The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why unarmed revolutions topple some dictators but not others

An anti-government protester flashes a V sign at Tahrir Square in Cairo in February 2011. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

Over the last few decades, the world has witnessed the proliferation of a new type of revolution. Alternatively labeled “negotiated,” “democratic,” “electoral,” “color,” “nonviolent” or “unarmed,” these revolutions largely eschew violent tactics and have become a distinguishing feature of contemporary international politics. Since Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the last shah of Iran, was toppled in January 1979 as the result of unrelenting protests and strikes, authoritarian leaders and regimes in the Philippines, Chile, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Indonesia, Serbia, Ukraine, Georgia, Tunisia and Egypt — to mention a few — have met their political ends in similar fashion.

Although the long-term gains achieved in the wake of these and other unarmed revolutions have often disappointed their protagonists, their ability to unseat autocrats through the use of nonviolent tactics — sometimes referred to as “civil resistance” — constitutes a formidable social science puzzle in itself. How can we explain that highly repressive and seemingly all-powerful regimes sometimes collapse at the hands of protesters armed with little more than slogans and resolve? And, in a related issue, why do some attempts at unarmed revolution fail to oust despots, even though such movements may initially appear identical to their successful counterparts?

In my recent book, I suggest that an emphasis on discourses around democracy and human rights can help us understand why the shah in Iran, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt proved to be much more vulnerable to nonviolent challenges than did Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Iran, Moammar Gaddafi in Libya and Bashar al-Assad in Syria. Since the Iranian, Tunisian and Egyptian leaders had to a significant extent built their rule on close relations with the West — more specifically on the economic and political benefits generated by geopolitical rents — they found themselves forced to behave in a manner broadly acceptable to its Western patrons. They did so by transforming their regimes into “façade democracies,” that is, a form of government that rhetorically embraces liberal Western values like democracy and human rights without any intention of actually living up to the corresponding obligations.

As long as the shah, Ben Ali and Mubarak jumped through the necessary hoops by publicly endorsing human rights or holding (not-so-fair) elections, Western leaders could turn a partial blind eye and maintain that while things were not perfect, at the very least the democratic world was not in cahoots with human rights-violating autocrats. Consequently, the three authoritarians built and maintained democratic façades in order to foster a respectable image for international audiences, charades that facilitated Western support and permitted them to benefit from sustained Western patronage.

However, this hypocritical commitment to the West’s core values came at a price. Opposition factions in all three countries realized that their governments’ embrace of these principles could be leveraged against them. Accordingly, human rights and pro-democracy activists sought to hold their leaders accountable by pointing to discrepancies between rhetoric and reality, often with the support of human rights organizations abroad. As a result, the three regimes were forced to repeatedly reaffirm their commitments to democratic principles, making them increasingly vulnerable to subsequent pressure and criticism.

Within this political and rhetorical context, I propose, the shah, Ben Ali and Mubarak could not muster the type of naked repression that may, at least temporarily, have saved their regimes once nonviolent, democracy-demanding protesters took to the streets in large numbers. Unwilling to demolish the democratic façades on which they depended, the three leaders vacillated, allowing the movements to grow dramatically until decisive violence became virtually impossible. All three — and their domestic backers — knew how repression would be reported by Western media and, by extension, how such reporting would force Western leaders to act. Because, importantly, this “iron cage of liberalism” does not only trap dictators: When tens of thousands of unarmed protesters demand democracy, human rights, freedom and dignity on live TV, Western leaders must sympathize with their demands and, albeit reluctantly, abandon important allies in order to be on the right side of history (and the right side of the next election).

Rather than being intrinsically powerful, I suggest that nonviolent tactics are effective precisely because of their compatibility with the West’s most cherished values. Indeed, an unarmed revolution is essentially the embodiment of Articles 19 and 20 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which address the rights to freedom of assembly, opinion and free speech. Any authoritarian government (or democratic state for that matter) that claims to protect these norms will struggle with the contradiction that comes from denying them to their own citizens on the grand scale represented by a nonviolent revolutionary movement.

Unlike a violent revolutionary challenge, the compatibility between nonviolence and democracy/human rights makes unarmed revolutionary movements existential threats to any dictator closely aligned with and dependent on the West. However, the counterpoint also holds: Tyrants free of this constraint can — and likely will — use uncompromising violence against their own citizens, a lesson that has been reinforced in bloody fashion by events in Libya and Syria since 2011.

Daniel Ritter is assistant professor of politics and international relations at the University of Nottingham and a visiting fellow at the London School of Economic’s Center for International Studies. He is the author of “The Iron Cage of Liberalism: International Politics and Unarmed Revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa,” (Oxford University Press, 2015).