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Nonviolence, revolution, and the Arab Spring

In 2011, the Middle East saw more people peacefully protesting long-entrenched dictatorships than at any time in its history. The dictators of Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen were deposed in a matter of weeks by nonviolent marches. Described as ‘the Arab Spring’, the revolution has been convulsing the whole region ever since. We sat down with Chibli Mallat — legal practitioner, academic, rule of law and human rights proponent, and author of the newly released book Philosophy of Nonviolence: Revolution, Constitutionalism, and Justice beyond the Middle East — to discuss how 2011 may have ushered in a fundamental break in world history, a break animated by nonviolence.

What is nonviolence theory?

Rather than nonviolence ‘theory’, I use the term philosophy, in a tradition known since Hegel as ‘philosophy of history’. A philosophy of nonviolence stands in contradistinction with a recorded history of some 4000 years of the human journey in which violence is the main nexus, midwife, spirit, anima for sudden large-scale change in society, namely revolutions and wars. A philosophy of nonviolence starts with a revolution which is absolutely nonviolent. The revolution acts with a clear conscience not to cause physical harm to a dictator, or harm any of the members of its large apparatus of repression. But a philosophy of nonviolence goes beyond the revolutionary phase to include constitutionalism and justice.

How does nonviolence theory differ in perspective from constitutionalism, and in what ways are they inter-connected?

A philosophy of nonviolence cannot stop on the day a dictator is deposed. This is when the constitutional moment starts. A constitution is a social contract between the citizens, as individuals and groups, establishing rules that prevent them carrying their political interests and ambitions in a violent manner. Here lies one major difference with traditional nonviolence theories. For them nonviolence is a method of protest, which stops at the moment when the main objective of the protest either defeats an oppressive order or is defeated by it. We soon learnt from the Middle East revolution aka Arab Spring that this is not sufficient, and that the period following the collapse of dictatorship is no less important for the fuller philosophy to flourish in historical terms. Successful constitutionalism is very much part of nonviolence, albeit on different terms.

To what extent does nonviolence influence post-dictatorship justice?

In the same way a revolution is inevitably followed by a constitutional moment, the participants in a revolution who brought down the dictator need to account for a terrible past. They do so in a number of ways, most significantly in the trial of the dictator and his top aides. That moment of accountability is an essential part of the nonviolence philosophy.

Post-dictatorship accountability raises a large number of issues, both historically and theoretically. There is a pyramid of accountability that includes trials, compensation, truth and reconciliation committees, and the constitutional moment itself revisited from a justice standpoint. Post-dictatorship justice raises difficult issues like the death penalty, or the ‘golden exit’ of a dictator who is offered immunity to leave. To tackle dictatorship as a crime against humanity (since the word emerged in the trial of Louis xvi in 1792-3 revolutionary France), one must consider the significant body of literature and experiments, from international trials in the 1860 Ottoman Empire to the ICC.

Tunisian Emblem on Roof. © essentialimage via iStock.
Tunisian Emblem on Roof. © essentialimage via iStock.

How did the 2011 Arab Spring change philosophical outlooks on nonviolence?

In 2011, revolutions across the Middle East carried the torch of nonviolence and deposed three entrenched dictators and shook the throne of several kings and emirs. This is known as the Arab Spring, an awkward metaphor which misses the phenomenon by limiting it to Arabs. Iranians had had their Green Revolution, which failed, in the summer of 2009, and other countries followed suit. There were large demonstrations in Israel in the summer of 2011, and a significant movement in Turkey in 2012 and 2013. This is ongoing, witness Bahrain, Sudan or Saudi Arabia. More importantly, developments in the Middle East provide an anchor for the much a larger enquiry, which is worldwide. Dictatorships don’t differ in essence whether they are practiced in Latin America, Europe, China or the Middle East. What is remarkable is that probably the most violent region of the world, the Middle East, was capable of rallying around a nonviolent philosophy of historical change in 2011.

What are the major social and political circumstances, which trigger nonviolent versus violent approaches to regime change?

This aspect (which isn’t well studied yet), involves well-organized revolutionary nuclei alongside a massive popular movement which stands up to the dictator and sometimes brings them down. The role of women is essential, as are the new forms of social media which defeat the traditional control of authoritarian governments on the media. Nonviolence, however, isn’t rocket science, and it is in the minds of people that it ‘spontaneously’ works. People are far more creative than academia or political punditry think. They learn from experience, adapt, and are at their most creative in revolutions, which are momentous by definition. But the philosophy of nonviolence doesn’t come from thin air; it is the culmination of years of nonviolent resistance, which prisoners of opinion exemplify.

What role does gender play in nonviolence?

The tectonic philosophical break that nonviolence brings to history is both the condition and result of the ascent of women taking over the public sphere, on terms, which men had anchored for 4000 years in violence. Gendered anima is the spirit of history. Nowhere is it more remarkable than in Syria, where the female revolutionary icons have been the common target of the dictatorship and the violent Islamic movements. The revolution in Syria started in Marja Square, on 16 March 2011, when women assembled in silence and were brutally attacked by the government’s repressive apparatus.

Do nonviolent revolutions warrant the same foreign intervention as violent uprisings?

This is a difficult question, which remains untested. When NATO intervened in Libya in 2011, the revolution against Qaddafi had long turned violent. We don’t have an instance of foreign military intervention on the side of a nonviolent revolution yet. Therefore, I try to provide a theory, which dovetails with the difficult concept of R2P, the Responsibility to Protect (civilians). A condition for military foreign intervention on the side of a nonviolent revolution is for the revolution to remain nonviolent, and any violent intervention should be focused on the dictator as a criminal against humanity. But this is yet untested. I am convinced, in any case, that a nonviolent revolution doesn’t need foreign military intervention to succeed in the first place.

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