Egypt and Tunis, but not Burma and Belarus?

Originally published in xxx

Egypt and Tunis, but not Burma and Belarus?


The nonviolent revolutions in Tunis and Egypt dominated international news in early 2011. It is now time to reflect on these types of societal processes, and the impact of external actors.

The revolutionary movements we have seen recently are described as unique and extraordinary in most mainstream media. The fact is that they are typical examples of most successful revolutions the last thirty years. Since the late seventies almost every successful revolution have not used arms to force the old regime to step down. Massive mobilisation of ordinary people in the streets, strikes, demonstrations, and a wide variety of nonviolent techniques have been used to remove unpopular authoritarian regimes in country after country. In the same period of time almost none of the many armed movements have been successful.

Long history

To illustrate this phase in human history I will in the following shortly go through some of the cases and divide them in six groups, based on similarities and types of external support. Let me first say that I am fully aware that each case is unique and has its own background and context. At the same time they have some sort of kinship that makes it reasonable to group them.

The first wave of popular nonviolent movements in this period started with Poland and the trade union Solidarity. From 1980 to 1989 they fought against the communist one party system and won. Bolivia, Uruguay and Philippines followed in 1982, 1984 and 1986. International trade unions and the Catholic Church were crucial for these revolutions to succeed.

In 1989-91 we saw the next wave of peaceful revolutions in former USSR and Eastern Europe. The fall of the Berlin wall became the symbol of these success stories. A relative strong civil society combined with access to western media and economical problems for a crumbling state made it possible to dismantle the communist one party systems.

At the same time a number of states in Francophone Sub-Saharan Africa went through similar processes of popular nonviolent regime changes. It started in Benin and spread to a handful of countries in 1989-91. An important factor in these cases were broad based coalitions working in ”National Assemblies” to discuss and form the future of the states. The celebration of the French revolution in 1789 and strong civil societies were important factors.

From 2000 onwards the ”Colored Revolutions” took place; starting in Serbia and spreading to Georgia, Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan and Lebanon. They were closely related to fraud in national elections. Foreign support in form of money and ideas about strategies and techniques played a role in these revolutions but played a minor role.

In the midst of the financial crises many people reacted strongly and blamed their governments for lack of control. This was followed by successful demands for their resignation in Iceland, Latvia, Hungary, Czech Republic, and may be more to come. Typically large crowds of people gathered outside the Parliament and stayed until the political leaders stepped down. In these cases no external support were delivered.

The most recent wave of revolts against authoritarian regimes started in Tunis and Egypt 2011 and are, as I am writing, followed by demonstrations and riots demanding the leaders to step down in Libya, Iraq, Iran, Morocco, Bahrein, Djibouti, Qatar, Algeria, Syria, Jordan, Yemen, Oman, and Kuwait. Little international support to the opposition in most of these cases, but Al Jazeera plays an important role as source of information.

Conclusion so far: The last thirty years have seen many more unarmed movements removing unpopular political leaders than what guerilla groups have achieved.

Does the supporters want democracy?

What are the roles of external actors in theses types of revolutions and what are the reasons not all countries in the same situations are able to topple their leaders?

Western states are eager to inform media and voters that they are actively promoting democracy around the world. Overt as well as covert actions of support to oppositional movements are carried out on a regular bases. History proves that we have reason to question the motivations behind some of this support. If it really was the promotion of democracy they wanted it is difficult to explain why almost all support are given to regimes with hostile relations to Western states. In horrible dictatorships like Chile in the eighties or Saudi Arabia and Kuwait today there are no support to oppositional movements. The ”democracy export” is only done to those countries with unfriendly relations to EU and Washington DC. Typically president Obama cut down 75% on the small support for civil society in Egypt while he continued the 1,7 billion USD annual support for the US-friendly regime. Is the truth that the real goal is to install US-friendly regimes and not to promote democracy? Cases like Algeria and their elections in 1990 and Palestine in 2006 indicates that western countries only support democracy when ”friendly” regimes are the winners of elections.

”Softening” frustration and anger?

In Tunis and Egypt the accumulated anger and frustration came to a point where people dared to confront the regime. Ordinary people had got enough of poverty, ”emergency laws”, censorship, police harassment, and corruption. In both these countries western support for the civil society and opposition had been almost none existence. Could it be that lack of support turned out to have positive when the people dared to take to the streets? The argument goes like this:

Some of the support to the civil society give suppressed people hope and tools for change and may function as a ”safety valve” to let out steam of frustration and anger. They will not reach the level of frustration and hopelessness necessary for daring tough confrontations with the police and military forces of the regime.

In countries were external actors are giving support in the form of training, transfer of money, and educational programs it may be that the level of frustration will never reached what we saw in Tunis, Egypt, Bahrain, Libya, Yemen etc. The external support comes with hope about a better future, and people are probably more willing to wait. Their anger and frustration is lessened and partly changed into hard work for a better future within the constitutional framework in respective country.

If this is a correct observation the reaction is not necessarily to stop ongoing support but to evaluate, rethink, and do it differently in the future. It is for sure wise to reflect on the new empirical experiences we have seen early 2011.

More support to prepare for revolution? 

One conclusion from the reflections above is to include more practical and strategical training to build a strong revolutionary movement. Support to empower the civil society should focus on preparing for huge scale demonstrations, how to handle riots, and to reduce the effect of brutal police forces. Manuals and handbooks for nonviolent campaigns are available in several languages and forms. Paper versions are smuggled into authoritarian states and pdf-files can be downloaded from the web. Some are carrying out practical training inside the respective countries as well as in ”safe places” abroad.

Impatience? May be it should take some time? Many who have successfully removed repressive regimes have faced serious difficulties as soon the celebrations were over. It is both more difficult, and just as important, to replace the old system. The best ones to remove an unwanted leader are not necessarily best prepared to run a country. There are enormous differences between opposition and being in position!

In my contact with oppositional movements I am always stressing the need to prepare for the time when they will be responsible for building a new state and run it to the satisfaction of the people. Tremendous difficulties are waiting for the winners. The economy is often in ruins, unemployment and corruption just as high as the enormous expectations from their supporters. Lack of education, training, workable ideas of how to run a good society are often combined with lack of tolerance and patience from the ”masses”.

A revolution will not be judged as the people celebrate the departure of unpopular leaders, but how the society is functioning months and years after the takeover. We have to wait until a decent judgement can be done about Tunis and Egypt.

There are no shortcuts

No peaceful revolutions have been completely spontaneous. In every case there are groups and movements that have been working in opposition for years ahead. The April 6 Youth Movement in Egypt is a typical example of small scale oppositional networks that played an important role when the situation demanded their contribution. Their strategical role was of utmost importance for the outcome. In Poland it took nine years of struggle before the communist one-party regimes was gone. In South Africa it took at least 40 years of hard work to remove Apartheid. In Burma, Belarus, Kazakhstan and several other places they are still waiting for the time to come.

Serious and critical evaluations of historical cases is the best way to improve the work for more peaceful and successful revolutions. It is not enough to have good intentions, external actors must have good skills as well.


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Posted in In English, Political comment and analysis

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