When nonviolent action fails

by John MacBeath Watkins

The toppling of dictators in Tunisia and Egypt, using the nonviolent methods outlined by Gene Sharp in his book, From Dictatorship to Democracy has amazed the world. The failure of similar efforts in Lybia and a few other places has caused me to wonder how other regimes counter those methods.

In the case of Libya, the answer is fairly obvious: They shot anybody brave enough to attempt to peacefully assemble to oppose the Gaddafi regime. This is why the movement to topple him quickly turned violent, which, as Sharp points out, is to the advantage of the dictator, because the dictator's strength is violence.

In Egypt, the army refused to fire on civilians. But Gaddafi has his own trusted paramilitary made up of tribesmen from his own tribe and mercenaries from sub-Saharan Africa. In a way, this is similar to (though far cruder than) Iran's use of the Basij paramilitary to crush the green movement. It's a simple matter of having a force more loyal to the ruler than to their country, preferably made up of people who do not feel themselves to be a part of the community trying to get rid of the dictator. The Basij were brought into the countryside to beat up people in the city.

China is perhaps the most sophisticated regime to defeat a nonviolent movement. In crushing the Tienanmen Square movement, they used direct violence. In more recent efforts, they've become adept at finding out the means of coordinating protests, and provided a police presence that breaks up assemblies before they reach critical mass. Although China has enough diversity that it can bring in garrisons from outside Beijing, it is possible that at some point they would find themselves faced with a group that refuses to fire on peaceful citizens, so infiltration and police presence are their tools of choice.

Gadaffi has chosen a course that involves keeping his citizens poor and frightened, and even so he may loose power. China has chosen the more challenging course of rapid growth and centralized, undemocratic government. While Libya is essentially North Korea with oil, China has begun to resemble Hong Kong under British rule -- economically thriving and ruled by undemocratically selected leaders.

Both countries have people in them that want a democratic form of government. It will be interesting to see what path they take forward. I suspect it will take a long civil war and backing from outside Libya to topple Gadaffi, though I certainly hope I'm wrong about that. Change in China can only come from within, so the trick for the Chinese Communist Party will be to stay ahead of the curve, or find a way to apply enough force to bend the curve.