Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The role of the army in the Egyptian Revolution

A few more thoughts on turning the other cheek.
On Sunday, during the sermon I reflected a little on the movements going on in the Middle East, and expressed my tentative hopefulness about Egypt, Tunisia, and other countries around the Middle East becoming more democratic (in the best sense of the word-a commitment to human rights, a consensus around peace throughout society, a solid, non-corrupt judiciary and bureaucracy, and also a basically majoritarian system). I think it is great that these movements (and other ones like the Civil Rights movement, Indian Independence, the end of Apartheid, and the fall of communism) have been largely non-violent, with people really intentionally not starting an armed revolution, and thus winning peacefully significant victories for human decency and full flourishing.
From that starting point, I had some further thoughts on the question of non-violent revolutions that didn’t really fit in an already too long sermon, and I thought I’d post them here.
I think massive non-violence is clearly the best way to get rid of an autocratic government.  Over the last century, it seems pretty clear that civil war is a great way to get a lot of people killed and destroy a country, while non-violence can be the foundation for a peaceful and significant regime transition.
However, the modern revolutionary technique of mass non-violent protest is not in any way foolproof. In Iran, Thailand, and China, mass protests lead to mass killings, not social change, and the question of why some popular movements succeed and some fail is an open question. Lately I read an argument from Matt Yglesias suggesting that the success of a non-violent movement is in many ways depends on its ability to persuade the mechanisms of state sponsored violence-the police and the army-to refrain from crushing the protests. That is, it is still the people with the guns who get to make the final decision as to what happens in the country.  It seems that to a very significant extent, if the army is willing to crush dissent, that dissent will be crushed (unless you get a real civil war, obviously, where everyone loses). This reality suggests, I think, a subtle imbedded positional commandment in Jesus’ teaching to turn the other cheek (reading it from the classic Walter Winkian perspective)

That is, the lesson you could draw from modern history is those who are best armed get to make the decisions. Run with me a minute here, down the rabbit hole.
Philosopher Freidrick Nietzsche (spiritual father to the Nazi’s, and someone who I think was very wrong about a lot of things) suggested the Christianity was a religion for the poor and the downtrodden, extolling the virtues of weakness and poverty, rather than the will to power that marks true humanity.  From his perspective, the obvious lesson to learn from the modern revolutionary movement is “not non-violent resistance can transform things,” it is “if you find yourself under a dictator, join the police or the army, and you can be part of the actual power structure deciding if any possible revolution succeeds.”   Looking at it this way, non-violent resistance is useful primarily as a tool for people who have failed at the first task (getting into the military) to try and persuade those with real power to switch their allegiance. 

Now, there are obvious moral problems with this perspective, even if you’re not a pacifist-joining the armed forces of dictatorships often requires a certain amount of day to day abuse of your fellow citizens, but most people in the Egyptian army, for example, weren't really part of the direct mechanisms of oppression. But I also think this is a reminder that Jesus really did read life from the margins, from the underside, from the perspective of the poor.  Jesus looked at the Roman Empire, and it went without saying that he would not participate in polite appeasement, waiting for the optimal moment to try and seize control of Judea when the legions were elsewhere, as many of his fellow Jewish revolutionaries chose to do, but rather he refused to participate in the system, and accept the poverty, powerlessness, and danger that implied. As we honor those who risk their life in the Middle East, and reflect on our choices, I do wonder where we in the United States have positioned ourselves in our also fallen system. 


  1. I heard Gene Sharp on Morning Edition today. It seems as though this might be worth considering in how non-violent revolutions are carried out.


  2. I heard Gene Sharp on Morning Edition talking about how his book inspired the Egyptian revolution and what his principles of non-violent revolution are. I haven't read the book, but it seems worth checking out.