Nonviolence and violence in Arab streets

Illustration from Egyptian protest leaflet, courtesy of The Guardian.

It continues. The historic sequence of uprisings across the Arab world has been spreading every day. Latent frustration with repressive regimes—and decades of diligent organizing by dedicated activists—has been finding a voice across the Arab world since the Tunisan people unseated their president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, on January 14th. Tunisians continue protesting an interim government that could roll back their gains. On Tuesday, thousands in Egypt presented Hosni Mubarak with the first truly massive protest that he couldn’t prevent or suppress. Today, many thousands took to the streets across Yemen, the poorest and most unstable of the three countries. Tomorrow, the Muslim day of prayer and also often of unrest, may see even more countries rise, including Jordan and Bahrain. The Arab world is learning the power of its own people. The world is seeing what ordinary people, inspired and committed and unarmed, can do.

And it is working. The collapse of Tunisia’s dictatorship was the first success of what may very well be many. Already, the US government, Egypt’s staunch supporter, has begun putting pressure on the Mubarak regime to address the people’s demands. Despite hundreds of arrests and reports of brutality, Egyptian activists are calling for an even larger protest tomorrow. The dust has yet to settle in Yemen. But as long as protesters remain in the streets, and don’t try to fight back, their supposed oppressors are powerless to stop them.

Are these protests nonviolent? Must they be?

News reports and video footage alike show that the vast majority of people in the streets seem to have no intention of starting a fight. There are women and children, and men young and old. The movement is bridging religious divides. However, it is clear also that rock-throwing and vandalism are widespread. A police station in Suez was burned. Calls for nonviolence—and we know that international nonviolent movements have long been working with activists in these countries—haven’t always been universally heeded. In Cairo, when protesters threw rocks, the police threw them back. The extent to which protesters use violence licenses the authorities to do the same.

The Guardian reports that a widely-distributed leaflet in Egypt calls on protesters “to begin with peaceful protests, carrying roses but no banners, and march on official buildings while persuading policemen and soldiers to join their ranks.” It then suggests that they gather in large groups and attempt to take control of major government institutions.

It is important to prevent policemen penetrating the ranks of demonstrators, it adds. If they do, they should be persuaded to change sides and reminded that their own families could be among the people.

Banners and posters should be hung from balconies and windows, it advises, and it provides handy models for posters – one showing a visor-helmeted riot policeman flanked by an elderly woman in traditional peasant dress and a younger one in modern clothes over the slogan “Police and people together against the regime”.

The leaflet is absolutely correct that gaining the support of security forces is crucial. In protest movements historically, this has often been the turning point. It is much harder to do when one is throwing things at them, burning their buildings, or trying to dismantle their vehicles; that only arouses their anger and reminds them which side they’re paid to be on. Violence also weakens the likelihood of international support for one’s efforts.

Consider this video, which has been widely touted as “Tiananmen Square-like defiance,” in which a few protesters in Cairo stand up to an armored car with a water cannon (jump to 1:20):

First, one person courageously faces the truck, standing still and refusing to move. Just as the water cannon first hits him, another person comes up behind him and throws something at the truck. Then others join, throwing things also. The scene becomes chaotic. The first protester tries to remain still, it seems, but others continue attacking the truck, apparently forcing its cannon up to shoot into the sky. With its cannon disabled for a moment, the truck moves forward into the protesters. They disperse. The scene is over, and the troops move in. The power of that one person’s initial protest, a peaceful stand against an oncoming truck, was ultimately weakened by those who chose to fight. They gave the truck the justification it needed to start plowing into them.

That’s not quite what happened at Tiananmen Square. There, the anonymous “tank man” stood still, and the tanks stood still too. When they tried to move, he moved with them. They remained while the man climbed the lead tank and spoke with its driver. Finally the standoff ended when he was pulled away, but the dignity and grace of the scene has been an enduring symbol of the Chinese movement for democratic reform. As long as he stood before them, completely unarmed, the tanks were stopped.

Yesterday, there were protesters in Cairo who chanted to the police bearing down on them, “We are all Egyptians!” At least one senior police officer has said the same thing. As people around the Middle East join in what is sure to be an historic day tomorrow, may they remember that they need no guns, or rocks, or bombs to show their power and make it felt.

We are with you. The world is watching what you do and hoping that you succeed.

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