Why Egypt's Nonviolent Victory Is a Win for Us All

The movement in Egypt had been planned carefully and had been effective in conveying the need for both sustained pressure on the regime and strict nonviolent discipline.
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I was interviewed today by Bryan Farrell of Waging Nonviolence on the meaning and significance of the events in Egypt.

Bryan Farrell: What first came into your mind when you saw the announcement that Mubarak had stepped down?

Cynthia Boaz: I was not surprised (but very pleased!). It was very clear from the first day that the movement in Egypt had been planned carefully and had been effective in conveying the need for both sustained pressure on the regime and strict nonviolent discipline. Despite media portrayals to the contrary, the uprising in Egypt was not spontaneous and by and large, the movement was better at strategy, discipline, adaptation, and reading the opponent than the regime. The most telling moment was how, after the first big round of repression, the resistance got even more galvanized and determined.

BF: What does this movement mean for the future of nonviolent action around the world?

CB: Well, it's obviously very inspiring and I think many folks in places such as Iran, Burma, Belarus, Tibet and elsewhere are feeling emboldened by the successes of the people of Egypt. But perhaps even more significantly, the victory of mass nonviolent action in Egypt has implications for terrorist organizations around the world. As nonviolent methods succeed, they de-legitimize violence as a method of pushing grievances and creating change. Nonviolent action offers a realistic alternative (and powerful) form of struggle. So today's victory has the potential to seriously damage the recruitment campaigns of terrorist organizations. And in that sense, the people of Egypt have done all of us great favor. By demonstrating that mass nonviolent action by the people can be more effective than violent insurrection, they have probably made the world a little safer for all of us.

BF: What do you think is the biggest challenge now facing the people of Egypt?

CB: My first inclination is to say that the biggest challenge facing the people of Egypt at this moment is the cynicism of observers and commentators who do not understand the core dynamic of nonviolent action, and thus attribute this victory to "backroom deals", "external forces", or the looming presence of the military in the background. But the loyalty demonstrated by the military to the people's revolution has everything to do with how well the movement did its job. Based on what has transpired so far, it is pretty clear that the movement won over the security forces in a genuine show of people power and strategy. That process was both longer and deeper than we have been able to see on the surface. This was as well planned as it could have been. I do not expect the military to defect now. And I think it is unfortunate that so many commentators are already speculating that what we're seeing in Egypt is actually a military coup. That perspective reflects adherence to outdated assumptions and frames about concepts such as violence and power. Fortunately the people of Egypt know better.

BF: What do you think, above all, made this victory possible?

CB: Planning, planning and more planning. The movement was able to keep the people of Egypt unified and, for the most part, nonviolently disciplined, even during the height of repression. That would not have been possible but for a couple of years worth of laying the groundwork behind the scenes. The other great advantage that the Egyptian people had over the regime is their spiritual resilence, or what Gandhi called "satyagraha" (holding to truth). That spirit was infectious and empowering, and it is what finally shifted the balance to the people by lowering fear enough to make the threat of violence ineffective.

BF: Or, of course, anything else that comes to mind.

CB: I want to comment on the meme that the uprising in Egypt wasn't truly nonviolent because there were some clashes between protesters & police, some acts of vandalism, rock throwing and other isolated incidents of rage.

It is true that there was an undisciplined element in the uprising, but that is always inevitable as these things grow, because not everyone has been trained in nonviolent strategy.

But the movement itself was nonviolent and they've been preparing for this confrontation for a long time. They understand the necessity of strict nonviolent discipline.Just as there was a radical flank in South Africa, in the US Civil Rights movement, in the Chilean resistance to Pinochet, and in many other nonviolent uprisings, there may have been a more radical flank here. So it was the job of the movement to a) distinguish themselves from that contingent, b) make it clear that no violence will be tolerated as part of the struggle, and c) train and discipline new activists on the ground as they join. They succeeded on all counts.

It is important to see that the Egyptian regime was doing everything it could to provoke violence (or at the least, the perception of it) by the movement. They wanted to create the notion that what the movement was doing was not nonviolent and therefore not legitimate. It was very important that the activists minimized their vulnerability to such agent provocateurs, which they did extraordinarily well, especially considering the size of this movement. It is also important now that we (as observers) do not inadvertently serve the interests of dictators like Mubarak or of other similar regimes, who seek to take volition and credit away from brave nonviolent activists. This was their victory and they earned it.