Saturday, August 5, 2017

Gandhi as a Model for the Arab Spring

After two weeks in 2011 of mass protests in Egypt for representative democracy and the ouster of President Mubarak, the Egyptian government agreed to concessions including allowing freedom of the press, releasing of political prisoners arrested during the protests, and commencing a committee with the opposition to consider constitutional amendments. According to The New York Times, the "regime also pledged not to harass those participating in the anti-government protests." Gandhi would have been proud, though the protesters left room for improvement on this score. Understanding how they could have done so can be of use to pro-democracy protesters not only in the Middle East, but also around the world.

To be sure, the Egyptian protesters could have done worse. Fortunately, they did not emulate the strategic orientation of the Obama administration. According to the Times, the Obama administration was "struggling to determine if a democratic revolution can succeed while President Hosni Mubarak remains in office." The man whom Obama had sent to persuade Mubarak not to run for re-election eight month later, Frank Wisner, told a group of diplomats and security experts that “President Mubarak’s continued leadership is critical — it’s his opportunity to write his own legacy.” Meanwhile the U.S. Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, "gave a strategy overview that stood at odds with that assessment." Earlier, she had "made the case at a gathering in Munich that the entire process would take time, and must be carefully managed." Revolutions must be managed? This approach can be viewed as an oxymoron.

When Mubarak resigned after eighteen days of protests, the Obama administration tried to catch up from its public position that Mubarak could another seven months until the regularly-scheduled elections would be held. The New York Times observed, "It is hardly the first time the Obama administration has seemed uncertain on its feet during the Egyptian crisis. . . . The mixed messages have been confusing and at times embarrassing — a reflection of a policy that, by necessity, has been made up on the fly. 'This is what happens when you get caught by surprise,' said one American official, who would not speak on the record. 'We’ve had endless strategy sessions for the past two years on Mideast peace, on containing Iran. And how many of them factored in the possibility that Egypt,' and presumably whatever dominoes follow it, 'moves from stability to turmoil? None.'"  However, it could be that the reason was less being caught by surprise and more being too technocratically- or bureaucratically-minded. "Administration officials insist their responses have been more reaction to fast-moving events than any fundamental change in objective."  In other words, Barak Obama and his advisors might have been too occupied with strategy to act on the basis of principled, big-picture, leadership. Obama, it turned out, was no Gandhi during the Arab Spring.

As an alternative to Obama's timid and incremental approach, Gandhi's approach is a better example for the courageous and non-violent Egyptian protesters in early 2011. Indeed, they were generally in Gandhi’s camp already; they only needed to more completely apply his strategy of active non-cooperation. This occurred to me during the twelfth day of protests, when the film, Gandhi (starring Ben Kingsley) was being fortuitously aired on the Turner Classic Movie channel on television. It occurred to me that rather than having responding in violence to the pro-government violence, the protesters could have taken the higher moral ground by not cooperating. The non-activity and normative message alone could have won the day even over the government’s raw force. This is the incredible thing about moral power--it can affect even governmental power and the related force of the sword, or rock. This is something the protesters in Arab Spring could have taken more to heart.

Gandhi proffered a new way to fight. "We will fight against their anger--not provoke it," Gandhi says in the movie. Non-violent non-cooperation is indeed fighting. As in all fighting, there is pain.  Only rather than inflicting physical pain, Gandhi took others' anger and though his pain the others would feel pain. "Through our pain, they will see their injustice. This will call them pain." It prompts them to as questions about themselves--uncomfortable questions with even more unpleasant answers. This new way of fighting is not in the interest of governments. If their opponents do not turn to violence, governments such as the Egyptian will be inclined to actually tempt the non-violent protesters to violence because it is a government's currency. Ironically, governments are on firmer ground when their opponents turn violent because government is fundamentally a means of legitimately ordering societal violence. In dealing with non-violent civil disobedience, governments are not in control; rather, the protesters are acting at their choosing to provoke a reaction that will make the injustice transparent to all. This locus of control gives the non-violent the upper hand. Rather than joining government on its axis, non-violent civil disobedience fights not to punish for weaknesses that we all possess, but to change minds and hearts. It is thus active rather than passive.

In terms of character, particular traits are necessary for one to remain non-violent even when tempted to strike back. According to Gandhi, turning the other cheek is not just figurative; it requires courage to take the anger of those having the power of government. Relatedly, firmness is also required. It is to defy "not with violence that would provoke anger," but, rather, "with firmness that will open their eyes." In contrast, an eye for an eye "only makes the world blind." Gandhi looked back at history to find that even as tyrants might for a time seem invincible, they have all fallen in the end. He felt that noncooperation with evil is a duty. A sense of this duty is also required.  Strategizers, such as those in the Obama administration, would be like seeds on rock in terms of Gandhi's approach. That is to say, Gandhi preached and engaged in principled leadership rather than in what was most comfortable for him at the moment. His approach also called upon self-respect. One must willingly take others' blows without either hitting back or retreating, and this involves keeping one's head held high with a sense that what one is doing is the alternative worthy of self-respect. Such respect is worth something to the protester, for pain is indeed involved in making injustice visible.

In terms of Egypt, the protesters could have recalled Gandhi's strategy of a general strike throughout British India, with Indians at prayer rather than work such that the entire country just stopped. Gandhi’s strategy is morally superior and more effective than answering government troops with rocks. A people willingly stopped of their own accord cannot be governed because there is no activity to stop. A government cannot cope with such a strategy of non-violent non-cooperation.  Hence it is no coincidence that in Egypt the pro-government forces on the street lured the protesters into engaging in violence. The protesters might have looked to Gandhi rather than take the bait. Even though tyrants might seem invincible for a time, one can have faith that the apparently-mighty in terms of worldly power will eventually face their own downfall. When their injustice has been suffered in a way that exposes it, that downfall can be facilitated. Ironically, returning violence for the violence of the state actually extends the current regime's tenure as providing order in the context of violence is a government's foremost rationale to exist.

Not taking the bait is  precisely where self-discipline and moral courage become so crucial in Gandhi's approach. Resisting "an eye for an eye" was on the mind of Hussein Ramadan, a political activist and organizer who helped lead the protests in Bahrain the week after Mubarak had fallen in Egypt. “The people are angry, but we will control our anger, we will not burn a single tire or throw a single rock. We will not go home until we succeed. They want us to be violent. We will not.” The "they" here refers to the government.

When a people spurs its own government's instigations to be violent, the legitimacy of that government is compromised and the people gain the upper hand, even if this is not apparent at the time.  When soldiers working for the British beat unarmed protesters at the Salt Works in India, any moral right that the British had had to maintain order in India was lost. Of course, changes in government policy can lag, but in the end a government that has lost its moral basis to government must fall.  It is like a romantic relationship that ends. At one point before it actually ends, one of the two people in it has the sense that the relationship will end because of something intrinsic to it. Even so, the other person may be stunned when it does end—not having had the same sense. One could also use the analogy of jets. Once one has run out of fuel, it must inevitably fall back to earth. So too, a government that has lost its moral legitimacy on account of illegitimate violence exacted on its citizens must fall, sooner or later. If such a government takes its time in succumbing to this natural law, citizens can simply sit and do nothing.

In other words, active non-violent non-cooperation can be viewed simply as waiting for nature to do its work on the human organization that still takes itself as immortal. Protesters resisting the temptation to return violence know and have faith in this natural law, so they are not so desperate to hit back. It is the comparative lack of desperation that gives the protesters the upper hand in being able to provoke a government to overstep.  Unlike such protesters, government officials typically attach urgency to protests and thus feel compelled to act under the assumption: "before things get out of hand." Ironically, it is such a mentality that causes things to get out of hand. The lack of order is in the government rather than the protesters who foreswear violence.

Sources:

David E. Sanger, “As Mubarak Digs In, U.S. Policy in Egypt Is Complicated,” The New York Times, February 5, 2011.

Michael Slackman, “Bahrain Takes the Stage with a Raucous Protest,” The New York Times, February 15, 2011.

Msnbc.com, “Mubarak Still in Power as Government, Opposition Talk.”