Finish What You Start

Getting rid of a dictator is a great achievement. But it's only the beginning of a successful transition to democracy.


It’s been a bad year for bad guys. Indeed, if anyone had predicted at the end of 2010 that in the following twelve months Mubarak of Egypt and Ben Ali of Tunis would step down and face prosecution, that Qaddafi, Kim Jong Il, and Osama Bin Laden would be dead, and that Ratko Mladic would be in jail, no one would have believed it.

Much has been written about the nonviolent revolutions driven by "People Power" youth movements in Tunisia and Egypt. Their unity, planning, and nonviolent discipline inspired half a dozen additional nonviolent movements, posing the first serious challenge to dictatorships in decades, and prompting leaders in Morocco, Jordan, and even Burma to promise reforms, launch talks with banned opposition parties, and reform constitutions. It encouraged tens of thousands of Russians to demand free and fair elections this past winter in the biggest countrywide protests since the downfall of the Soviet Union.

2011 was the year when mass nonviolent struggle proved its worth as a tool for toppling brutal and long-lasting dictatorships. Yet activist movements have not been as successful when it comes to installing and sustaining democratic forms of government.

Late last year, more than 90 percent of registered Tunisians voted in their first fair elections in almost 30 years. The same month, however, the streets of Cairo witnessed ugly scenes of sectarian violence and a military crackdown on protestors. That startling contrast should prompt us to ask why.

We can find a useful analogy in President John F. Kennedy’s words from 1961, when he described the objective of the U.S. space program as "landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth."  It seems that some of these nonviolent revolutions have been limited solely to removing incumbent regimes without much thought about what was to follow. In other words, they’ve focused on landing a man on the moon without considering the return journey.

Removing the incumbent regime is only one component of a successful democratic revolution. Equally essential are the creation of a new democratic government and protecting it from the potential threat of a coup d’état. How do we explain the fragility or failure of some of the nonviolent revolutions after such courageous struggles to remove dictatorships? How is it that activists failed to map out a strategy for the transition to a democratic government and the means for sustaining that change?

Political transitions are difficult to understand, especially from the outside, but there are several steps that are clearly indispensible when it comes to organizing a successful nonviolent movement.

1. Have a clear vision of tomorrow

First and foremost, movements must have a vision of what they want to achieve. They need to answer the question: "At the end of this struggle, what will be different, and who will benefit?" There are many facets to this: How will the executive branch be constrained? How will the judicial system be protected from corruption? What rights will the people insist have unequivocal protection?  A clear picture of this kind can serve not only as a guide in the struggle against an oppressor, but also as a useful blueprint for building a new democratic government.

Some of the success stories are illustrative. In South Africa, pro-democracy reformers defined the principles for a future society early on. In 1955, the African National Congress (ANC) sent tens of thousands of volunteers to cover the countryside to collect "freedom demands." The result of this massive public campaign was the famous "Freedom Charter," which called for the end of the apartheid government and equality for all citizens. This undoubtedly helped to establish clear principles for the struggle that resulted in the establishment of today’s South African democracy.

Then there’s the case of Serbia after the nonviolent Bulldozer Revolution of October 2000 and the ousting of Slobodan Milosevic. The movement’s leading forces, which included the Democratic Opposition of Serbia, the nonviolent youth movement Otpor, and various civil society groups, also had a clear "vision of tomorrow." They defined it in a 1998 manifesto that outlined the need for free and fair elections, media freedom, freedom of speech, good relations with neighbors Croatia and Bosnia, and a roadmap to EU membership. Today, after facing many challenges (including the 2003 assassination of its first democratic prime minister, Zoran Djindjic), Serbia continues to follow these original goals.

2. Maintain unity

The three principles of unity, planning, and nonviolent discipline are the keys to success in nonviolent struggles against autocratic regimes. The strategists of the civil rights movement in the U.S. built on the unity of black and white activists. Harvey Milk’s campaign for sexual minority rights focused on an alliance of "gay" and "straight." In 2000, it was 18 Serbian opposition parties that joined together in support of a single presidential candidate, Vojislav Kostunica, against the dictatorial Milosevic. Unity was a key component of success in all of these cases.

There are many examples where these alliances were abandoned and old divisions returned, sometimes in a matter of weeks or months after people "left the street." In Ukraine, two leading politicians in the Orange Revolution of 2004 (which peacefully removed the old Soviet-style leadership), Viktor Yushchenko and Yulia Timoshenko, clashed within the newly elected coalition. In 2010, both Yushchenko and Timoshenko lost the presidency to Viktor Yanukovich, their original opponent in the Orange Revolution. Likewise, Egypt saw religious violence against Coptic Christians despite the victory over Mubarak’s 30-year rule. The lesson to be learned is that building a movement based on fighting a common enemy means that defeating that enemy eliminates the movement’s raison d’être and diminishes its capacity to rebuild the system. Keep your eye on the prize: the "vision for tomorrow."

3. Don’t assume "game over" once the "bad guy" is defeated

Many nonviolent campaigns failed because they didn’t go far enough: removing the "bad guys" as an obstacle to change is only one, albeit important, step in a larger process. To ensure success, the public must understand that the struggle does not end when a tyrant is defeated and removed from power; it ends only when a democratic government is in place and able to defend itself from a coup.

Recent experience offers examples of what can happen when democratic revolutions fail to anticipate the challenges ahead. During the Cedar Revolution of February 2005, Lebanese youth united and mobilized various elements of Lebanese society. They succeeded in kicking out occupying Syrian troops and forcing the resignation of pro-Syrian government officials after decades of bloody civil war — all without firing a single bullet. Nevertheless, this peaceful revolution was followed by a political crisis and renewed sectarian violence, ending with the establishment of the Hezbollah-dominated government that continues to rule today.

In February of this year, the democratically elected president of the Maldives, Mohamed Nasheed Anni, was deposed in what appears to have been a coup staged by the military and police. That turn of events of threatened to negate a remarkably successful transition that began in 2008,  when a nonviolent movement removed the country’s long-time military leader and paved the way for the new president’s election — perhaps the most remarkable shift toward democracy in the Muslim world of the past decade.  Cases like these should serve as cautionary tales for pro-democracy activists.

4. Maintain momentum

Power vacuums are transitory by their very nature. There may be many groups standing by to fill the void created by revolutions. Strong organizations have the best chances of seizing the initiative. In some cases, that institution may be one of the pillars of the previous regime (like the armed forces in Burma or Egypt). Therefore, movements that want to succeed need to start early on with developing a strategy that takes into account the capabilities of these "pillars of support" as well as demographics, infrastructure, geography, and relations with external players. Most important is ensuring the strength of opposition figures and personnel who will be able to establish working relationships with members of these powerful institutions. Such contacts are essential for preventing future power struggles between these groups.

In Egypt, the success of 19 days of "nonviolent blitzkrieg" that toppled Mubarak gave way to an interregnum dominated by the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF). The moving forces behind Mubarak’s downfall last winter — secular youth groups — have been relegated to the margins.

It seems that these original activists of Tahrir Square failed to anticipate the challenge posed by the two most organized institutions in Egypt: the military and the Muslim Brotherhood. The growing distance between Mubarak and the military — his primary pillar of support — should have alerted the Tahrir organizers to plan a defense against the threat of the army usurping their revolution.

By contrast, the strategy of the Muslim Brotherhood was quite effective. Like the army, it believed it was incapable of successfully opposing President Mubarak and waited patiently for the nonviolent movement to defeat the regime. Both the Egyptian military and the Islamists are strong, disciplined, and experienced groups, ready to use any opportunity to seize power. Again, this potential threat was widely known among the population, and pro-democracy activists should have anticipated it. For both the army and the Muslim Brotherhood, the loss of momentum after the ousting of Mubarak provided an opportunity to exploit the success of the People Power movement and to re-direct it away from its original goals and towards their own.

Accordingly, the activists should have continued with direct nonviolent actions in order to keep the public mobilized and capable of demanding major transitional reforms, such as creating an interim national government, holding a referendum on a new constitution, releasing all political prisoners, holding free and fair elections, and ending censorship. By disbanding the mobilized public and leaving the political and geographical center of the revolution (Tahrir Square), the democracy movement allowed the creation of a vacuum that was immediately filled by the army and the Muslim Brotherhood. This was precisely the moment when the greatest and most durable gains could have been accomplished.

5. Don’t put all your faith in new elites

One of the reasons why successful nonviolent revolutions sometimes fail during transition is the naive belief that real political change should lie in the hands of elites and charismatic individuals. The leaders of the nonviolent movement sometimes leave the scene after the dictator is gone and a new government installed, only to realize later that they ceded the field too early. Corruption and abuse of newfound power can mar the positive achievements of successful nonviolent revolutions. Nearly ten years after Georgia’s 2003 Rose Revolution, which brought unprecedented reforms to the small former Soviet state, President Mikhail Saakashvili stands accused of resorting to authoritarian methods.

Democracy movements should keep newly elected governments under public pressure and accountable from day one. The case of Serbia is again instructive. Only weeks after Milosevic was defeated, hundreds of billboards appeared in the streets of Belgrade with the image of a bulldozer (the symbol of the revolution) and an accompanying message: "Behave yourself — we are watching you." Serbia, at the time, had 4,300 registered bulldozers and about 6 million potential riders. So the message targeting the newly elected government was clear: "Don’t forget that the government should answer to the people." After all, absolute power corrupts absolutely. Even if the nonviolent revolution brings a democratic government, civil society must stay vigilant and keep every future government accountable. Then democracy will come.

The events of 2011 have shown that nonviolent struggle can be an effective tool for challenging autocrats. The basic techniques of such struggle — above all the core principles of unity, planning, and nonviolent discipline — are now widely known to democratic activists around the world. The same strategic approach should now be applied to the problem of transition as well. No sooner have activists succeeded in achieving victory over a dictator than they find themselves confronted by persistent instability, religious conflicts, military coups, or debilitating political corruption. Yet experience shows us that such problems can be pre-empted or successfully confronted if addressed early in the planning process.

Preventing counterrevolutionary coups, installing a democratic government through free and fair elections, and building durable democratic institutions are, of course, all part of a long-term process — one that is notably less "sexy" than confronting an unpopular dictator. Yet successful movements must have the patience, stamina, focus, and courage to keep building new societies even when the lights and cameras are gone.

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