviolence

Posted Aug. 22, 2011, at 4:38 p.m.
Last modified Aug. 22, 2011, at 6:55 p.m.

“Brother Colonel” Muammar Gaddafi’s time is up: the rebels are now in the heart of Libya’s capital, Tripoli. But Libya has seen six months of fighting, at least a thousand deaths and foreign military intervention in support of the rebels. This is not the kind of nonviolent revolution that we have come to expect in the 21st century. Are the rules changing again?

From Lisbon in 1974, Manila in 1986, East Berlin in 1989, Moscow in 1991, Jakarta in 1995, Belgrade in 2000 to Cairo early this year, popular revolutions using nonviolent tactics have driven dictators from power. Violent revolutions have been commonplace for over two centuries now, but the great discovery of our own era has been how to make the dictators quit without shedding blood.

The success of the early nonviolent revolutions was a surprise to almost everybody, including those who led them, but as time passed and the list of successes lengthened we grew to think of them as normal. Now, in Libya, we seem to have a throwback to an earlier time. It’s a good thing that Gaddafi is finished, but nobody can claim that this is a success for nonviolence.

What lessons should we draw from this, especially at a time when several other attempts to use nonviolent techniques to bring about a democratic revolution, notably in Yemen and Syria, are struggling to survive? Are there places where these techniques simply won’t work?

Nonviolent revolutions can succeed when the great majority of people in a country share the same basic identity. If we all belong to the same society, then it is an act of great moral import for members to kill one another, or for the rulers to kill the citizens. So long as the rebels do not resort to force, it is surprisingly difficult for even a cruel and repressive regime to start using lethal force against peaceful protesters.

We had a vivid demonstration of this in the Egyptian revolution early this year, when the protesters in Tahrir Square in Cairo and elsewhere defied Hosni Mubarak’s regime. He did kill some of them, but he did not dare to use the police or the army. The killing in Cairo was done by plain-clothes thugs, mostly at night, because Mubarak simply could not openly repudiate his duty not to kill his fellow-citizens.

The Egyptian revolution triumphed when the army publicly announced it would never use force against civilians, and Mubarak and his close associates are now on trial for murder. But Bashir al-Assad clings to power in Syria and uses the army openly to kill the protesters there. Yemen is even messier, and in Libya it took six months of war (and foreign military intervention) to get Gaddafi out. What’s the problem?

Nonviolence works much less well in countries whose populations are deeply divided by language, religion, or ethnicity, since it depends heavily on people having a shared identity. Syria, for example, has a Kurdish-speaking minority, and even the Arabic-speaking majority is divided.

Yemenis all speak Arabic, but their society is divided into Shias and Sunnis and riven by tribal rivalries. Libya is homogeneous in language and religion and much more prosperous than Syria or Yemen (thanks almost entirely to oil), but it is not a fully unified society. It’s an urbanized, seemingly modern country, but for a great many Libyans, tribal loyalties come first.

So the revolution in Libya was violent from the start. In Syria, the protests began nonviolently and have largely remained so, but the regime has not felt constrained to avoid the use of force and some 2,000 civilians have been killed.

The remarkable thing in Libya is not that the revolution has been violent, but that revolutionaries have worked so hard to keep the tribalism from taking over. What they are aiming for is a Libyan society that is not only democratic but post-tribal. If the fall of Tripoli is not too bloody, they stand a reasonable chance of creating it.

The remarkable thing about Syria is that after five months of official killing, the protesters are still avoiding violence, and are also resisting the regime’s attempts to play on sectarian and ethnic divisions. Even more remarkably, Yemen has not toppled into full civil war, and the students who started the pro-democracy protests are still there, camped in the centre of the capital.

Nonviolence has mostly run out of easy societies to transform, which is a measure of how successful it has been in the past 40 years. But even in the most divided societies it has a role to play, and people who are willing to risk their lives to make it work. This story still has some distance to run.

Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist based in London.

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