Movement success is less about overcoming fear and more about persevering through it

As highly repressed movements in Tunisia and Belarus show, there is no moment when the “barrier of fear” is broken. The reality is much more complex.
‘OMON’ riot police and watercannons in Minsk during the March of Unity, Sept. 6, 2020 (Wikimedia/Homoatrox)

When dictatorships are suddenly opposed by citizens, after what may seem like decades of popular inertia, there is often a scramble to understand the emergence of this resistance.

One aspect of this is how a “barrier of fear” seems to fall or disappear, as has been commonly suggested in various media and academic sources relating to both Tunisia’s 2011 revolution, as well as the opposition to Alexander Lukashenko’s regime in Belarus.

It is overwhelmingly stated that there must have been some disappearance of fear to have protests emerge after all those years of repression. To give just one example, on August 13 the BBC ran the headline, “Belarus elections: Shocked by violence, people lose their fear.”

Having interviewed participants in both these episodes of resistance, which occurred almost a decade apart, the breakdown of the “barrier of fear” is an intriguing issue. The belief that fear disappears or breaks down is just too simple an understanding.

As resisters (whose names I have changed in this story) told me in both these contexts, their sense of fear remains during these protests, yet other emotions and actions override it. Of further intrigue is that while the situation and trajectories of Tunisia and Belarus’ protests against authoritarianism differ, there are significant similarities in the rhetoric around the collapse of fear.

Teargas being fired directly at Tunisian demonstrators in Tunis, on Jan. 14, 2011 (Wikimedia/Raphaelthelen)
Fear and resistance in Tunisia

Encapsulating the relationship between the disappearance of fear and resistance, Bassem recalled with delight that in the days before Ben Ali departed, “There was no more fear. It was like magic, I mean just the last three days [Jan. 12-14, 2011] was like magic.”

Yet, rather than magic, it was clear that there were all kinds of significant reasons about why fear appeared to vanish. One of the most important reasons was that this was not a sudden process. Many Tunisians involved in resistance against Ben Ali’s regime had built their confidence and boldness over many years, even decades of opposition. For example, some had started blogging in the late ’90s against the regime, while there had been episodic periods of significant protests, for example in the Gafsa region in 2008.

Some of these individuals and networks provided guidance and led by bold example during the Tunisian revolution. For example the inspiring Lina ben Mhenni, who passed away early in 2020, always openly opposed the regime online and recognized the importance of taking action to the streets, telling me, “We can’t do a revolution on the internet, we have to be on the ground to make a revolution.”

Returning to Bassem’s explanation, although he said it was like magic that people “felt the barrier of fear was completely, I mean it had vanished,” he provided an important insight as to why. “When we we knew that people had died in other places, the police killed people.”

There was a strong sense of outrage at security force violence, of unity and empathy with fellow Tunisians who faced the brutality. “When people had no more fear,” Ridha suggested, “it’s when they saw the people killed by bullets. Because OK you are going to kill us any way. Why the fuck should I fear anything?”

Even after Ben Ali was deposed the threat of lethal force against Tunisian resisters was never far away, including during the Kasbah sit-ins in Tunis, Jan. 22, 2011 (Wikimedia/Rais67)

Nazir, who was in Tunis, was “seeing people being shot down in their heads. And that was really shocking […] And you [Ben Ali] still want the power? You still want to remain?”

Much of the violence was being played out in the first weeks in the interior of the country, and relayed by satellite TV and social media across Tunisia. Noman, a protester in Regueb, explained how their access to the nearest hospital in Sidi Bouzid was blocked on Jan. 9 when the security forces fired tear gas into the hospital, a callous act “which made the protest more and more, because of the dead people.”

The level of regime violence, and how it was explained to me by Tunisians, emphasized that it was not so much that fear had disappeared or even diminished very much. Rather, potentially being maimed and even killed was considered a necessary risk. Bassem recounted that “Tunisian people generally care for their dignity, and they could silence it for a while then […] a point of no return is crossed.”

The regime’s violence had become so obscene, so brazen, so uncharacteristic of Tunisia. Emna, a 19-year-old woman at the time of the revolution, stated it bluntly: “Mainly the thing which pushed me actually, was seeing, we weren’t really used to seeing people who are bleeding […] we are not used to seeing people shot in the head, their brain just coming out.”

To this extent, the security force violence compelled Tunisians to act in unity with others, regardless of their fear. This seemed to establish a sense of shared national or cultural identity that the regime had completely alienated itself from. Emna explained this while revealing the impact of the regime violence on encouraging her to protest: “We used to see these things, in Palestine and Iraq, but it was foreign to this country. So for me, personally, I feel like we weren’t in society, so that was the main reason.”

Tunisians continued to push for the removal of the broader and deeper elements of the Ben Ali regime, Tunis 23rd January 2011 (Wikimedia/ M Rais)

This was mirrored by Ridha: “Even the French colonization we were not treated this way. Look how they are beating our mothers, how they are violating our homes.”

Violence excluded Tunisians, making them feel somehow foreign in their own land. But putting their fear of the worst excesses of that violence aside allowed them to act in unity for a new idea of Tunisia.

Fear and resistance in Belarus

Fast forward to almost a decade on, with the Belarusian people rising up against Europe’s so-called “last” (rather, “oldest”) dictatorship. It is now over 150 days since street protests began, in the wake of strong allegations of President Lukashenko rigging the election and launching an extremely violent crackdown on the opposition.

As in the Tunisian case, there are various media reports of a breakdown of the ‘barrier of fear’ in Belarus, and indeed, even statements from the protesters themselves. However, we should ask what this actually means in practice.

First, as in Tunisia, Belarusians’ resistance to Lukashenko did not appear out of nowhere. In the more immediate term, open defiance and an emboldening of the opposition emerged with the start of the election campaign in May. The strong turnout out at opposition leaders’ election rallies pointed to am emboldening of resistance to Lukashenko.

However, as Nadzieja explained to me, a main cause of the substantial demonstrations in the wake of the election was “of course violence. An extreme level of violence, especially in the first days after the elections.” Reflecting Emna’s sentiments about the Tunisian situation, Nadzieja suggested that “Belarusian society never encountered such a thing.” Lieanid believes the Lukashenko regime’s response was “the most brutal response in all independent history [of Belarus].”

Of course, there must have been some emboldening of protesters in the face of the security forces’ well documented and obscene brutality, even if fear has not broken or vanished.

Belarus’ notorious riot police, the OMON, bundle protesters in Minsk into unmarked vans, Nov. 15 2020 (Wikimedia/Homoatrox)

This is perhaps exemplified in efforts to literally unmask police and reveal their identities, with Mikalaj suggesting the police are “afraid about people to know who they are, you know, to know their real names. So that’s why they’re trying to hide their faces.”

The security forces’ perceived cowardice might well contrast with the protesters’ courage in openly demonstrating. That some police have condemned, deflected and even been made to leave the country shows the level of outrage. All of this ultimately leads to a further emboldening of people, despite the police’s anonymity and unaccountability being “quite dangerous,” according to Mikalaj.

In Tunisia, regime violence seemed to backfire to such an extent that it strengthened people’s resolve in opposition, helping to create a sense of shared national or cultural identity that the regime had completely alienated itself from.

Again, in Belarus, Lieanid clarified how the violence “made the social contract between Lukashenko’s regime and the Belarusian people null and void. Now everything associated with Lukashenko is simply rejected by the people: The flag, the anthem, overall his policy.” This leaves Lukashenko living “in the parallel reality.”

Even so, the troubling specter of violence’s effectiveness in suppressing protests has been raised in Belarus. Speaking to me in September 2020, I felt there was some ethical question over reporting Jan’s admission that “the main problem is that a lot of people who support the opposition they are trying to get out of the country. Because they are afraid of their lives, of the lives of their families.”

A woman is dragged away by the OMOH in Minsk, Nov. 15, 2020 (Wikimedia/Homoatrox)

It is now widely reported in the media that in Belarus, many prominent opponents of Lukashenko have been forced to become dissidents in neighboring Poland and the Baltic states.  Fear not for themselves, but for the safety of their families, has been an important consideration, as Jan acknowledged.

Similarly, in Hong Kong there has been an exodus of opponents to China leaving the territory. Another article on Waging Nonviolence has considered how oppression operates in Peru, including how it targets and pressurizes individuals to end their dissent.

Tackling fear

With violent repression having varied effects on a movement, it is crucial not to romanticize the breakdown of the barrier fear. It is not something that miraculously falls and galvanizes action, nor will a particular formula for action remove the barrier of fear, and with it herald the defeat of brutal regimes.

How fear operates in a system will vary, as will its effect on individuals. Many more factors are at play too.  Meanwhile, fear is not just something felt in a particular moment of action, for example during a protest; it relates to decades of repression and accretes within a population.

Paradoxically, when such a regime of fear does “suddenly” seem to be transgressed, the falling of a barrier of fear might appear to have been necessary. Yet it does not seem convincing that fear really disappears or lessens to any significant degree.

Remedying the more pessimistic assessment of the ability to “overcome” fear in Belarus, there are indications from the country of how resisters can strengthen their resolve. Lieanid suggested “we see a lot of fear around because police start to shut down people step-by-step in their homes, work.”

A scene from Minsk on Aug. 16, 2020, at the outset of the mass protests against Lukashenko’s regime (Wikimedia/Максим Шикунец)

Even so, it is at this basic, micro-level that resistance is being strengthened. Protests quite quickly became highly decentralized and localized, to the level of districts, streets and residential blocks.

Lieanid told me that across all big cities, “Every district has its chat […] they try to gather every evening between 8 and 9 to show their position, to show their attitude to the current situation.” This meant that “from the beginning, even in local districts, it was quite massive events.”

It is notable that similar decentralization of protests, down to the level of residential blocks, has been analyzed in the case of Sudan’s overthrow of President Bashir in 2019, as a robust basis of mutual aid and trusted networks.

In Belarus, a strong example of this was on Nov. 29, 2020, during the March of the Neighbors, when Belarusians held decentralized demonstrations in their local neighborhoods. While continuing to face security force brutality and arbitrary arrests, this was effective in stretching the security services.

It is at this very local, decentralized level where “everyday” acts of resistance and constructive resistance can interlink in the building of alternatives away from the dictatorial system. People engaged in open demonstration can operate close to tacit and less visible support networks in the population. This low-key resistance might provide a stronger sense of solidarity, security and confidence in the long run, countering fear and allowing the resistance to Lukashenko to be maintained.

This story was produced by Resistance Studies

Resistance Studies is a collaborative effort between academics and activists, or “professors of the street,” that promotes the analysis of and support for nonviolent direct action and civil disobedience around the world. This includes the Resistance Studies Initiative at UMass Amherst, scholars in the Resistance Studies Network and the interdisciplinary, peer-reviewed Journal of Resistance Studies. This initiative is managed and edited by Stellan Vinthagen, Craig Brown, Ben Case and Priyanka Borpujari.

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