The Internationalist

Call to arms

The Egyptian impasse raises a sobering question: whether a revolution can succeed without violence

Egyptian protesters threw stones at riot police during violent clashes in Tahrir Square in Cairo in the early hours of June 29, 2011. (Khaled Desouki/AFP/Getty Images) Egyptian protesters threw stones at riot police during violent clashes in Tahrir Square in Cairo in the early hours of June 29, 2011.
By Thanassis Cambanis
July 31, 2011

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CAIRO - When Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak resigned after 18 days of public demonstrations here last winter, Tahrir Square instantly took its place in the world’s iconography of peaceful protest. Young men and women brandishing nothing more lethal than shoes and placards had toppled a dictator. One subversive slogan - “The people want the fall of the regime” - in the mouths of a million people overpowered a merciless police state.

It was not bloodless; some 846 people were killed by police and regime thugs, according to an Egyptian government inquiry. But for the protesters, and for people watching around the world, Egypt’s uprising appeared a heartening entry in the history of successful nonviolent movements stretching from Gandhi and Martin Luther King to the “velvet revolutions” that unraveled the Iron Curtain in 1989.

That was half a year ago. Today, Mubarak’s military council runs the country, wielding even more power than before when it had to share authority with the president’s family and civilian inner circle. The military has detained thousands of people after secret trials, accused protesters of sedition, and issued only opaque directives about the country’s path toward a constitution and a new elected civilian government.

As time passes and revolutionary momentum fades in the broader public, a new current of thought is arising among the protesters who still occupy Tahrir Square, demanding civilian rule and accountability for former regime figures. Many are now asking an unsettling question: What if nonviolence isn’t the solution? What if it’s the problem?

“We have not yet had a true revolution,” said Ayman Abouzaid, a 25-year-old cardiologist who has taken part in every stage of the revolution so far. At the start, Abouzaid wholeheartedly embraced nonviolence, but now believes that only armed vigilante attacks will force the regime to purge the secret police and other operatives who still retain their jobs from the Mubarak era. “We need to take our rights with our own hands,” he says.

Among the dedicated core of Egyptian street activists who have been at the forefront of the protests since the beginning, an increasing number have begun to argue that a regime steeped in violence will respond only to force. Egypt’s revolution appeared nonviolent, they argue, only because it wasn’t a revolution at all: it was a quiet military coup that followed the resignation of the president. They cast a glance at nearby Syria and Libya, still racked by sustained violent revolts against their authoritarian leaders, and wonder if that may be what a true revolution looks like.

Leftist political thinkers have turned to the history of the French and Russian Revolutions to argue that a full break from Egypt’s authoritarian past will ultimately require the use of force against the regime. Rank-and-file activists in Tahrir Square invoke a more visceral rule of power, pointing out that riot troops and secret police agents will yield only to the raw strength of popular confrontation.

Egypt’s trajectory is also raising a bigger question about revolutions: Is the modern view of regime change naive and inaccurate, reading too much into the uprisings that swept Eastern Europe after the fall of the Soviet Union? Perhaps these swift and largely peaceful overthrows of former Communist regimes are the exception rather than the rule when it comes to revolution. And if that’s true, Egypt and the other countries driving the Arab Awakening might be heading not toward something better, but something worse.

Nonviolence was philosophically at the heart of Egypt’s revolution since the beginning, and it’s part of why Tahrir Square appealed not only to millions of Egyptians but to so many in the West. January 25 fit nicely on a bumper sticker, signifying a gentle, acceptable kind of popular uprising for the modern age.

But some in Egypt - even among those who don’t want to see a more violent turn now - are already saying we need to see last winter’s events differently. The days that led to Mubarak’s fall were starkly violent, they point out, and the youth who battled their way into Tahrir Square in January did so by overpowering riot police with rocks and Molotov cocktails.

“We did use violence, but we never started violence,” says Alaa Abd El Fattah, an influential labor activist and blogger who has been organizing teach-ins and impromptu conferences on his country’s future. He has pushed a less utopian narrative of the revolution’s origins, although he still believes that protesters today need to remain nonviolent to achieve their goals.

Recent events, however, have convinced some revolutionaries to feel otherwise. Since Mubarak resigned in February, the military has taken charge of internal security and run the show with the same caprice and impunity that characterized the reign of Mubarak’s secret police. Little headway has been made on the demand that unifies protesters and the Egyptian public - that police officers who killed or abused civilians under the old regime be removed from their jobs and held accountable. Egyptian citizens who express political dissent are still routinely denounced on state-run television as foreign agents and spies. And on June 28, the riot police deployed for the first time since Mubarak left office, and with apparent relish pummeled demonstrators with tear gas, birdshot, and plastic bullets. YouTube videos capture police in and out of uniform taunting demonstrators with swords and sarcastically chanting one of the uprising’s own slogans back to them: “Raise your head, you’re Egyptian.”

Since then, a persistent chorus has started to call for a more violent challenge to the regime’s behavior. Core activists in Tahrir Square point out that it was the brute force of people fighting riot police in January that startled the regime and forced Mubarak’s resignation; they argue that the mostly peaceful manifestations since then have allowed the military dictatorship to survive intact. During the initial uprising, Abouzaid, the cardiologist, slept in front of Egyptian Army tanks to stop them advancing into Tahrir Square. In the past month he has come to embrace an even more radical approach. “Freedom means death,” Abouzaid said. “That is the equation of a true revolution. You know the police officer who killed your son? You go and kill him.”

Families of those killed in the initial uprising have organized a major pressure campaign to force the government account for the missing and put on trial all the officials involved in attacking demonstrators. Otherwise, they say, they will have every right to take justice into their own hands.

“I want them all to go to hell,” says Sayed Goma, 52, who has been wandering through Tahrir Square since January with a picture of his son, who disappeared in the Jan. 28 clashes with police and is presumed dead. Goma blames the government coroner he accuses of burying unidentified bodies of slain protesters in secret mass graves.

“I will kill his son and not give him the body,” Goma says.

Some street-fight veterans talk of assaulting police stations. Others, including some leaders, say that targeted assassinations of murderous police would spur the regime into action.

The pressure to escalate resistance and employ violence has driven a rift through the disparate coalition of groups still occupying Tahrir Square. Leaders of the April 6 movement, a driving force behind the revolution that commands deep support in working-class areas because of its history of labor activism, have studiously shut down any talk of violent action. April 6 has embraced mainstream positions, even tempering criticism of the military junta while generals were accusing the movement of subversion. But rank-and-file members of the group in Egypt, like Joe Gabra, chafe: “We need to take up arms,” says Gabra, a young organizer. “If you get shot at, this peaceful stuff doesn’t work.”

Even Abd El Fattah, the labor activist and blogger who argues against a revolutionary embrace of violence, muses publicly about using it. “I talk about killing police officers all the time. It’s a fantasy,” he says. “It could solve our problems, but it doesn’t mean I am planning to do it.”

The argument in Tahrir Square is more than a local debate over tactics; it reflects a real divide among political thinkers over what works best when challenging a police state. Though revolutions have long been associated with bloodshed, the astonishing success of the “soft” revolutions of Poland, Czechoslovakia, and later the Ukraine drove much policy and social science research in the post-Cold War era. An influential study published in 2008 made a strong case that peaceful protest was the most effective way to challenge authoritarian regimes. In “Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict,” Maria J. Stephan and Erica Chenoweth studied 323 resistance campaigns from 1900 to 2006, and concluded that nonviolent efforts succeeded twice as often as violent ones. Violent crackdowns on peaceful protesters tended to backfire, Stephan and Chenoweth argued, and nonviolent resistance garnered greater international support.

This line of thinking has apparently been compelling not only to academics but to authoritarian rulers in places like China and Russia, who have deployed the full force of the state against even tiny, marginal civil disobedience campaigns, unnerved at the prospect that they might swell into massive nonviolent uprisings. And the philosophy of the Eastern European “velvet” or “color” revolutions infused some of the drivers of the Arab Awakening itself: April 6 leaders even traveled to Europe to meet leaders of Otpor, the nonviolent Serbian movement that overthrew Slobodan Milosevic.

But these gentle revolutions, it turns out, might be exceptions rather than the rule. There’s a backlash among some historians and political scientists that echoes the gut feeling of Egypt’s frustrated revolutionaries. They suggest, sometimes reluctantly, that regimes that insist on ruling by the gun, so to speak, might only be pushed aside by the gun.

Robert Pape, a University of Chicago political scientist, studied terrorist attacks, aerial bombing, and other forms of coercion, and concluded that violence achieves strategic goals far more effectively than peaceful means. Ivan Arreguín-Toft, a political scientist at Boston University, makes a similar argument about the critical role of violence for opposition movements in his book “How the Weak Win Wars: A Theory of Asymmetric Conflict.”

Some analysts and academics seeking to understand the forces at play in the Arab Awakening look less to the gentle power transitions in contemporary Europe than to the fiery, radical and violent regime changes in Iran in 1979 and France in 1789. These scholars say that the French Revolution, with its guillotine and counterrevolutionary backlash, might be a more useful example of a true break with the past than the measured transitions two centuries later in Eastern Europe. The French Revolution swept aside an entire system, not only removing the royal family from power but smashing the feudal economy and the monarchical philosophy on which it was built. Arab activists have also noted that Iran’s revolution - whose theocratic aims they do not share - successfully remade the entire state because it brooked no dissent and warmly embraced violent tactics.

The gentler Eastern European uprisings, by contrast, are now seen as a different kind of regime change: not so much revolutions as restorations, a return to a broader European trajectory interrupted by Soviet domination at the end of World War II. Other uprisings, like the “people power” waves that overthrew dictators in the Philippines and Indonesia, largely avoided violence because they demanded incremental reform rather than the toppling of an entire system, and the military didn’t defend the regime. It is usually when the dictator’s ruling apparatus refuses any compromise at all that reformist opposition morphs into violent revolution - as is the case today in Syria, where rebellion is veering toward open conflict, and Libya, fully in the throes of civil war. Most Egyptians, it is clear from the public conversation here, would prefer the smoother kind of transition: a revolution without the sturm und drang. The question is whether that will be enough to unseat the military.

Theda Skocpol, the Harvard sociologist who redefined the study of comparative revolutions, cautioned that “there is no one ‘paradigm’ for a revolution.”

“Egypt seems to me to be going through a kind of political change, but not a full-blown revolution,” Skocpol says. With the army still in charge, she argues, nonviolent protests may yet be the most effective approach, especially since the military establishment, which depends on US support, will be sensitive to international public opinion.

Back in Tahrir Square, conversations are rife with historical analogies, as activists trade theories about revolutions past, in France, Russia, and Eastern Europe, and ongoing fights elsewhere in the Arab world.

“We need patience,” Sayed Radwan, a 52-year-old airline counter representative, said on a recent afternoon. “The French Revolution took 30 years.”

“Yes,” snapped his friend, “but first, they killed all the leaders.”

Thanassis Cambanis is the author of ‘’A Privilege to Die: Inside Hezbollah’s Legions and Their Endless War Against Israel” and blogs at He is an Ideas columnist.