The revolution must be peaceful

Having followed the uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa for over a year now, one theme that has been strong in all of them is the emphasis on the ideal of peacefulness. Whether they were peaceful or not, a “peaceful revolution” has consistently been seen as the best type of revolution. In Egypt, there has been much hype about the fact that the revolution was (to some extent) peaceful. This hype has come from both Egyptians and from abroad.

While there is no doubt that a peaceful revolution is a good thing to aspire to, I wonder if it can simultaneously be effective? Can brute power be removed peacefully? Can an entrenched regime that doesn’t have second thoughts about using violence be brought down through peaceful demonstrations and organizing? On the other hand, could it be the case that we are taught that peaceful people power is pointless and ineffective? Are we somehow bringing ourselves down to their level of inhumanness by engaging in violence?

When asked about the Palestinian conflict, Edward Said said:

It is important to attack the occupation forces… I am asking people to attack occupation forces. I am not a pacifist. I am simply saying occupation and apartheid have to be resisted by whatever means bring about their end.

He (of course) got criticized for “advocating violence” but in the face of an overwhelming military occupying force backed by global superpowers, isn’t violence the only solution?

This led to me think about how the West has framed the various uprisings in the Middle East. It seems that as long as they are “peaceful” then they are acceptable. As long as protesters are not trying to kill/torture/destroy “unnecessarily” then it’s fine and the revolution has the full support of non-Arabs. What’s interesting about this, however, is that two of the major revolutions that have shaped the modern West were both extremely violent – the French revolution and the American revolution. Both can in no way be seen as peaceful, nor were they trying to be. As a friend of mine noted last week, it is even understood that without all that violence, these revolutions would not have succeeded. In other words, violence was seen as integral to these revolutions.

But of course when it comes to the Middle East, violence is never okay. It is seen as a relapse back into the backwards violent intrinsic nature of Arabs. It is seen as never justifiable. Dictators and systems must be removed peacefully, even though the West themselves could not remove their own exploitative systems peacefully. As usual, there is a double standard. In “legitimate struggles” violence is okay – as in apartheid South Africa. In struggles that are illegitimate, such as the Palestinian struggle, or the Zimbabwean struggle, violence is always a problem and is always something that disqualifies the struggle from any kind of empathy. What is interesting is that although the Egyptian uprising was seen as a “legitimate struggle,” there was still an expectation of non-violence. Yet again, the Western media and commentators set the bar on what kind of a revolution we should have, on how we should behave – on what was acceptable and what wasn’t.

I don’t know exactly where I stand on the issue of violence. On the one hand, the peaceful nature of Egyptian protesters chanting “Selmeyya” and reaching out to policemen who were sent there to kill them is an extremely powerful image. On the other hand, has this strategy worked? If protesters had been more violent, would the regime have been able to make such a strong comeback?

Fanon once wrote that decolonization HAS to be a violent process. To completely remove a system, to become new human beings within a new humanity, there must be a process of violence. But what does this violence do to those trying to be free? How does it affect and change us?

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One thought on “The revolution must be peaceful

  1. Balendin

    Good article, but I think that violence in a revolution can cause harm. Violence in revolutions often lead to deviations in the revolution or an unexpected party gaining power. Take the French Revolution for example. One would call it successful from just knowing the basic facts about it, but in reality it wasn’t a complete success. The French revolution started out peaceful but turned ugly fast. The revolution started with the formation of the National Assembly to represent the common people. Louis XVI tried numrous times to disrupt the assmble and eventually stopped it after it gained wide support. Riots then enflamed France after that. Insurgents stormed the Bastille since it was a symbol of their oppression. Due to a cease fire a massacre was avoided( Although a Governor was decapitated and his head was placed on a pike and paraded around the Paris). Louis XVI was alarmed by the revoltuion and backed down. He was then put in his place by a being limited by a constitution. The new government then accomplished many things like redistributing land owned by the upper class and church, abolishing feudalism, and putting together a democratic government. There were a few bumps in the new government, but everyting turned out fine until the public decried that Louis XVI still was involved with the new government despite being reduced to a figurehead. Things got really violent then and people started to revolt against the new government. After several massacres the near powerless monarchy was abolished and a republic was founded. Violence then spread to Frances neighbors by people who wanted a revolution to spread to all of Europe. France was then in a war with Austria, Britain, Prussia, Spain and the Dutch Republic. People then wanted the death of the monarchy and aristocrates because they thought that Louis XVI started the war by getting help from other monarchies. People guillotined the monarchy and just about anyone else who was suspected of something bad. 40,000 political prisoners were guillotined. Things became so bad that even the U.S. condemned the executions and placed many laws to limit French citizens since they feared them spreading the revolution. In the end Napoleon became a dictator of France, tried to take over Europe, failed and was disposed. The monarchy was welcomed back only to be exiled again after Napoleon returned only to be disposed of again after causing another war. After that then a stable government was formed. The French Revolution could have avoided all those unecessary wars, beheadings, and the dictatorship of Napoleon by keeping Louis XVI and the monarchy as a figurehead. People wanted revenge instead and unfortunate events unfolded. The American Revolution is a different story since it was a war of independance and not a revolution from within like the French revolution or the other revolutions in the Middle East/North Africa.

    I understand that you are upset by the double standard, but it is for good reason. The West knows from it’s history of what violence can do to a revolution. You do not want a revolution similar to the French revolution or the Russian revolution happening in the Middle East/North Africa. The West is trying to make sure their past mistakes don’t happen to others.

    You lemeted the west calling some struggles as “illegitimate struggles” Have you every looked at the methods and consequences of those “illegitimate” and “legitimate” struggles. The South African Struggle succeeded in ending apartheid and establishing a government that everyone can participate in. It also avoided a possible expulsion/genocide of Whites and the establishment of harsh laws aimed towards the White people of South Africa. The Zimbabwe struggle lead to Whites leaving the country for South Africa because of political unrest and massive land seizures. The result of that was Zimbabwe losing many businesses, farmers, and skilled teachers. The economy turned to garbage because the government caused the people who ran the economy to leave. They should have instead slowely strip them of their power and redistirbuted the wealth until equality was reached. Zimbabwe now has its land back, but all the wealth and experience left with the Whites to South Africa and the West.

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