The path of civil resistance

USIP panelThursday the United States Institute of Peace held a talk on “Civil Resistance and Peacebuilding: How They Connect.” The panelists included Maria Stephan, USIP Senior Policy Fellow, Manal Omar, Acting Vice President for USIP’s Center for Middle East and Africa and Kerri Kennedy, Associate General Secretary for International Programs at American Friends Service Committee. The event was moderated by Nancy Lindborg, President of USIP.

Stephan introduced the concept of non-violent civil resistance by comparing it to traditional peacebuilding. The former intensifies conflict in an attempt to shift power so as to get to a point of meaningful negotiation. Civil resistance ripens conflicts for conflict resolution. The latter mitigates and deescalates conflicts using techniques such as dialogue, mediation and problem-solving. Both approaches are different but fall under means of conflict transformation.

Stephan also produced empirical data on the efficacy of non-violent resistance compared to armed struggles. She looked at 323 campaigns in 1900-2006 in which at least 1000 people were involved in fighting against dictatorships and for territorial self-determination. She held constant any thing that would determine the conflict’s outcome, such as GDP, military might of the opponent or regime and socioeconomic divisions in society. The results showed that non-violent resistance campaigns outperformed their armed competitors by 2:1.

Additionally Stephan’s empirical research showed society is better off after the struggle if non-violent methods are employed. Non-violent campaigns are strongly correlated with democratic consolidation. The probability a country will be a democracy five years after a campaigns ends is 57% among non-violent movements against less than 6% among successful violence campaigns. Also, the likelihood of recurrence to civil war for violent campaigns is almost double that for non-violent campaigns.

Kennedy spoke about the relationship between civil resistance, peacemaking and peacebuilding. Although there may be tension among the three elements, Kennedy believes a strategy works best when all the elements are incorporated. She added that often peacebuilding and civil resistance are happening at the same time, as opposed to sequentially. For example, in Egypt it wasn’t just a quick social movement that lead to the fall of Mubarak’s regime—decades of effort led to the large social movement. Kennedy also advocated dialogue first to bring about a solution, but warned that it’s rare for dialogue to work on its own without the pressure of mobilization.

Omar elaborated on the challenges of civil resistance as a form of conflict transformation. One issue is redirecting people’s anger towards productive efforts. A person who uses his or her anger to call for social justice is a good thing, but it’s difficult to prevent that anger from morphing into violence. Similarly, defectors from the security apparatus don’t want to put their arms down when they join non-violent resistance movement, which leads to the lines blurring between violence and non-violence. Omar called for the international community to provide people more alternatives, so they don’t turn to violence. Too many people have been disillusioned with the failure of the “ballot box over bullet,” but lack peaceful, constructive options for conflict transformation.

Omar also commented on the importance of transitional justice in post-conflict situations. Many countries in transition begin state building without ensuring accountability, which prompts these countries to slide back into civil wars. Sometimes the international community pushes transitional states towards creating a constitution, holding elections and essentially meeting indicators of success without addressing transitional justice. The consequence is the loss of support from people who were dedicated to the non-violent cause from the beginning because they don’t see justice served.

All three panelists emphasized that the civil resistance path is long and obscure at times. Kennedy claimed the importance of small community steps should not be dismissed. It is necessary to debunk the myth that violent intervention is fast and effective, when it’s actually very messy. Omar added that the regime changes in Egypt and Tunisia were the result of years of mobilizing, organizing groups, training, making mistakes and learning from them. They weren’t merely 25-day struggles. Stephan said that civil resistance encompasses more than protests, demonstrations and boycotts, it also involves social audits, community monitoring and creating parallel structures and institutions, which can empower the nation-building process.

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