Erica Chenoweth, an assistant professor at Wesleyan University, admitted at the beginning of her lecture at Boston College on Tuesday that she was once very skeptical of nonviolence and civil disobedience.
“My conception of nonviolence was that it was a form of passive resistance that operated by converting the opposition via self repression,” she said.
After getting the opportunity to attend a free conference on the efficacy of passive resistance, however, she changed her mindset and began to see nonviolence as a more plausible way of toppling repressive regimes.
In her talk “Why Civil Resistance Works: Unarmed Struggle in the Arab Spring and Beyond,” Chenoweth described her research on unarmed struggle and its applications in today’s world.
She researched a total of 323 unarmed and armed resistance movements, with each struggle falling into one of three categories: anti-regime, anti-occupation, or secession. In order to become part of the study, each struggle had to have at least 1,000 participants or casualties and have taken place in a series of conflicts, not just one battle or demonstration. She based the success of a struggle on whether or not the combatants’ stated end goals were met at least six months after the peak of the movement.
All in all, Chenoweth found that unarmed conflicts were twice as likely to succeed as armed ones and explained the most important characteristics of a successful campaign.
“Nonviolent campaigns have a strategic edge in mobilizing diverse participants,” she said. “The physical demands of nonviolent protests are lower and the physical conditions are typically easier to withstand.”
As a result, unarmed campaigns have been more successful than violent protests in attaining the 10 to15 percent population participation that almost guarantees success.
The lower commitment level also contributes to nonviolent campaigns’ success. While joining a militant group requires a total change in lifestyle, a nonviolent struggle allows people to participate whenever they can. In addition, these participants do not have to get over their natural hesitation to kill another human.
“Nonviolent campaigns rely on cooperation, obedience, and help from independent media, economic, and police elites,” Chenoweth said. “They rely on a number of people to start cracks in the regime.”
These elites, she said, must leave their jobs and cease cooperating with the government in order to begin weakening it. Civilians must also stop obeying, further weakening the regime’s structure.
When it tries to crush this insubordination with violence, the regime will instead find that its plan will backfire and result in even more support for the peaceful protesters.
“More people are morally outraged when a nonviolent campaign is opposed than when a violent campaign is because it’s easier for the regime to denounce a violent campaign as terrorist,” Chenoweth said.
Repression can also prove very costly because successful nonviolent campaigns employ dispersion, in which each individual member of an opposition group creates a personal protest.
She used the example of the Iranian oil workers’ strike from 1978-1979, during which the Shah ordered his security team to go door to door in search of protesting workers and take them back to the oil fields. Eventually, this process proved too costly to continue.
Chenoweth found that monetary aid to nonviolent protests actually harmed the campaign as a whole. Such contributions allowed participants to buy weapons, which significantly decreased their chances of success.
“Traditional tools of international politics aren’t really the things driving success,” she said. “People interacting with people are.” Consequently, campaigns that had been in touch with non-governmental organizations and gained knowledge and skills from them were more likely to succeed.
“The way we fight defines how we rule after we win,” Chenoweth said. Only 28 percent of countries that used nonviolent campaigns relapsed into civil war 10 years later, while those that chose violence relapsed 43 percent of the time.
Chenoweth found no formula to determine which populations were more likely to use violence or nonviolence, saying that people under varying levels of repression have tried one or the other with no real preexisting conditions.
She also spoke briefly about social media’s effect on the recent Arab Spring campaigns, saying that while it did help, it should not be relied upon.
“More people on Twitter usually means fewer people in the street,” she said.