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Violence backfires

This is Part II of a series of reflections on non-violent conflict, spurred by my participation at FSI 2011. For Part I, click here.

On February 2, 2011, thugs armed with clubs and machetes rode into Tahrir Square on camels and began to attack protesters. Until the arrival of the thugs, journalists cited Tahrir Square as having been peaceful and filled with acts of non-violent protest, even in the face of tear gas and police brutality. Discipline is critical for the success of a non-violent movement or any act of civil resistance: The movement needs to protect its own non-violent character, or risk alienating individuals who ideologically agree with the cause but would not engage in or support violent acts. Egyptians had taken it upon themselves to maintain the non-violent character of their protests; Anna Therese day reported that protesters discouraged fellow Egyptians from marring the peaceful nature of their collective struggle.Following the thugs’ attack on the peaceful protesters, something began to shift: Journalists used stronger language in calling for Mubarak’s resignation and foreign leaders followed. Reflecting on the attacks in Tahrir Square, Nicholas Kristof wrote:

“It should be increasingly evident that Mr. Mubarak is not the remedy for the instability in Egypt; he is its cause. The road to stability in Egypt requires Mr. Mubarak’s departure, immediately. But for me, when I remember this sickening and bloody day, I’ll conjure not only the brutality that Mr. Mubarak seems to have sponsored but also the courage and grace of those Egyptians who risked their lives as they sought to reclaim their country. And incredibly, the democracy protesters held their ground all day at Tahrir Square despite this armed onslaught.”

What happened that day in Tahrir square is an example of the backfire effect. Brian Martin defines it as follows:

An attack can be said to backfire when it creates more support for or attention to whatever is attacked. Any injustice or norm violation can backfire on the perpetrator.

Among the conditions for backfire, according to Martin, are the action “being perceived as unjust, unfair, excessive or disproportional” and “information about the action can be communicated to relevant audiences.”

Another instance of backfire was the Libyan government’s attempt to stop Eman al-Obeidy from telling journalists in Libya that she was assaulted and raped by pro-Qaddafi forces. Most recently, when the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces detained and assaulted journalist Mona Eltahawy, the conversation began once again about how regimes’ attempts to violently repress peaceful protesters or those telling the protests’ story only serves to expose the brutal means regimes will embrace to cling on to control.

Violence does not only backfire for the regime or leaders in power, but also for those engaged in acts of civil resistance. Cynthia Boaz, one of the leading voices in the conversation about effective and non-violent resistance, cautioned at FSI 2011 that protesters beware of agent provocateurs, who may instigate acts that are not in the spirit of the movement in order to discredit it. Movements are responsible for the individuals who participate in them and it may be harder to discern the lines of accountability within a fluid, ever-changing system, particularly when the hierarchy is fuzzy or non-existent. For that reason, a personal commitment to non-violence and protection of the non-violent nature of protest is essential for the success of a non-violent movement.

As a Greek, I have been put off by the burning of banks, destruction of property and violence that has sometimes defined the protests and riots in my home country. I often agree with the message and goals of the protesters, but I do not agree with espousing violence as a means to accomplishing them. Some will say “but people are angry!” or “we have no time for non-violence.” To that, I respond – inspired by the instructors at FSI – that there are so many ways to wage non-violent action (198, in fact, according to Gene Sharp) that until all of those have been attempted and failed, protesters cannot truly claim that they have exhausted the non-violent means available to them. Change need not be quick to be effective and if a movement sacrifices non-violence for the sake of speed, it will lose me and the hearts and minds of many who would support it.

For more: Daryn Cambridge curated the main points of Lee Smithey and James Greene’s presentation on the backfire effect at FSI 2011. Cynthia Boaz pointed us to Brian Martin’s resources on the backfire effect. Follow Cynthia at @cynthiaboaz on Twitter. She will blow your mind.

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