Global Independent Analytics

Why unarmed revolutions topple some dictators but not others

Weaponless protests largely eschew violent tactics and have become a distinguishing feature of contemporary international politics

Daniel P. Ritter for The Washington Post discusses why highly repressive and seemingly all-powerful regimes sometimes collapse at the hands of protesters armed with little more than slogans and resolve? And, in a related issue, why do some attempts at unarmed revolution fail to oust despots, even though such movements may initially appear identical to their successful counterparts?

The modern history has shown us a new type of revolution: labeled “negotiated,” “democratic,” “electoral,” “color,” “nonviolent” or “unarmed,” these revolutions largely eschew violent tactics and have become a distinguishing feature of contemporary international politics. Despotic leaders and authoritarian regimes in the Philippines, Chile, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Indonesia, Serbia, Ukraine, Georgia, Tunisia and Egypt — to mention a few — have met their political ends in the same fashion of unrelenting protests and strikes.

Despite the fact that unarmed revolutions have often displeased their protagonists, their ability to unseat autocrats through the use of nonviolent tactics — sometimes referred to as “civil resistance” — constitutes a powerful social science puzzle in itself.

Ritter suggests that an emphasis on discourses around democracy and human rights can help us understand why the shah in Iran, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt proved to be much more vulnerable to nonviolent challenges than did Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Iran, Moammar Gaddafi in Libya and Bashar al-Assad in Syria.

The main cause might lie in the matter that the Iranian, Egyptian and Tunisian leaders have found themselves in the situation where they are forced to behave in a West-approved manner, considering their close economic and political relations. They did so by transforming their regimes into “façade democracies,” that is, a form of government that rhetorically embraces liberal Western values like democracy and human rights without any intention of actually living up to the corresponding obligations.

In response to such, often false, front, Western leaders could turn a partial blind eye and maintain that while things were not perfect, at the very least the democratic world was not in cahoots with human rights-violating autocrats. Respectively, the three dictators successfully maintained their respectable image for international audiences, thus facilitating Western support and benefitting from Western protection.

However, this insincere commitment to the West’s core values came at a price. Opposition parties in all three countries understood that their governments’ embrace of these principles could be leveraged against them. Hence, human rights and pro-democracy activists sought to hold their leaders accountable by pointing to contradictions between rhetoric and reality, often with the support of human rights organizations abroad. As a result, the three regimes were forced to repeatedly reiterate their commitments to democratic principles, making them more susceptible to subsequent pressure and criticism, continues Ritter.

Unwilling to destroy their democratic façades, the three leaders could not muster the type of naked repression that may, at least temporarily, have saved their regimes once nonviolent, democracy-demanding protesters took to the streets in large numbers. The movements grew until decisive violence became nearly impossible, effectively closing the door to any repression, which, if enacted, definitely will destroy their images.

The “iron cage of liberalism” does not only ensnare dictators: When tens of thousands of defenseless protesters demand democracy, human rights, freedom and dignity on live TV, Western leaders must understand their demands and, although reluctantly, give up important allies in order to be on the right side of history (and the right side of the next election).

Non-violent tactics are effective mostly because of their agreement with the West’s most cherished values. If any authoritarian administration that initially claimed to protect basic human rights of free speech denies the principles, there comes a contradiction between their public and inner politics in terms of essential human rights.

Unlike a violent revolutionary challenge, the compatibility between nonviolence and democracy/human rights makes unarmed revolutionary movements existential threats to any dictator closely aligned with and dependent on the West. However, the counterpoint also holds: Tyrants free of this restriction can — and likely will — use uncompromising violence against their own citizens, a lesson that has been reinforced in bloody fashion by events in Libya and Syria since 2011, concludes Ritter.

 

By Stefan Paraber for GIA.

EXPERT OPINION

Joshua Tartakovsky

We get the impression here that the west truly upholds freedom and democracy but protesters in the US often encounter violence and repression. We are told here that when autocratic countries that got closer to the west fail to practice freedom and democracy, they will be toppled by an audience eager for more. But is this really true? Saudi Arabia and Bahrain are very close to the west but protests in the latter were met by extreme violence and the west did not intervene, even verbally. It did so with Egypt, however, calling for the removal of Mubarak.  Why the discrepancy? Well, perhaps in the case of Egypt, the US had a strategic interest in the Muslim Brotherhood gaining power, as it benefits economically from growing chaos in the region, while in the case of Bahrain, a true democracy would see the Shiite majority express its opinion and secure its rights, which would give Iran an additional partner in the region.

Is the lesson from the article that autocratic governments must be brutal and stay away from western institutions to remain in power? Probably not either. Because Iraq and Syria both kept their distance from the west though they wanted better relations with it, and the former was toppled by a war while the latter is being destabilized by terrorists supported by western and middle eastern countries.

The article is inaccurate for a more basic reason: Libya. Gaddafi sought closer relations with the west and his son Saif al-Islam even studied at LSE and wrote his master on reforming the country along democratic lines. Yet once there were massive protests and terrorist actions, Gaddafi realized he had nothing to lose and cracked down on protesters. He was toppled not because of the discrepancy between his democratic aspirations and reality, but because he was physically murdered unlawfully with US support. Most Libyans wish he would have still ruled the country.

Once the US sets its eyes on a given country, it can be toppled either by war and terrorism, or by popular protests (which do not reflect necessarily the will of a majority but are covered favorably by the media). But can we let go of the notion that the US is a true democracy as it cracks down on protesters and its police is heavily militarized?

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