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  4. The 2011 uprisings and the limits of "people power"
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The 2011 uprisings and the limits of "people power"

Dr Tom Davies

Over the past four months, numerous efforts have been made to attribute some credit for the dramatic developments in Tunisia, Egypt and many other countries in North Africa and the Middle East in 2011 to transnational actors beyond the region. Especially considerable attention has been paid to the purported role of global social media such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. (1) Less commonly, attention has focused on the role of transnational progenitors of the techniques of non-violent resistance (or "people power") in the toppling of Mubarak.(2)

In a recent Al Jazeera English documentary, for instance, it was reported that "Ahmed Maher [of Egypt's 6 April Youth Movement] looked outside for help, to people who had successfully overthrown dictators, like Otpor, the Serbian student movement that toppled Slobodan Milosevic".(3) Former members of Otpor now run the Center for Applied Non-Violent Action and Strategies (CANVAS) in Belgrade, which describes itself as an "international network of trainers and consultants [who] … support nonviolent democratic movements through transfer of knowledge on strategies and tactics of nonviolent struggle".(4) The strategies and tactics promoted by CANVAS are reported to have been adopted by the 6 April Youth Movement in the protests in Egypt in January and February 2011, and disseminated in its "26-page 'how to' booklet that was being passed around in Egypt in advance of the massive Jan. 28 protests".(5)

The prospects of non-violent change

The tactics promoted by CANVAS are based upon the work of U.S. thinker Gene Sharp, whose writings translated into Arabic are also reported to have been circulated in the Egyptian protests.(6)Sharp has become known as the "Clausewitz of nonviolent warfare", and his works are said to have been influential in many of the predominantly non-violent revolutions of the last three decades.(7)Particularly influential are said to have been his list of 198 methods of non-violent action, and his booklet suggesting methods for promoting a country's transition "from dictatorship to democracy".(8)

The materials disseminated by CANVAS, Sharp, and related organizations such as the Washington-based International Center on Nonviolent Conflict are influenced by the study of historical examples of non-violent action, especially the work of Mohandas Gandhi. They place particular emphasis upon the importance of non-violent discipline to a successful protest movement, and claim that non-violent discipline is central to ensuring that the "pillars of support" of a regime - including the armed forces - are converted to the opposition's cause. It is hoped that the methods of non-violent action can provide "the most effective ways in which dictatorships could be successfully disintegrated with the least possible cost in suffering and lives".(9)It has further been argued that "nonviolent opposition, … even in the face of state repression, is far more likely to yield a democratic outcome" than armed resistance.(10)

Undermining the non-violent discipline of elements of the protest movement in Egypt in 2011 appears to have been a component of Mubarak's strategy before his resignation.(11)This could be interpreted as supporting the argument that specifically non-violent methods of protest may be perceived by a dictator as a particular challenge to his or her authority. Furthermore, the argument that peaceful opposition contributes towards more enduring democratic outcomes appears to be supported by considerable quantitative data.(12)


The apparent success of non-violent resistance movements in Tunisia and Egypt has led to the raising of expectations of the prospects for democracy in these countries and for the utility of non-violent resistance in other national contexts. However, the use of non-violent protest methods is far from a guarantor of success for a protest movement and does not eliminate the possibility of considerable bloodshed. The potential for an initially non-violent movement to spill-over into armed conflict is already apparent in Libya. Where a regime has the will and means to repress, is relatively independent, and can exploit ethnic or other divisions amongst its population, the prospects for non-violent resistance movements, at least in the short term, appear potentially to be more limited. The experience of non-violent protesters in Burma and China over the last three decades has been very different from that in Egypt and Tunisia in 2011. Predominantly non-violent opposition is also far from a guarantor of a democratic transition, even when a regime has been successfully deposed, as the often-cited evidence of the revolution in Iran of 1979 would appear to suggest.

Furthermore, the applicability of arguments concerning past examples of non-violent action to the contemporary events in North Africa and the Middle East is tenuous. There are many significant differences between the recent developments in Egypt and Tunisia and previous instances of non-violent regime change. Especially notable is the comparatively horizontal, leaderless, form which the opposition has taken. While some would argue that this could contribute towards a more pluralistic post-authoritarian form of governance, others would emphasise the centrality of an effectively-led opposition in many previous transitions to a more democratic government. Recent literature on democratization has shown a division between those arguing that an equal balance of power between the democratic opposition and the ancien regime may contribute towards a more successful transition towards lasting democracy and those arguing that a balance of power in favour of the democratic opposition is preferable.(13) In contrast in Egypt and Tunisia, even without their former Presidents, the ancien regime may still be predominant.(14)

Dr Tom Davies is Lecturer in International Politics at City, University of London. He was previously the Research Associate of Oxford University's Project on Civil Resistance and Power Politics.


1. Relatively balanced analyses are provided in Ethan Zuckerman, 'The First Twitter Revolution?', Foreign Policy, 14 January 2011; and Peter Beaumont, 'The Truth about Twitter, Facebook and the Uprisings in the Arab World', The Guardian, 25 February 2011

2. Tina Rosenberg, 'Revolution U', Foreign Policy, 16 February 2011; Sheryl Gay Stolberg, 'Shy U.S. Intellectual Created Playbook Used in a Revolution', New York Times, 16 February 2011

3. 'People & Power: Egypt: Seeds of Change', Al Jazeera English, 9 February 2011

4. The website of CANVAS is at http://www.canvasopedia.org. The quotation is from, accessed 7 March 2011

5. Stratfor, 'A Breakdown of Egyptian Opposition Groups', 4 February 2011

6. Ruaridh Arrow, 'Gene Sharp: Author of the Nonviolent Revolution Rulebook', BBC News, 21 February 2011.

7. Quoted in Thomas Weber, Gandhi as Disciple and Mentor (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), p. 232.

8. These can be downloaded from the website of Sharp's Albert Einstein Institution

9.  Gene Sharp, From Dictatorship to Democracy: A Conceptual Framework for Liberation. Fourth U.S. Edition. (Boston: Albert Einstein Institution, 2010), p. ix.

10. Peter Ackerman, Adrian Karatnycky et al., How Freedom is Won: From Civic Resistance to Durable Democracy (Washington, DC: Freedom House, 2005), p. 8.

11. 'Egypt unrest: deadly clashes rock Cairo's Tahrir Square', BBC News, 2 February 2011

12. See the data in Ackerman, Karatnycky et al, How Freedom is Won.

13. Michael McFaul, 'The Fourth Wave of Democracy and Dictatorship: Noncooperative Transitions in the Postcommunist World', World Politics, 54, January 2002, pp. 212-44.

14. Elham Fakhro and Emile Hokayem, 'Waking the Arabs', Survival: Global Politics and Strategy, 53(2), April-May 2011, pp. 21-30.