MUNPlanet: The revolutions in the Arab world (Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen) have witnessed the power of the people. How can this experience help them in state and democracy building?
Maciej Bartkowski: These days one can often hear the criticism: “Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and Syria all had nonviolent revolutions and look at the mess that happened afterwards. Nonviolent resistance does not work.” To address this criticism one needs to look at each case separately. To take Egypt, for example: today, the human rights situation in the country looks even worse than prior to the fall of Hosni Mubarak in 2011. The conclusion that many derives from that transition is that the nonviolent revolution failed because it did not lead to a democratic change. The right response is to point out the fact that the immediate goal of the nonviolent revolution to end the repressive rule of Mubarak was achieved: the people were successful in bringing down the head of the regime. That happened in Tunisia, Egypt, and after a longer struggle in Yemen.
The first struggle of the nonviolent movement was won but there are many more struggles that nonviolent activists must plan for, fight and win during the ensuing transition.Overall, it is more advantageous for the political transition if the society remains mobilized, or “rebellious.” For example, SCAF (Supreme Council of Armed Forces), which took power in Egypt soon after the 2011 January revolution, would have captured public space and ruled in no less brutal and authoritarian way then president Sisi does now had it not been for the mobilized and rebellious Egyptian women and men throughout 2011 and 2012. Arguably, it would have been unlikely to hold open parliamentary and presidential elections in Egypt in 2011 and 2012 had not been for ordinary Egyptians who came out day and night to the Tahrir Square to protest and demonstrate. The removal of president Morsi and the return of the military to power in summer 2013 would have hardly been possible without millions of Egyptians who rebelled against Morsi and supported the army. A ruler’s rule – no matter how canny - is prescribed by the extent to which public remains obedient.
In Egypt, unfortunately, this rebellious society was very fragmented and polarized.There were different societal groups having different goals with regard to the nature of the government and a future country they wanted to build: secular or a religious one. The conflict that emerged between societal groups allowed for a military regime to re-emerge and eventually re-capture the public space. The problem was with a divided and polarized contentious society that opened the door for the non-democratic elements of the old regime to regain power and consolidate.
Despite all the obstacles in Egypt, the society that remains active can challenge the regime any time if it decides so. Right now, the Egyptian population, by and large, accepts the rule of the current president Sisi because a significant part of the society is more concerned about the Muslim Brotherhood and other religious elements than about a military dictatorship. And the regime practices authoritarianism because the society gives it a leeway to do so. It is not about what president Sisi does but ultimately about the actions of ordinary people. When the people decide they are no longer willing to suffer under this type of military rule the regime will collapse in the same way Mubarak’s reign was brought down.Egyptians must however draw lessons from 2011 and prepare themselves more effectively and strategically for political transition well before yet another head of the regime falls down.
People in all the Middle East societies that experienced the Arab spring have built in a certain legacy of resistance and the DNA of that resistance is now running in their blood stream. The victims can become their own liberators. Power is coming from the obedience or the silence of the society. And once the society decides not to be silent anymore this is when the regime faces insurmountable difficulties of staying in power.
"When the people decide they are no longer willing to suffer under this type of military rule the regime will collapse in the same way Mubarak’s reign was brought down. ... People in all the Middle East societies that experienced the Arab spring have built in a certain legacy of resistance and the DNA of that resistance is now running in their blood stream."
MUNPlanet: And what about the role of youth in struggles in Egypt and revolutions in the Arab world?
When we analyze specific revolutions, and their demographics – for example in Egypt or in Ukraine (Euromaidan) young people often initiated the events but revolutions were eventually sustained by all age groups. When we compare the demographics of people on the Maidan in Ukraine or Tahrir square in Egypt with the overall demographics of the population in these countries there were hardly any differences. These countries have more young people overall and the demographics of the squares occupied by younger generations reflected the demographics in the society.
What is interesting about youth participation in nonviolent movements is the fact that young people are usually associated with some type of radicalism. Then the question is why would they choose nonviolent actions. I think even radicalized youth would often realize that violence against violent state does not make sense given the state obvious advantages in inflicting violence. They might also have communicated with youths from other countries who were involved in revolutions themselves, and exchange information and views about strategies and tactics. These exchanges could reinforce their view that they are doing the right thing in relying on nonviolent methods to challenge oppressive regime.
There might also be a realization about negative long-term consequences for the society if opposition uses violence, even if that violence is successful in toppling down the regime. But then what kind of society people can build afterwards? Usually, the way one takes power is the way one rules afterwards. The lessons from Libya are telling. The fact that the revolution was violent and that it violently took down the Qadaffi regime has created havoc in the political situation in Libya. Whereas a peaceful revolution in Tunisia has created a different, arguably much less violent, legacy for more peaceful political transition.
MUNPlanet: What could political leaders learn from the principles of nonviolent conflict about democracy? Maybe reading more of Gandhi, Thoreau, Tolstoy– because people are what they read.
When we talk about conflicts, we instinctively think about violent conflicts even though national histories are dotted with conflicts led by people and movements that did not have arms. Instead, they used nonviolent methods of organizing and resistance often in the face of brutal repression. The efforts must be focused on recovering these stories of nonviolent heroism and action. Integrating such stories into national curricula would help shape the minds of ordinary people, including also new classes of intellectual, political, and social elites that could begin recognizing the power and effectiveness of nonviolent strategies and actions in different conflicts – in defending one’s territories, fighting violent extremism, or struggling against injustice, including corruption.
"Learning about nonviolent resistance on the international level can be done, for example, through the Model UN, where the young, intellectual leaders could engage in the discussions about the role of the international community in assisting movements and people who struggle for freedom and justice without violence. Another discussion among thousands of young people that participate in the Model UN every year could be around how to dissuade violent groups from using violence."
"I think that the UN, including the Model UN can play a significant role in advancing public discussion about the contributions nonviolent movements make toward holding elites accountable, building democratic practices and institutions and turning people into conscious and engaged citizens."
The youth can be a natural ally of civil nonviolent resistance, as they often become practitioners of this type of conflict, engaged in different campaigns for different causes. More institutionalized learning about the political change that can be brought about via nonviolent but forceful activism integrated formally into schools and colleges could provide young people with the introspection about their own behavior and actions, as well as offeropportunity to reflect on most effective strategies for bringing about significant political and social change in the country. This is the domestic-level learning.
Learning about nonviolent resistance on the international level can be done, for example, through the Model UN, where the young, intellectual leaders could engage in the discussions about the role of the international community in assisting movements and people who struggle for freedom and justice without violence. Another discussion among thousands of young people that participate in the Model UN every year could be around how to dissuade violent groups from using violence. Oftentimes, violent groups have justified grievances. Perhaps what is needed is to send repeated messages from the authoritative international bodies to different corners of the world where violence takes place and engage local people in conversations that would emphasize that there are other more viable and, in fact, more effective alternatives than violence to redress grievances and fight for rights. This can be initiated as part of the discussions within the Model UN.
What should be the role of the UN in assisting nonviolent movements? More specifically, for example, the situation in Syria could have raised the question about what the international community could have done to support nonviolent movement against the Assad regime and prevented it from being hijacked by violent groups during the summer of 2011. And I think by bringing such questions up as part of the discussions during the model UN could help place the issue on the agenda of the current political leaders and force them to think about norms and tools that the international community could develop to facilitate delivery of faster and more effective aid to movements on the ground.
This kind of aid could be based on knowledge – e.g. translation of materials, books written by educators and practitioners about lessons learnt from previous civic mobilizations and past nonviolent struggles in communities and countries all over the world. Dissemination of knowledge, by its nature, has much lower threshold to pass the UN principle of noninterference in internal affairs of other countries than have the armed interventions or a delivery of lethal assistance to opposition groups. But sharing ideas about how people mobilize and resist effectively without arms is much more likely to gain international support while the hypocrisies of repressive regimes can be further exposed when they use the principle of sovereignty to ban dissemination of ideas and knowledge across borders.
I think that the UN, including the Model UN can play a significant role in advancing public discussion about the contributions nonviolent movements make toward holding elites accountable, building democratic practices and institutions and turning people into conscious and engaged citizens.
MUNPlanet: What would be your message to a new generation, regarding their responsibility in building a positive peace and democracy in their countries?
Maciej Bartkowski: I think that in everyone’s lifetime, at least once, we are faced with injustice, deprivation or denial of rights and freedoms. In such situations we have a number of choices: either to ignore, disengage and remain passive or choose to participate in a more traditional type of politics, using existing institutions – courts, political parties, and interest groups, election – in order to try to eliminate injustice. If that is not possible because political system is tightly controlled by powerholders (e.g. in Iran or Russia or China) - people can choose to be passive and obedient to the system because of a fear of losing job or being arrested. But there are also those who cannot remain passive and obedient when they feel their rights are violated. They begin planning to engage in some kind of resistance and defiance of the system. They face with the choice of using violence or nonviolent methods. And this is an important moment for dissatisfied people when they need to choose the most effective strategies of resistance that maximize their chances of success while, at the same time, minimizing the costs and risks for the movement.
I think the message to that young generation is that, if you feel the urge to struggle you need to assess rationally the feasibility of achieving political goals within a reasonable timeframe and a long-term prospect of building more just and peaceful society with the chosen resistance methods.
The correct choice of methods can be influenced by popularizing the findings that nonviolent methods are historically more effective in reaching major political goals than other alternatives, particularly violence. They are also more effective in building more just and more peaceful societies. No one says that South Africa, where the apartheid regime was brought down by civil resistance, does not have major problems with structural and state violence. But the downfall of the apartheid regime significantly reduced the political violence and offered opportunities for the whole civil society to work together to address other societal ills.
One always has to think about the struggles for justice as being protracted. When a goal is reached and the unjust system falls down this is not the reason to demobilize. Movements, in fact, have to reach two goals – to stop immediate injustice and then to build a new type of open and accountable governance. For both of these objectives nonviolently rebellious societies are equally needed.
"While resisting, people are developing skills that are needed for building and sustaining a more peaceful and democratic society. One can hardly develop such skills if engaged in violent resistance..."
Nonviolent resistance offers – like no other type of struggle – an opportunity to hone democratic skills. While people resist and build a broadly representative civic movement, they have to negotiate, engage with other groups that are not like them and build coalitions. While resisting, people are developing skills that are needed for building and sustaining a more peaceful and democratic society. One can hardly develop such skills if engaged in violent resistance that requires much different set of expertise, e.g. working in clandestine cells, getting weapons in, shooting straight, blowing up designated targets. Such skills are hardly needed in peaceful societies that these violent groups claim they want to build after their successful struggles.
On the other hand, successful nonviolent movement is built on trust and transparency because it has to encourage broad and voluntary participation of various societal groups. The kind of skills of transparency, autonomy, self-management, equality, coalition building, which nonviolent resistance integrates into its struggle are crucial for successful political transition. That is why it is so important for the young people to understand and recognize the potentials of nonviolent strategies and resistance in challenging injustice and building more just and tolerant societies.
MUNPlanet: Maciej, thank you for devoting your time for talking to MUNPlanet. Keep us updated with the new developments in the field of nonviolent resistance – both in theory and practice.