Give Peaceful Resistance a Chance
By ERICA CHENOWETH - Middletown, Conn.
THE rebellion in Libya stands out among the recent unrest in the
Middle East for its widespread violence: unlike the protesters in
Tunisia or Egypt, those in Libya quickly gave up pursuing nonviolent
change and became an armed rebellion.
And while the fighting in Libya is far from over, itís not too early
to ask a critical question: which is more effective as a force for
change, violent or nonviolent resistance? Unfortunately for the Libyan
rebels, research shows that nonviolent resistance is much more likely
to produce results, while violent resistance runs a greater risk of
Consider the Philippines. Although insurgencies attempted to overthrow
Ferdinand Marcos during the 1970s and 1980s, they failed to attract
broad support. When the regime did fall in 1986, it was at the hands
of the People Power movement, a nonviolent pro-democracy campaign that
boasted more than two million followers, including laborers, youth
activists and Catholic clergy.
Indeed, a study I recently conducted with Maria J. Stephan, now a
strategic planner at the State Department, compared the outcomes of
hundreds of violent insurgencies with those of major nonviolent
resistance campaigns from 1900 to 2006; we found that over 50 percent
of the nonviolent movements succeeded, compared with about 25 percent
of the violent insurgencies.
Why? For one thing, people donít have to give up their jobs, leave
their families or agree to kill anyone to participate in a nonviolent
campaign. That means such movements tend to draw a wider range of
participants, which gives them more access to members of the regime,
including security forces and economic elites, who often sympathize
with or are even relatives of protesters.
Whatís more, oppressive regimes need the loyalty of their personnel to
carry out their orders. Violent resistance tends to reinforce that
loyalty, while civil resistance undermines it. When security forces
refuse orders to, say, fire on peaceful protesters, regimes must
accommodate the opposition or give up power ó precisely what happened
This is why the Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, took such great
pains to use armed thugs to try to provoke the Egyptian demonstrators
into using violence, after which he could have rallied the military
But where Mr. Mubarak failed, Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi succeeded: what
began as peaceful movement became, after a few days of brutal
crackdown by his corps of foreign militiamen, an armed but
disorganized rebel fighting force. A widely supported popular
revolution has been reduced to a smaller group of armed rebels
attempting to overthrow a brutal dictator. These rebels are at a major
disadvantage, and are unlikely to succeed without direct foreign
If the other uprisings across the Middle East remain nonviolent,
however, we should be optimistic about the prospects for democracy
there. Thatís because, with a few exceptions ó most notably Iran ó
nonviolent revolutions tend to lead to democracy.
Although the change is not immediate, our data show that from 1900 to
2006, 35 percent to 40 percent of authoritarian regimes that faced
major nonviolent uprisings had become democracies five years after the
campaign ended, even if the campaigns failed to cause immediate regime
change. For the nonviolent campaigns that succeeded, the figure
increases to well over 50 percent.
The good guys donít always win, but their chances increase greatly
when they play their cards well. Nonviolent resistance is about
finding and exploiting points of leverage in oneís own society. Every
dictatorship has vulnerabilities, and every society can find them.
Erica Chenoweth, an assistant professor of government at Wesleyan
University, is the co-author of the forthcoming "Why Civil Resistance
Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict."