Erica Chenoweth: Changing Sides in Egypt — What Happened to Nonviolence?

Erica Chenoweth & Maria Stephan
Erica Chenoweth & Maria Stephan

The editors at Waging Nonviolence have posted an excellent essay by Erica Chenoweth analyzing what’s happening to Egypt’s nonviolence movement.

Chenoweth and her research partner Maria Stephan wrote the award-winning Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Non-Violent Conflict.

Here’s an excerpt from Erica’s recent article:

Millions of people demonstrated throughout Egypt over the past month, once again demanding the fall of the regime. Former president Mohammed Morsi’s regime fought back, but the people stayed. Finally, the army stepped in and forced the ruler to step down. “The people and the army are one hand!” chanted the crowds. Masses of ordinary Egyptians, it would seem, compelled one part of the regime to turn against the other and bring about change.

Or perhaps that isn’t what happened at all.

Scholars of civil resistance often argue that one key mechanism for change is defections — in which key loyalists and functionaries withdraw their support from the power structure. Examples include transportation workers during the California farm workers’ movement, security forces during the People Power campaign in the Philippines, or the so-called “refuseniks,” the Israeli soldiers who declined to serve in the occupied Palestinian territories during the First Intifada. In reviewing the historical record of more than 100 civil resistance campaigns between 1900 and 2006, Maria Stephan and I found that security-force defections dramatically increase the chances for nonviolent resistance to succeed. Such changes of course among elites can go a long way toward bringing about the will of the people.

But recent events in Libya, Syria and Egypt suggest that defections can also carry considerable risks for nonviolent campaigns. In the cases of Libya and Syria, nonviolent action led to defections among the armed forces early on in the conflicts. However, the defectors took their weapons with them, regrouped as armed challengers, and essentially undermined and supplanted nonviolent campaigns by initiating armed struggle. —Erica Chenoweth, Changing sides doesn’t always make for transformation — just look at Egypt (Waging Nonviolence)

Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict

Palestinian nonviolence campaign
Palestinian nonviolence campaign

I was in a “webinar” (live online presentation thingy) recently with Erica Chenoweth from Wesleyan University. She was discussing her statistical work tracking contemporary nonviolent campaigns. Her data backs up what nonviolent strategists already know: it’s better than violence and more effective.

One factoid I found particularly interesting: “Foreign states are more likely to support violent campaigns against their common enemies than nonviolent campaigns. This can increase violent campaigns success to 41%, but is still less successful than nonviolent campaigns. But nonviolent campaigns seem to be better off without foreign support.”

I recommend checking out her slide show presentation and (if you are deep into this stuff) reading her excellent study. Watch for more of her work to come. Here’s an excerpt below:

Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict, by Maria J. Stephan and Erica Chenoweth

From 2000 to 2006 organized civilian populations successfully employed nonviolent methods including boycotts, strikes, protests, and organized noncooperation to challenge entrenched power and exact political concessions in Serbia (2000), Madagascar (2002), Georgia (2003) and Ukraine (2004–05), Lebanon (2005), and Nepal (2006). The success of these nonviolent campaigns—especially in light of the enduring violent insurgencies occurring in some of the same countries—begs systematic investigation.

Our findings show that major nonviolent campaigns have achieved success 53 percent of the time, compared with 26 percent for violent resistance campaigns. There are two reasons for this success. First, a campaign’s commitment to nonviolent methods enhances its domestic and international legitimacy and encourages more broad-based participation in the resistance, which translates into increased pressure being brought to bear on the target. Recognition of the challenge group’s grievances can translate into greater internal and external support for that group and alienation of the target regime, undermining the regime’s main sources of political, economic, and even military power.

Second, whereas governments easily justify violent counterattacks against armed insurgents, regime violence against nonviolent movements is more likely to back fire against the regime. Potentially sympathetic publics perceive violent militants as having maximalist or extremist goals beyond accommodation, but they perceive nonviolent resistance groups as less extreme, thereby enhancing their appeal and facilitating the extraction of concessions through bargaining.

Our findings challenge the conventional wisdom that violent resistance against conventionally superior adversaries is the most effective way for resistance groups to achieve policy goals. Instead, we assert that nonviolent resistance is a forceful alternative to political violence that can pose effective challenges to democratic and nondemocratic opponents, and at times can do so more effectively than violent resistance.

Read the whole article here.