Civil Resistance In The Middle East And Its Aftermath – Analysis


By Maria J. Stephan

Three years ago, when I began the project that culminated in an edited book, Civilian Jihad: Nonviolent Struggle, Democratization and Governance in the Middle East,[1] my intent was to shine a klieg on a remarkable, albeit under appreciated, tradition of civil resistance in the Middle East. It seemed like a strange topic for an edited volume, given the prevailing scholarly view that this region is structurally, culturally, and historically disposed towards violence and sociopolitical stagnation. The Middle East has definitely endured its fair share of wars, terrorism, foreign occupation, and dictatorship. But this complex part of the world has also witnessed striking campaigns of popular nonviolent resistance that have successfully ousted authoritarians, pushed back foreign occupiers, and led to important political reforms. The popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt and the ongoing nonviolent struggles in Syria and Bahrain should be seen as the latest manifestations of a significant tradition of people power in the Middle East.

No Cultural, Religious, or Tribal Barriers to Successful Civil Resistance

From the mass, nationwide non-cooperation that undermined the Shah’s grip on power in Iran in 1979, to the forceful civil disobedience inside the Palestinian territories and Israel during the first intifada, to the Lebanese independence intifada that forced the withdrawal of Syrian forces in 2005, to the Kuwaiti youth-led “orange movement” that same year that successfully ushered in electoral reforms, the peoples of the Middle East — Arabs, Persians, and Kurds — have powerfully shown that there are no cultural, religious, or tribal barriers to successful nonviolent struggle. Neither is there a single strategy for success. As these and other campaigns chronicled in Civilian Jihad colorfully attest, it is up to the oppositionists to adapt nonviolent tactics and strategies to their contexts, in order to take advantage of openings and remain resilient in the face of predictable repression.

Although Civilian Jihad was published before Tunisian fruit seller Muhammad Bouazizi set himself, and the 2011 Arab intifadas, ablaze, the book highlights a number of factors whose prominence intensified as the freedom contagion spread throughout the region. Key among these was the prominent role played by youth, whose demographic power, anger at the humiliating status quo, and increasing savvy with the technologies and techniques of civil resistance thrust them onto the front lines of change. The Kuwaiti youth, as part of their anti-corruption campaign, understood the importance of building broad-based, non-ideological alliances, diversifying their nonviolent tactics, and even allying with members of parliament when their support was needed to pass legislation. Lebanese young people used SMS messaging, unifying symbols and slogans (including a “one flag policy”), rock concerts, and a stubborn nonviolent occupation of Martyrs’ Square concerts to appeal to Christians, Muslims, and Druze across the country and demand the withdrawal of Syrian forces. Collaboration involving Sahrawi and Moroccan youth has been a prominent feature of the former’s anti-occupation struggle and the latter’s pro-democracy struggle.

Youth, technology, tactical adaptation, the rhetoric of liberation, and the backfire effects of regime repression targeting nonviolent protestors are a few of Civilian Jihad’s key themes. The single most important lesson of the past and current popular uprisings in the Middle East, however, is that ordinary people can wield extraordinary power when they withhold their consent and cooperation, en masse, from their oppressor. Mass non-cooperation and civic defiance involving large numbers of people can undermine an oppressor’s legitimacy and cut off his/her sources of political, social, and economic power. External sanctions can help, but only when they reinforce domestic sanctions, including boycotts, strikes, sit-ins, tax revolts, and work refusals applied by large numbers of citizens on the inside. Even a regime’s military superiority can be neutralized when large numbers of soldiers and police refuse orders to fire on unarmed protestors. That does not happen automatically. The Iranians, Kuwaitis, Lebanese, and Egyptians made fraternizing with security forces and appealing to their nationalism part and parcel of their nonviolent strategies. The larger and more diverse the protests, the more likely it was that friends or relatives of the security forces could be among the crowds — making it personally difficult for soldiers and police officers to obey regime orders to fire indiscriminately.

Why Civil Resistance Works

At least part of the reason why there has been so much attention focused recently on the nonviolent struggles in the Middle East is that, historically speaking, civil resistance has been quite effective. In a study of 323 violent and nonviolent campaigns between 1900 and 2006, Erica Chenoweth and I found that nonviolent campaigns had succeeded 52% of the time, compared to 28% for violent campaigns. From this data, we find support for the argument that nonviolent resistance has been strategically supe­rior to violent resistance during the 20th and 21st centuries.

In our book, Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict,[2] Erica and I examine why civil resistance has been overwhelmingly more effective than armed struggle in toppling regimes and ousting foreign occupiers. Our central argument hinges on the primacy of participation. Nonviolent campaigns tend to attract the active participation of far greater numbers of people than armed struggles, bringing greater pressure to bear on the opponent. The moral, physical, informational, and commitment barriers to participation in nonviolent struggles are generally lower than for armed resistance. Most people enduring the indignities and humiliation of dictatorship or foreign occupation are willing to fight, and even die, to end their oppression. But most are unwilling to kill. They are more apt to participate, at least initially, in low-risk nonviolent actions than in planting bombs or firing AK-47s. It is safer to boycott regime-owned businesses, or stay at home instead of going to work, or bang pots and pans to show defiance of the regime, than participate in hit-and-run attacks or terrorist acts. The wide and diverse menu of nonviolent tactics available to oppositionists, a list that has grown since Gene Sharp developed his “198 Methods of Nonviolent Action” in 1973,[3] opens up even greater avenues for participating in civil resistance.[4]

Members of security forces, furthermore, are more likely to defect to the opposition, or at least refuse to obey regime orders to use force against protestors, when the protestors demonstrate nonviolent discipline and reach a critical mass. Fighting security forces with violence, on the other hand, is more likely to push the army and police staunchly into the regime’s corner, as they are fearful for their lives and convinced that regime defeat would signal their own demise. Regime violence targeting unarmed protestors is far more likely to backfire, resulting in decreased domestic and international support for the regime, compared to regime violence against armed fighters. We found that violent campaigns facing government repression are less than 20% likely to succeed; nonviolent campaigns facing regime repression are more than 46% likely to succeed.[5] It is much easier for a regime or occupier to justify violent crackdowns against violent resistors than it is to justify the killing and torture of unarmed women and children involved in nonviolent demonstrations.

When large numbers of people withhold their skills and resources from the opponent over the course of a civil resistance campaign, this translates into pressure — and power. Pressure intensifies when multiple pillars of support, including bureaucracies, businesses, unions, and religious communities, are engaged in the fight. While armed struggles sometimes enjoin the active participation of large numbers of people (in fact, the successful ones do exactly that), generally speaking, the masses are relegated to the sidelines once guns and bombs become the weapons of choice.

The Aftermath of Violent vs. Nonviolent Struggles

The longer-term sociopolitical consequences of relying on one type of resistance over another are striking. In our study, Erica and I found that political transitions driven by principally nonviolent means are far more likely to result in civil peace and democracy in the post-transition period than transitions driven by armed struggles. An earlier empirical study by Freedom House, How Freedom is Won,[6] arrived at similar conclusions. This finding is significant for scholars, activists, and policy-makers interested in what comes after the regime is toppled or the foreign occupier is ousted — namely, in the processes and institutions of democracy.

The strong positive correlation between civil resistance and civil peace can be explained, in part, by the dynamics involved in successful nonviolent struggles. Those who arrive at power through violence, particularly in domestic struggles, are more likely to resort to force to maintain power. When you kill your way to power it is normal to see power in zero-sum terms. This makes meaningful power-sharing and codifying minority rights especially difficult.

Nonviolent resistance, on the other hand, relies on large-scale participation, coalition-building, co-optation (rather than killing), and a much higher degree of openness; these are skill-sets that are conducive to democratic consolidation. Although it is mistaken to assume that there will be no domestic conflicts or clashes following successful nonviolent regime changes, popular nonviolent struggles establish expectations about the kinds of regime behaviors that are acceptable — and completely unacceptable — in the post-transition period. Nonviolent rules of political contestation are sharpened by the practice of civil resistance; they are dulled when killing becomes the norm for acquiring political power.


The relative strategic effectiveness of civil resistance compared to armed struggle, and the strong relationship between nonviolent resistance and longer-term civil peace, demonstrate important lessons for the Middle East and beyond. Although the road to achieving meaningful self-determination in Middle Eastern societies that have endured decades of autocracy, dictatorship, and foreign occupation will be bumpy, and some degree of backsliding may occur, those societies that continue to fight for human rights and democratic reforms using active nonviolent means are both more likely to win, and to achieve longer-term stability, than those who resort to arms. Syrians and Bahrainis seem to have internalized this as both peoples continue to maintain remarkable nonviolent discipline against formidable opponents in their struggles for democracy.

Just as dictatorship may one day be recognized as an international crime against humanity, there may come a time when civil resistance emerges as the predominant method of waging struggle. Given the increased frequency and geographic scope of this form of resistance over the past century, and its demonstrated effectiveness, scholars, rational insurgents, journalists, and policy makers should take note.

[1]The views reflected in this article reflect those of the author and not necessarily those of the US Government.

. Maria J. Stephan, ed., Civilian Jihad: Nonviolent Struggle, Democratization and Governance in the Middle East (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2010).

[2]. Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan, Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011).

[3]. Gene Sharp researched and catalogued these 198 methods and provided a rich selection of historical examples in his seminal work. Gene Sharp, The Politics of Nonviolent Action (3 vols) (Boston: Porter Sargent, 1973).

[4]. A brand new database of nonviolent tactics and campaigns, completed on September 11, 2011 by scholars at Swarthmore College, features the diverse tactics and campaigns of the Arab Spring. See Global Nonviolent Action Database,

[5]. Chenoweth and Stephan, Why Civil Resistance Works.

[6]. Adrian Karatnycky and Peter Ackerman, How Freedom is Won: From Civic Resistance to Durable Democracy (New York: Freedom House, 2005).


Founded in 1946, the Middle East Institute is the oldest Washington-based institution dedicated solely to the study of the Middle East. Its founders, scholar George Camp Keiser and former US Secretary of State Christian Herter, laid out a simple mandate: “to increase knowledge of the Middle East among the citizens of the United States and to promote a better understanding between the people of these two areas.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *