Lecture – Nonviolent Resistance in the Middle East

By Sarah Castles | 10 Apr 12

Dr Stephen Zunes critically examined the wave of resistance to autocratic regimes that has engulfed the Middle East since late 2010 during a lecture presented by the Castan Centre for Human Rights on 19 March 2012. The lecture was held at the Monash Conference Centre.

Dr Zunes, Professor of Politics and International Studies at the University of San Francisco, underlined the power of strategic nonviolent action in bringing about political change. By focusing on nonviolence, Dr Zunes was able to draw common links between the movements across the Middle East, enabling the audience to gain a broader understanding of the events. These events were an expression of political freedom and remind us that human rights discourse is universal.

Combating the binary conception of political struggles in the Middle East through nonviolent resistance

According to Dr Zunes, two extremes dominate the Western media’s portrayal of Middle Eastern political struggles: Middle Eastern citizens are characterised as either terrorists or passive collaborators in American interventions. Not only is this binary conception ahistorical – Dr Zunes outlined a long history of independent nonviolent resistance in the Middle East – it has been disproved by the recent resistance movement, a movement that was initiated and has been sustained by ordinary Middle Eastern citizens.

Not US policy, social media or WikiLeaks but the agency of the people

Dr Zunes reiterated that neither the Bush nor the Obama administrations deserve credit for the transitions to democracy that resulted from the protests.

Although the financial support provided to dictatorships under Bush and previous US governments has declined under the Obama administration, Obama was still reluctant to openly back the pro-democratic movement in Egypt until Hosni Mubarak was removed, eager to avoid being on the “wrong side of history”, as Zunes said. Dr Zunes also contested the widely held view that social media was instrumental to the movement. He similarly challenged the revealing power of WikiLeaks. The malfeasance of the Middle East’s autocratic regimes was no revelation at all. The uprising was not the result of modern forces such as social media and wiki-enabled document leaks. Instead, Dr Zunes argued, it was a “home-grown phenomenon” arising from the Middle Eastern citizens themselves.

Reviewing specific countries

Although Dr Zunes was not positive about the situation in Egypt in the short term, the growth in civil society, the increasing freedom of the media and the dissipation of fatalism in the predominantly youthful population give him hope for the future.

In Yemen, although the old political guard largely remains and the country has a history of sectarian fighting and civil war, the power of nonviolent resistance is taking hold. Whilst Libya is a “cautionary tale”, it also attests to the power of nonviolence, as the promise of democracy appeared hopelessly unlikely as the violence escalated. The “bright spot” for Dr Zunes is Tunisia, which he claimed may be the model for Middle Eastern democracy.

Why violence and intervention don’t work and why nonviolence does

Dr Zunes cited studies that have shown that few countries have made the transition from dictatorship to democracy through armed struggle, and hardly any through foreign intervention. As he explained, violence intimidates and repels would-be participants. It may also serve as the justification for violent government action and international inaction, and dictatorships are soon replaced by different dictatorships. Intervention is equally problematic, often serving as an excuse for Western imperialism. Nevertheless, Dr Zunes is not opposed to the responsibility to protect, nor is he a strict pacifist. He simply stated that he believes in the power of strategic nonviolent resistance.

The large proportion of the population that is swept into such resistance movements holds the power of mass noncooperation. Dr Zunes stated that a regime is rendered powerless if citizens refuse to recognise its legitimacy. This, he argued, is how nonviolent action can engender democracy in the Middle East.

Watch Right Now Editor-in-Chief André Dao’s interview with Dr Stephen Zunes on Vimeo.