Archive | Why Civil Resistance Works RSS feed for this section

Wilson Center Talk This Thursday

6 Dec

UPDATE: The webcast for our talk is now available for viewing here.


Maria Stephan and I will be talking about Why Civil Resistance Works at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars on Thursday, Dec. 8th at noon in the 6th Floor Moynihan Board Room. Come on by!


WPR Interview: Syria, Occupy Wall Street, and Civil Resistance

13 Nov

Maria J. Stephan and I had a conversation with Veronica Rueckert of Wisconsin Public Radio on November 11th. We talked about our book and its implications for Syria, Occupy Wall Street, Iran, and other cases.

Listen to the interview here.

Why Violence Has Declined

5 Nov

Check out Steven Pinker:

And check out his new book, “The Better Angels of Our Nature.” Isn’t that a great title?

And why has violence declined? Maybe because it doesn’t really work.

Armed Wing in Syria: To What Effect?

10 Oct

Anthony Shadid writes in the New York Times:

The semblance of a civil war has erupted in Homs, Syria’s third-largest city, where armed protesters now call themselves revolutionaries, gun battles erupt as often as every few hours, security forces and opponents carry out assassinations, and rifles costing as much as $2,000 apiece flood the city from abroad, residents say.

Shadid’s headline overstates the degree to which Syria’s unarmed revolution is “spiraling” into civil war. The armed “wing” of the uprising is largely comprised of military defectors in Homs, who took their guns with them as they sought haven in civilian homes. In my estimation, Syria will not “spiral” into violence, as most people on the ground have little opportunity to take up arms against Assad’s regime; neither are they interested in taking up arms against Assad’s regime. I base this impression on discussions with some Syrian activists on the ground, as well as reports that nonviolent mass mobilization continues in many cities with no hint of civilian-initiated violence on the horizon—all this despite continual massacres by the regime against unarmed civilians.

However, it is important to know how the armed wing may affect the strategic dynamics between the popular, civilian-led nonviolent movement and the regime. Kurt Schock and I have done some research on how violent radical flanks have influenced the outcomes of primarily nonviolent campaigns. Using a data set of 108 nonviolent campaigns from 1900 to 2006, we looked at how many of these campaigns were accompanied by contemporaneous violent movements, and whether the presence of these violent movements affected the success and failure rates of nonviolent campaigns.

The following figure is a bivariate cross-tabulation of the relationship between nonviolent campaign outcomes and the presence or absence of a violent radical flank.

What is evident here is that having an armed wing has a slight negative effect on the probability of success. However, this effect is not statistically significant—a finding that is confirmed in other statistical tests. There is definitely no evidence to support the notion that armed groups will help a nonviolent campaign. The bottom line: there is a slight tendency for armed wings to reduce the success rates of nonviolent campaigns, but this reduction is not common enough for there to be a real pattern from which to draw inferences.

Of course the most troubling possibility is that the armed wing will reduce the movement’s chances of success. Why might an armed wing reduce the probability of success for an unarmed movement? There are a few reasons. First, and most important, is that the emergence of an armed wing can reduce popular participation in a nonviolent campaign. See the following figure:

This figure shows that nonviolent movements without armed or “radical” flanks are much more likely to boast large numbers of members than campaigns with radical flanks. And as Maria Stephan and I show in our book Why Civil Resistance Works, participation is absolutely critical in the success of nonviolent campaigns.

Second, developing an armed wing can give the regime the pretext it needs to escalate widespread repression against all opponents—nonviolent and violent. Part of Assad’s propaganda has focused on how the uprising is comprised of armed gangs seeking to disrupt public order and destroy Syrian society. Such propaganda has heretofore seemed totally ridiculous, even among many security forces who have chosen to defect to the movement’s side. For a regime where loyalty within the security forces is crumbling, adopting armed struggle or an armed defense wing can actually reverse these trends in shifting loyalties. Security forces generally don’t surrender themselves to armed “traitors,” and Assad’s rhetoric may seem less crazy to the security forces when they suddenly find themselves under attack by their former comrades.

B. H. Liddel-Hart, who interviewed Nazi generals responsible for the German occupations throughout Eastern and Western Europe, observed the following:

[The Nazis] were experts in violence, and had been trained to deal with opponents who used that method. But other forms of resistance baffled them—and all the more in proportion as the methods were subtle and concealed. It was a relief to them when resistance became violent and when nonviolent forms were mixed with guerrilla action, thus making it easier to combine drastic repressive action against both at the same time. [1]

The armed wing in Syria will probably not be the deciding factor in whether the revolution succeeds or fails. If Assad falls, it will be because hundreds of thousands of unarmed protestors have withdrawn their cooperation from the regime; because security forces refuse to obey orders to crack down on unarmed protesters; and because business elites within the country will pressure Assad to abandon his post. It would help if a prominent member of the Alawite community would come forward and denounce the violence that Assad has perpetrated against peaceful demonstrators. It might also help if the international community figured out a way to give Assad a golden parachute out of the situation.

In sum, having an armed wing is risky, but not necessarily decisive. The armed wing won’t help the nonviolent movement in Syria. However, as long as the movement remains mainly nonviolent in nature, the campaign may succeed regardless.


[1] B. H. Liddel-Hart, “Lessons from Resistance Movements: Guerrilla and Nonviolent,” in Adam Roberts, ed., Civilian Resistance as a National Defence (Harrisburg: Stackpole Books, 1968), p. 205.









Wednesday Roll Call: Rational Stuff I Like

30 Aug

Navid Hassanpour finds that you can Tweet your way to a failed revolution.

The Syrian Revolution News Round-Up provides daily updates with news, protester videos, official statements, etc., of the ongoing Syrian conflict.

Maria Stephan argues that Libya is no “model” for the region.

Stephan Zunes looks at lessons learned and lessons to avoid in Libya.

Iran tells Bashar al-Assad to tone it down.

In an editorial, the Christian Science Monitor mentions the research in Why Civil Resistance Works.

Chibli Mallat weighs in on designing democracy after revolution.

Syrian businessmen show their dissatisfaction with Assad.

Anna Hazare gets the Indian government to budge on his proposed corruption law.

Over a dozen papers on nonviolent resistance (or some variation on that theme) will be delivered at the American Political Science Association‘s annual meeting this week.

Cambanis Replies

5 Aug

Earlier this week, I posted a reply to Thanassis Cambanis’s article, “Call to Arms,” from the July 31, 2011 Boston Globe. Today, Mr. Cambanis posted a reply to my response, which you can find here. I really appreciate that he took some time to do so.

I don’t wish to belabor my points, but Mr. Cambanis brings up a common critique of our data set which I’d like to address (I find myself doing so quite often). He quotes Mark Kramer as saying:

I find their argument very intriguing, but one clear problem is that their database unavoidably omits countless non-violent resistance campaigns that never begin (because they are deterred) or that are crushed at a very early stage before they become widely known.  Hence, the database is biased toward successful cases of non-violence, leaving ample room for debate about the authors’ conclusions.  Moreover, even if Stephan and Chenoweth are correct in their aggregate analysis of non-violent resistance campaigns unadjusted for size, the existence of crucial outliers — China in June 1989, Burma in 2007, Zimbabwe in 2005 and 2008, and Iran in June-July 2009 — raises further questions about the validity of their argument.  Suffice to say that more research will be needed.

Now, I couldn’t agree more with Prof. Kramer on his basic argument. In collecting the data, my main concern was that we were missing many nonviolent resistance campaigns that never began because of deterrence or their suppression early on. This is the classic “selection effect” problem, and it’s super hard to deal with, especially with the data in its aggregate form. Kramer himself argues that this problem is “unavoidable.” I go into lots of detail about ways we tried to get around this problem in the supplementary web appendix, which is available (all 183 pages of it!) here. But I’d like to mention two major points:

1. For inclusion in the database, both nonviolent and violent campaigns had to exceed 1,000 active participants (and, in the case of the violent insurgencies, 1,000 battle deaths). We chose this strict inclusion criteria in part to deal with the problem of selection effects. As many other political scientists will do, we qualify our argument by saying that once a campaign has achieved a level of active participation above 1,000, nonviolent resistance is more successful.

2. The same selection problem (i.e. the tendency to see only the campaigns that are not crushed at the outset) also applies to violent insurgencies. Many are crushed in their infancy or are deterred from emerging in the first place, just like nonviolent campaigns are. Even if the data are somewhat biased toward successful nonviolent campaigns, it would also then be biased toward successful violent campaigns (i.e. those that obtain a certain threshold). So when we compare the relative effectiveness of nonviolent to violent insurgencies, that bias should not be driving their success rates relative to one another.

Is this method perfect? No. Is it the best we could do at the time? Yes. Given these limitations, do our findings say anything meaningful about the relative effectiveness of nonviolent versus violent insurrection? At these threshold levels, absolutely. Is more research required to assess the robustness of our findings, and to explain the crucial outliers? Wholeheartedly, yes. In fact, it is my great hope that the field takes the empirical study of nonviolent resistance seriously, and that we start to see more refined data sets emerge on the subject with innovative ways to deal with problems such as these.

Rational Insurgent Hits the Airwaves

4 Aug

I was on The Doug Noll Show talking about my book Why Civil Resistance Works (co-written with Maria J. Stephan) on Thursday, August 4th from 7pm-8pm Pacific time. You can listen to it by clicking here.