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August 10th, 2011 at 9:12 am

Should Egyptians Use Violence? Erica Chenoweth Debates the Efficacy of Non-Violence

Erica ChenowethOver the past couple of weeks there has been a very spirited and thoughtful back-and-forth between Erica Chenoweth, author of Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict, and the author Thanassis Cambanis. The debate began with Cambanis’s article in the Boston Globe examining the slow pace of change in Egypt after the overthrow of Mubarak and the frustration felt by many protestors. As the military tightens its power in Egypt, Cambanis points to the fact that many Egyptians are asking, “What if nonviolence isn’t the solution? What if it’s the problem?” Cambanis argues that the situation in Egypt suggests that violence is necessary for violence to succeed. He writes:

These gentle revolutions, it turns out, might be exceptions rather than the rule. There’s a backlash among some historians and political scientists that echoes the gut feeling of Egypt’s frustrated revolutionaries. They suggest, sometimes reluctantly, that regimes that insist on ruling by the gun, so to speak, might only be pushed aside by the gun.

On her excellent blog Rational Insurgent, Erica Chenoweth responds to Cambanis’s article, which cites her own work as well as those of other scholars. Chenoweth points to the some of Cambanis’s misreadings of other studies, which in many cases do not compare violent with non-violent campaigns. She concludes by writing:

Contrary to Cambanis’s argument, the historical record reveals rather dramatically that nonviolent resistance is strategically superior, and, in the end, often leads to much more democratic and stable societies than violent insurgency. Although Egyptians may be rightly frustrated with the pace and direction of the transition, they need only look to other recent cases—such as Libya or Yemen—to see the risks of using violence to attempt to improve their strategic positions. Our research indicates that if Egyptians resort to violence, their chances of success will drop by about half, the risk of civil war will steeply rise, and the chances for democracy in the foreseeable future will be considerably reduced.

Chenoweth’s piece inspired a response from Cambanis and a counter-response from Chenoweth. Despite their differences, the conversation opens up new ways of thinking about the power of non-violence and the ways in which protestors come against repressive regimes.

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