How to deal with agents provocateurs

A question worth exploring is how the Egyptian  pro-democracy protesters can nonviolently deal with agents provocateurs – which is what the pro-Mubarak “demonstrators” appear to be. The use of agents provocateurs is a very common tactic employed by governments to try to discredit their nonviolent opposition and justify state repression.

The protesters in Cairo today unfortunately responded at least in part by fighting back, which led to chaotic images like the one above. But what can be done when directly confronted by violence like this?

During the nonviolent independence struggle in India followers of Gandhi were trained to not react violently when assaulted, but to respond to their opponents as best as possible with love and compassion. This approach not only made it more difficult for the British to use violence, but it dramatized the injustice they were struggling against and helped mobilize support for their cause both within India and abroad. The same dynamic could clearly be seen at work in the civil rights movement in the United States.

I have no doubt that if the pro-democracy protesters in Egypt presented a more nonviolent, disciplined front, the pro-Mubarak crowds would find it more difficult to use violence against their fellow citizens. If they accepted blows without responding in kind – as difficult as that would be – the protesters would also be doing much more to discredit the regime and mobilize supporters.

Alternatively, when the state appears ready to use violence against mass demonstrations, it may be time to consider other tactics, like a general strike or boycotts, that would make repression more difficult. While leaving Tahrir Square now could be dangerous because it has taken on such symbolic significance, it may be a wise strategic move to guard against a larger massacre and to ensure that the campaign against Mubarak can, if need be, endure in the days and weeks ahead.

Since the use of agents provocateurs has been so common, I imagine there must be stories and research that I’m not familiar with from other nonviolent campaigns on how activists have dealt with similar challenges. I would be very happy to hear your thoughts on this important question, and what other options the protesters may have, in the comment section.