Reexamining nonviolence in a new Middle East

Two years after Egyptians took to the streets and took down Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, protests have once again exploded across the country.  The violent clashes in Port Said, Cairo, and elsewhere have underscored the outrage so many Egyptians feel at a Mohamed Morsi-led government that has stolen the people’s revolution.

Their anger and concern, of course, is not unwarranted.  Egypt has now blown through the majority of its foreign currency reserves, and with few new jobs and no tourism, little sign of recovery is on the horizon.  Its recently-passed constitution enshrines the marginalization and oppression (and therefore, enmity) of secularists, non-Muslims, and women for the foreseeable future. And Morsi’s ever-increasing autocratic rule and use of repression against opponents echo his predecessor’s tactics more and more with each passing day.

Meanwhile, Morsi’s leadership has won him similar skepticism, if not outright scorn, from the West. A  leader who has referred to Jews as “descendants of apes and pigs,” whose advisors openly call for  amending (if not revoking) the Camp David accords, and who has instituted anti-pluralist policies and an anti-consensus style of governance inherently at tension with Western values, is not exactly a natural ally of the United States or Europe.

It is, then, as remarkable as it is necessary to remind ourselves of the original event that brought to bear an Egypt whose citizens and allies are both the worse for wear: a Western-backed, nonviolent revolution.  The fact that a nonviolent movement could have created the political space for a repressive, anti-West Islamist regime to rise to the forefront of a country’s politics seems inherently contradictory to a Western mind nurtured to believe – rightly – in the heroism of Gandhi’s or King’s civil disobedience.

So how could this have happened to Egypt? How did a Western-backed, nonviolent revolution that began with so much hope turn sour so quickly? How did so many pundits on the left, right and center alike prognosticate Egypt’s future so wrongly? And finally, what are the lessons that we are to take from Egypt as groups in Bahrain, Jordan, the West Bank, and now (perhaps) Iraq look to forge nonviolent movements of their own?

These are precisely the questions that Gabriel Kohan and I seek to answer in our latest piece for Huffington Post, “Egypt and the Nonviolence Conundrum.”  Read on:

[T]he day after the ruling regime has been deposed, people’s priorities shift. Disciplined and hierarchical organizations trump passionate and anarchical movements. The fact that no single Egyptian Gandhi or King personified the revolution, or a post-revolutionary vision, rendered the Egyptian protestors without a clear figurehead to complete the movement they began.


Thus, the Muslim Brotherhood – established in 1928, highly organized and hierarchical, and kept in power by a Mubarak regime in order to frame himself as a preferable alternative by comparison – was ready to capitalize, despite the fact that they neither instigated Mubarak’s overthrow, nor represented the aspirations of those who did. When it became clear that the vanguards of the revolution lacked either an obvious luminary or a cogent philosophy to compete with the organized Islamic parties, the religious right easily seized the mantle of power in the Parliament and the Presidential Palace.


Which leads to a second, related uncomfortable lesson: in the 21st century, with both leaderless, diverse social media-driven movements and organized, disciplined Islamist groups on the rise, nonviolent revolutions – noble as their means and perceived ends may be – are far more likely than ever before to enable governments that not only defy the revolutionary’s aims at home, but also are inherently at tension with Western values.


Indeed, with the explosion of social media forces such as Facebook and Twitter, the so-called “hyper-connected world” surely will have more leaderless, nonviolent movements in store. But until the 21st-century revolutionary devises the skill set to mobilize, coalesce, and lead a political party as effectively as he or she organized a Facebook group, the nonviolent protester will find him or herself still relegated to the passenger seat, and the Islamist behind the wheel.”

There is the counterargument, of course, that perhaps the Egyptian Revolution is not done.  Perhaps, some claim, a second revolution is in the offing, leading to a more promising outcome for Egyptians and the West alike (18th-Century France, one might proclaim, didn’t exactly finish the job the first time around).  True enough – but while those who seek such an outcome point to the French Revolution(s) of 1787-99, it is easy to counter with a much more relevant, pertinent example: the Iranian Revolution in 1979.  Since the Ayatollahs took hold of Tehran, no second Iranian Revolution has succeeded, and none seems likely in the near term – for the Islamic fundamentalists who assumed the mantle of power have employed all repression and scare tactics at their disposal to maintain their stranglehold on power. We are already bearing witness to a strikingly similar scenario today in a Morsi-led Egypt. In other words, a second revolution in Egypt is not impossible, but it is also not inevitable.

Nonviolence in itself is without a doubt a most admirable and courageous means for achieving a noble political end.  The nonviolent activist who seeks such justified ends is to be admired. Yet for the reasons listed in our article, nonviolent movements in our generation’s Middle East may no longer yield the desirable results of those movements in our parents’ United States, or our great-grandparents’ India.

Today, as we hear the echoes of Egypt in 2011 reverberating in other regions across the Middle East, including in Jordan, Bahrain, the West Bank, and now perhaps even Iraq, it is worthwhile to consider, as we posit in our article: “will the people in the streets crying for freedom one day be in a position to preserve it the next?”

I encourage you to read our piece in its entirety here.

About the Author
Mark is a non-resident research fellow at the Institute for Policy and Strategy at the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) in Herzliya.