Just like David and Goliath
These are heady times to study the dynamics of nonviolent grassroots movements.
With the recent developments in Egypt and Tunisia, and with other people rising up to stake their claim to freedom, the Rohatyn Center for International Affairs hosted a slide lecture by Hardy Merriman, a senior adviser at the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict (ICNC), on April 7.
For many of the 50 people in attendance, Merriman’s talk hit home. Middlebury College has students and faculty from Afghanistan, Iran, China, Nepal, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and other struggling nations. Middlebury also has been touched by uprisings in recent months, first when the 17 students enrolled in the College’s study-abroad program in Alexandria, Egypt, were advised to pack up and go home, and later when junior Pathik “Tik” Root was detained in a Syrian prison for 15 days for taking photos of a demonstration in Damascus.
Merriman has nine years of experience at the Washington, D.C.-based center that studies nonviolent struggles such as the Solidarity Movement in Poland and the Otpor in Serbia, and he strives to make sense about today’s resistance movements from Burma to Kenya to Madison, Wisconsin.
Researchers at the ICNC have turned the study of nonviolent conflict into a science by quantifying issues (e.g., dictatorships, corruption, poverty) and tactics (e.g., boycotts, mass demonstrations, digital activism). As Merriman explained, “At the ICNC we try to figure out what makes grassroots movements tick. Why do some work and others fail? What strategies are most effective? And how on Earth do movements defeat armed adversaries who seem to have all the advantages?”
Merriman then turned to Egypt and spent about half his lecture “contextualizing” the events that occurred there between January 25 – the “day of rage” when thousands marched in Cairo – and February 11, when Hosni Mubarak resigned as president.
“What we don’t know about what happened in Egypt probably exceeds what we do know at this point, both in terms of what activists were thinking and doing, and in terms of what members of the regime were thinking and doing. Why did the security forces defect? What other interactions were meaningful and played a part in the outcome in Egypt?
“There are probably 10 or 20 or 100 different [doctoral] dissertation proposals being written right now that will study it,” Merriman hypothesized, “and that’s great because that’s how we’re really going to learn” what took place in Egypt and why it happened that way.
The speaker traced the time line of events in Tunisia and Egypt for the audience, reviewed the key players in both struggles, and explored the concept of power in society by paraphrasing political theorists Hannah Arendt and Gene Sharp.
“Power is a transaction that comes from the consent of people, and the side that has the most money and the most guns is often in a position to compel consent and obedience. But,” Merriman said, “that is not always the case. When people stop obeying systematically, when they withdraw their consent and shift their behavior patterns to something new, it shifts the balance of power in that society.”
That shift in power generally occurs as a five-step process, the expert on nonviolent conflict explained. Often the first reaction to disobedience is repression. Second, if repression fails, the regime (or organization in power) resorts to offering concessions. Third, if the masses still are not appeased, splits emerge among those in power. Fourth, the most ardent supporters express doubt in the ruling class. And fifth, defections occur and power changes hands.
Merriman also took his audience through the “structures or conditions” that affect the outcome of a movement but are out of the movement’s control. They include the oppressor’s willingness to use violence, the presence of an independent media, and both the education and poverty levels within a society. He also explained the “skills or agency” that a movement has under its control, like its vision, its degree of organization, the effectiveness of its communication, and its understanding of its people’s loyalties.
For Merriman, communication is a critical element of 21st-century movements. Just look at what happened in Egypt, he offered. When the regime turned off the Internet and shut down cellular phone service, the people needed to know what was going on. So what did they do? They went out into the streets, which had the effect of fomenting more demonstrations and more unrest. And that, in Merriman’s view, is when David got the upper hand on Goliath.