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Paths to Peace - Nonviolent action

Regime change without bloodshed


Gene Sharp is a staunch proponent of people power. The Boston-based sociologist is one of a handful of American researchers who say you can topple a dictator nonviolently even in a country as beleaguered and politically repressed as Iraq. The researchers’ strategies for regime change stand in sharp contrast to the Bush administration’s bloody scenarios -- everything from assassination to a blitzkrieg of Baghdad -- for ousting Iraqi president Saddam Hussein.

According to Sharp and his associates, neither sanctions-induced poverty nor the brutality of Saddam’s dictatorship precludes the possibility of popular resistance in Iraq. What is necessary there, as in any country, is good planning based on understanding of the dynamics of power between oppressor and oppressed.

“You have to have a broader picture,” Sharp said. “You have to understand the nature of your opponent and the resources of your people.”

The researchers’ confidence in the viability of political defiance was bolstered by the recent small but remarkable protests outside the Information Ministry in Baghdad. On Oct. 22, two days after Saddam released thousands of prisoners, Iraqis, many of them elderly Shiite women, marched on the government to demand to know the fate of still missing sons and brothers. The New York Times called the protests the “most visible sign of a new and potentially seismic trend,” one that indicated the willingness of ordinary people to speak up. Sharp described the demonstrations as “extremely interesting.”

“Whereas it has been widely maintained that nonviolent struggle is impossible under the political conditions of Saddam Hussein’s regime, these demonstrations that occurred show that this type is possible even in Iraq.”

History is replete with examples of effective nonviolent action, said Sharp, who called the First Continental Congress “a nonviolent resistance organization committed to getting political change through noncooperation.”

As America’s premier tactician of nonviolent struggle, Sharp has been monitoring the habits of dictators and the people they govern for the last four decades. A former Harvard researcher, he has a doctorate in political theory from Oxford University and is currently the senior scholar at the Albert Einstein Institution, which he founded in 1983.

In the early ’70s, he wrote The Politics of Nonviolent Action. Considered by many to be the definitive study of nonviolent struggle, the book catalogues almost 200 methods of nonviolent action. These strategies are indexed in Sharp’s more recent work, From Dictatorship to Democracy, a manual on how to bring down a dictator without indulging in mutual mass slaughter.

Sharp preaches a muscular nonviolence, defining nonviolent struggle as a political technique that can be understood and effectively applied by ordinary people. It is not to be confused with an abstention from violence based on ethical or religious beliefs.

Confusing principled nonviolence with “strategic nonviolent action” is one reason many dismiss the possibility of a bloodless overthrow of Saddam, said Peter Ackerman, chair of the board of overseers of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and Sharp’s former student.

Ackerman and Jack Duvall, director of the International Center for Nonviolent Conflict, recently co-authored “Weapons of the Will,” an essay on the possibility of nonviolent regime change in Iraq that appeared in the September/October issue of Sojourners magazine.

“The reality is that history-making nonviolent resistance is not usually taken as an act of moral display,” the two men wrote. “It does not typically begin by putting flowers in gun barrels and it does not end when protesters disperse to go home. It involves the use of a panoply of forceful sanctions -- strikes, boycotts, civil disobedience, disrupting the functions of government, even nonviolent sabotage -- in accordance with a strategy for undermining an oppressor’s pillars of support. It is not about making a point; it’s about taking a power.”

Even the most repressive government is limited in its power to oppress, according to Ackerman and Duvall. Because a regime depends on the population for certain goods and services, its ability to compel compliance is “not infinitely elastic.”

“Saddam recognizes that he can’t fight a battle to repress a population on all fronts,” Ackerman said. “He has to terrorize to get compliance. The more people he employs to terrorize the population, statistically speaking, the more unreliable his security force. There are elements of the Iraqi Republican Guard he is afraid to have in Baghdad.”

In their essay, Ackerman and Duvall proposed a scenario on how Iraqis could maximize Saddam’s vulnerabilities to their advantage. They could launch a campaign of simultaneous civilian-based incidents of disruption, dispersed around the country and difficult to target like “mosquitoes that could not all be swatted.” Any crackdown would depend on the outermost, least reliable members of Saddam’s security apparatus. If the resistance made it clear to police and soldiers that they were not the enemy, the realization that Saddam was being openly opposed would lessen people’s fear of engaging in more systematic acts of resistance.

A month ago, Ackerman discussed these strategies for nonviolent regime change with members of the Iraqi opposition. On Oct. 15, he appeared on the BBC’s World Service Night cast. He said his views “provoked a tremendous debate” among Iraqi oppositionists with some arguing that Saddam is too powerful to oust nonviolently and others saying the Iraqi dictator is losing control.

Ackerman is both cautious and optimistic in assessing the impact of last week’s protests in Baghdad. “Whether that’s the last straw on the camel’s back we will know in time. It’s going to put pressure on Saddam Hussein’s regime and that’s got to be helpful,” he said.

Claire Schaeffer-Duffy is a free-lance writer living in Worcester, Mass.

Related Web site

Albert Einstein Institution

National Catholic Reporter, November 15, 2002