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, it’s 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 backfiring.
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 don’t 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.
What’s 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 — precisely what happened in Egypt.
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 behind him.
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 intervention.
If the other uprisings across the Middle East remain nonviolent, however, we should be optimistic about the prospects for democracy there. That’s because, with a few exceptions — most notably Iran — 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 don’t always win, but their chances increase greatly when they play their cards well. Nonviolent resistance is about finding and exploiting points of leverage in one’s 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.”