Popular Insurrection in the Arab World and the Role of Nonviolence

In a previous post on Bahrain, I pointed out how protesters opposing the regime were now using some forms of violence, I’ll borrow the word “non-lethal” from Israeli officials, against security forces who have repressed countless peaceful demonstrations in 2011. Rather than this being an anomaly to the current of insurrection, it is very much in line with populations rising to confront regimes with a range of tactics; strike action, sit-ins, marches & stone throwing being among those tactics.

Look no further than Tunisia, where the first insurrection was underway exactly a year ago. Quoting from an Associated Press article written at the time:

“Rioting against joblessness and other social ills has scarred many cities in the country since 17 December, when a 26-year-old graduate set himself on fire when police confiscated his fruits and vegetables for selling without a permit. Mobs have since attacked public buildings and the local office of the party of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.”

Attacking public buildings would widely be considered violence. Acknowledging that violence is entirely different from equating it with the violence of the regime. This isn’t some argument on behalf of these regimes. Rather, it is to understand the dynamic of how the uprising by the masses interacts with the regime they’re running up against. This is important as there is a baseless notion that these are peaceful revolutions; a notion that gives exclusive credit to the tactic of strict nonviolence in battling repressive regimes.

To negate this baseless notion, a clip from Egypt on the Day of Rage:

The battle of Qasr El Nile Bridge was one of the key moments of the revolution, but rather than give it credit over the riots in Suez and confrontations in Tahrir, take the battle of Qasr El Nile Bridge in the context of a narrative out there that a peaceful sit-in in Tahrir brought down Mubarak. This battle, in which the protesters breached through riot police lines, was entire critical for anyone reaching Tahrir. In short, it is doubtful any sit-in in Tahrir occurs if the protesters refrain from confronting the police on the bridge.

Go further into the events of Egypt’s revolution, and the narrative of a peaceful revolution erodes further. The infamous battle of the camel was exactly that, a battle between two sides. The Regime started it, -worth noting the regime was the only side using snipers- but the protesters did not shy away from using violence in the form of throwing stones and molotov cocktails to defend the square and secure it for the continuation of mass protests involving many hundreds of thousands of Egyptians. The revolutionaries simply used the tactics the situation demanded, noticeably refraining from any armed insurrection as we later saw in Libya and are increasingly seeing in Syria.

I’m unsure why the Western Media clings to this insistence that Arabs rise up without stones, slingshots, and molotov cocktails in hand. It seems absurd for a Western Media that went along with the Iraq War, a war, it was alleged, to prevent Saddam from simply obtaining a certain level of capability to unleash violence in the form of “Weapons of Mass Destruction”. This insistence could be to draw the distinction between Bin Laden and the Arab Street, but Bin Laden’s violence was always that of a conspiracy, a small group believing themselves to know better than the masses, and willing to kill the masses. The revolutions in the Arab World couldn’t be further from Bin Laden, not because the revolutions were Gandhian in their insistence on nonviolence, but because they were popular and involved the participation of huge segments of each country.

I fear this insistence by the West is related to the Palestinian cause and the widespread rejection in the West of their popular Intifada. It didn’t escape my notice how the media labeled the riots by French youths, Algerian youths among them, an Intifada back in 2005 but refrained from labeling events in Tahrir Square an Egyptian Intifada. Not to suggest it should have been called an Intifada. Egyptians, capable of toppling Mubarak, are capable of naming their insurrection. But I do sense a need for some to embrace an entirely nonviolent Arab revolution, even if it requires projecting that nonviolence, to spite the Palestinians for their willingness to throw stones at Israeli tanks occupying their land. My fear is entirely consistent with a West that insists Palestinians reject all forms of violence while making no such demands of Israel despite Israel inflicting a far greater death toll on the people it occupies.

Grant me this last assumption if you grant me any at all. If the crowds in Tahrir were given two examples and asked which inspired them, to the horror of neo-conservatives, the crowds would pick Faris Odeh throwing rocks at an Israeli tank in Gaza over American Abrams tanks rumbling through Baghdad.


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