Last Thursday, over at Informed Comment, Juan Cole wrote this puzzling paragraph about the Arab Spring:
In Tunisia and Egypt, the military refused for the most part to fire on peaceful noncombatants, and so the dictator had to go. But in Libya, Syria, Yemen, and Bahrain, the regimes showed themselves willing to use brutal methods. Libya’s Qaddafi has killed and wounded thousands. Syrian troops have probably killed about 1000 persons. Yemen must be nearing 200. Bahrain’s security forces killed less than 30.
This makes absolutely no sense. According to an Egyptian government investigation, at least 846 people were killed and another 6,400 people injured during that country’s 18-day uprising.
That means far more people were killed in Egypt than Yemen or Bahrain. And while the death toll in Syria is now higher than Egypt, the protests there have dragged on for more than four months. Mubarak stepped down after less than three weeks. (Libya can’t really be included in this list because very quickly the conflict there devolved into an all-out civil war, which means many more deaths.)
Therefore, it is pretty clear that the Egyptian regime did not fall because it was softer or less willing to use “brutal methods” than the governments of Syria, Yemen and Bahrain. The fact is that there are different reasons why those regimes have not fallen. Each country has a unique history and each pro-democracy movement has a different make up and dynamic.
In a great interview in April with Jadaliyya, Egyptian journalist and blogger Hossam el-Hamalawy offered one explanation for why the Mubarak regime folded so quickly, which makes a lot of sense to me:
But what pushed matters in our favor and pushed Hosni Mubarak to realize OK, that he had to leave power, were the beginning of labor strikes on the Wednesday and Thursday prior to the Friday he stepped down… The entry of the working class as an independent social force with its independent general strikes, that’s what ended the regime of Hosni Mubarak.
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Yep. It’s disheartening that, despite all the available literature, analysis, historical and very recent real world examples, so few otherwise intelligent commentators recognize or acknowlege the core dynamic of mass noncooperation.
I wonder if part of what Cole is saying here relates to drawing a distinction between the military and the police. One might be inclined to blur that line, but, in both Egypt and Tunisia, the military acted as an independent party in the process, apart from the police, who were under the dictators’ direct control.
That doesn’t take away from the fact that your main point is an important one: the regimes in Egypt and Tunisia were no softies. They fell because a broad-based citizen movement forced them out, not because they weren’t willing to do all they could to stay in power.
All good points and comments. Single-factor analyses of success or failure in the use of civil resistance are almost always incorrect. Cole actually is fairly well-informed about civil resistance as a general matter, but it’s very difficult for those who haven’t spent time on this subject to avoid defaulting to the constant, universal but wrong mainstream news frame that the possibilities for nonviolent struggle are in a zero-sum game with regime repression.
There have been far too many instances in history in which movements, campaigns and merely protesters have opened up defensible space for resistance despite repression, usually because they’ve recognized that resistance isn’t that useful if it’s merely physical or material but can and should be deeply political, social and economic. The object is not to take physical control of public space, but to discredit the legitimacy and fracture the support available to a government or system that is usually only sustained by fear and the threat of force.
Thank you for pointing out this weakness in Cole’s analysis. While generally informed, his commentary too often lacks the rigor I would expect from someone of his academic standing. Given his training as a historian, I am often surprised at how frequently he uses mainstream media as sources of fact without independent verification (at least in the supporting evidence he references). Even when blogging, we should hold scholars to a higher standard than journalists.
I think Nathan is correct that Cole may dispute your criticism by noting that he was comparing actions of militaries, and not police or other forces. However, he would have a hard time making any meaningful comparisons that exclude violent agents of the state who are not technically military, since the issue at hand is the difference in overall willingness of the regimes to use brutal methods against peaceful noncombatants.
Human Rights Watch issued a harrowing report on Syria. Whether or not it’s worse than Egypt, what is so tragic in this is that mass non-cooperation is still probably going to be the least deadly approach, mortality-wise in most if not all of the emergent scenarios. Even where difficult, like famous “difficult” (even tragically impossible) military battles have always affirmed militarism at its most poignantly heroic.
The deeper tragedy is not dawning in people, however. It is the failure of the “peace and justice” communities around the world to act in concert and with a definite sense of urgency, immediacy and crisis around these issues. While a documentary about Gene Sharp is nearing completion, the overall responses by these often disingenuous or hypocritical organizations and individuals who “believe in nonviolence” is as indicative as to their real lack of commitment or understanding as has been their responses to standing conditions, fragile moments like Serbia in the early nineties, and worldwide incarceration practices. In other words, the “peace and justice” people are insincere a great deal of the time and are dropping the ball.