Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Taxonomic challenges of struggle

The debate about whether a particular civil society struggle is nonviolent or not is interesting, I suppose--"I'll take Intifadas for $300"--but I think more to the point is attempting to estimate the effects of tactics. Did Egyptians win their struggle (at least this first major phase of it) as a result of, or despite, their relatively minor amount of stone throwing? Did that violence accelerate or retard their advance toward the goal of getting Hosni Mubarak to step down?

First of all, this great struggle will be known historically as a nonviolent uprising. The decision on the typology is fairly settled. So, given that, how will the tactics be understood?

I believe they will be regarded as a very minor departure from a similar display of nonviolence used in Serbia in 2000 and in the Philippines in 1986 and in South Africa in the late 1980s, and throughout the Eastern and Central European Velvet Revolution. I do not believe it will be thought of like either Intifada in Palestine Israel. In those struggles the rocks were pelted at Israeli Defense Force, an occupying armed force. In Egypt, the stones were thrown at attacking thugs paid by or otherwise beholden to Mubarak's machine. The rocks were not hurled at the military. Indeed, the military was treated well and in turn generally treated the civil society uprising with relative courtesy. The difference is significant.

Israelis and Americans reacted negatively to Palestinians winding up and hurling rocks at the heads of IDF troops, especially since Palestinian fighters were also sometimes sniping at the same IDF troops and, it was felt, the suicide bombers who blew up kids at the university or in pizza joints were from the ranks of the stone throwers. True or false, it was a logical assumption.

Everyone understood almost immediately that the aggressive violent attackers in Tahrir Square were the same men seen at past demonstrations and election polling places, intimidating and committing violent acts. They came in swords swinging, pistols drawn and pointed, on horseback or camelback, for heavensake. It was thuggery, organized violent crime, and that was far too obvious. The image of the protesters was not nonviolent when they responded with stones, but everyone sympathized--everyone Egyptian and from the outside. The protesters never claimed to be Gandhian or Quaker nonviolent sufferers. They are Egyptians using strategic liberatory nonviolent civil society struggle and they essentially pushed the pause button on nonviolence to defend themselves with crude projectile objects when they were brutally attacked without provocation by criminals well known to them. This did very little to erode their image as sympathetic to most people domestic and foreign.

The other kerfuffle about how much Gene Sharp affected their struggle is a bit like asking how much the Wright Brothers influenced the Russians as they work on a new jet design. Sharp never claimed his teachings were necessary to do this--otherwise, how did Gandhi manage to achieve what he did, how did MLK do the Civil Rights movement, how did Kwame Nkrumah ever manage his nonviolent liberation of Ghana? All those preceded Sharp's scholarship on the power, methods and dynamics of nonviolence. Sharp is proud of his life's work, as he should be, but he is the last one to claim that anything other than culturally specific and locally led nonviolence will accomplish anything. His teachings have helped and any Egyptian who denies this may live by the Nile but also lives in denial.

We are simply humankind trying to help each other understand this force, this power that is always there, usually latent, normally cloaked, and far more complex than Gandhi or Sharp or Ackerman or Stephan or Schock or Kurtz or Popovic or Presbey or Helvey or True or Chenoweth or Zunes or Nagler or Burrowes or or Boaz or Clark or Cortright or Weber or any of our outstanding analysts can describe. Describing nonviolence is like describing an ecosystem; it is always far more complex than our most intricate explanation and all our complicated exegesis is absolutely helpful and necessary.

No comments: