Unarmed Protests Force Leaders from Power Twice as Often as Violent Uprisings


Research lends support to the Nobel Committee’s rationale for its award of the Nobel Peace Prize for 2015; the revolution in Tunisia shows how non-violent protest can assist in democratization.

Protesters on Avenue Habib Bourguiba, downtown Tunis on 14 January 2011, a few hours before president Ben Ali fled the country. VOA Photo/L. Bryant

The award of the Nobel Peace Prize to the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet came as a surprise to most observers. But the committee’s rationale – which cites the so-called Jasmine Revolution and the role of civil society in the democratization of Tunisia, together with the potential for inspiring processes of democratization in other countries – is closely linked to the findings of research conducted in recent years into non-violent protests, democratization and the spread of democracy in a global perspective.

May bring about change in a short period

Many theories about democratization emphasize economic development and structural factors that at best change at a slow pace.

The Jasmine Revolution, which ousted President Ben Ali from power in 2011, shows how non-violent protest may in the course of a short period undermine authoritarian regimes and contribute to democratization. Research clearly indicates that widespread uprisings and social unrest increase the likelihood of a dictatorial leader losing power.

Although such movements are seldom able to take power directly, mass uprisings often lead to crises in which opportunistic elites opt to jump off a sinking ship. This is particularly true if the rebels can persuade key elements of the power structure to refuse to follow orders to suppress the uprising. Some dictators have been deposed by their vice presidents or the military, while others, such as Tunisia’s Ben Ali, have opted to step aside voluntarily and go into exile.


Non-violent uprisings are a greater threat for dictators

Any form of uprising or crisis may pose a challenge to a country’s regime. There is a widespread, but erroneous, belief that non-violent uprisings represent less of a threat than armed uprisings, such as those in other countries in the Middle East, for example Syria and Libya.

Research shows, however, that non-violent uprisings are in fact a greater threat to regimes than violent uprisings, and twice as often result in a leader having to give up power. Two important reasons for this are the breadth of popular participation and the differences between the types of groups that choose violent and non-violent forms of rebellion.


Lower threshold for involvement in unarmed protests

An uprising needs to gain widespread support relatively quickly if it is to have any significant impact on those in authority. Popular participation in non-violent uprisings against dictatorial regimes is generally far higher than in armed rebel movements. In the case of armed rebellion, there are difficulties relating to obtaining weapons and providing the military training necessary for increasing participation in the short term.

Starting a non-violent uprising is not easy. But once the protests have begun, it is easier to escalate them. This is because participation is not dependent on pre-existing skills and can be combined with ordinary life. The risk for each individual participant also declines rapidly as more people become involved.

Non-violent protest is used most often by movements demanding universal political reform. Typically such movements are active in urban areas. By contrast, violent rebel movements often demand independence for particular ethnic groups, and employ guerilla tactics in outlying areas or use indirect methods of attack such as terrorism and sabotage.

Ideology may of course contribute to legitimizing or rationalizing violence as well as abstaining from violence. But most non-violent movements generally have pragmatic reasons for distancing themselves from violence.


Use of violence against non-violent uprisings is counter-productive

Violence is seldom helpful if one wishes to achieve the highest possible level of participation or encourage elites to defect from a regime. Violence may undermine support if many people reject violence as a legitimate means of change or are fearful of violent confrontations. By contrast, large-scale non-violent uprisings make it more likely that opportunistic elites will either defect or speak out in favour of reforms.

Attempts to suppress non-violent uprisings are often counter-productive and undermine support for a regime. In practice it is more difficult to defend the use of violence against non-violent protesters and it is less likely that the police or armed services will obey an order to suppress such protests.

Accordingly it is important to attempt to prevent people from responding violently to a regime’s use of violence, as happened in Syria in 2011 when protests against the regime escalated to civil war.


An ousted dictator does not mean democracy

The Iranian Revolution in 1979, as well as developments in other countries after the Arab Spring, show that crises do not necessarily lead to a transition to democracy. A new dictator will often replace the old one. But a non-violent uprising makes transition to democracy more likely.

An autocratic regime threatened by an uprising will often attempt to promise political reforms, with rival factions within the regime often outbidding each other. Active participation in a non-violent uprising may also boost political mobilization and contribute to a stronger and more diverse civil society during the process of transition, something that will make a new dictatorship less likely.


The trade union movement can force political reform

The trade union movement – which also formed part of the Tunisian Quartet – has played a decisive role in many protest movements and transitions to democracy. The trade union movement has networks that can mobilize large numbers of people and is also well placed to organize effective forms of resistance such as strikes.

Such a movement can impose enormous economic costs on government authorities and help to push forward political reforms. Experience from leading established organizations will also make a protest movement more resilient than more transitory coalitions of weaker organized groups, such as students. Finally, unions may provide favourable conditions for participation in transition institutions and political parties, as well as for mobilizing participation in subsequent elections.


The transition to democracy has encountered many challenges

The Nobel Committee also emphasized the importance of the spread of democracy and the hope that Tunisia can inspire other countries in the Middle East. Research lends strong support to the idea that democratization in one country can contribute to democratization in others. Similarly, the conditions for democracy are worse when no neighbouring country is a democracy.

Tunisia has developed positively following the departure of Ben Ali. But the transition to democracy has encountered many challenges, such as political assassinations and a serious terrorist attack that threatens the country’s important tourist industry. The absence of democracy, together with widespread war and unrest in the Middle East, makes it more difficult to secure the potential for democracy and economic stability in Tunisia.

From this point of view, the Nobel Committee’s rationale for its decision may seem overly optimistic.

Nonetheless, the international prestige of the Peace Prize will draw more attention to Tunisia. This type of support may help to secure democratization in Tunisia and inspire non-violent protests in other countries. Experiences from countries such as Serbia show that it is important not to give up the struggle against dictatorship, even if one does not succeed the first time around. Although research in this area was scarcely decisive for the committee’s decision, it does at least lend support to its rationale and provide a basis for cautious optimism.


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