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How to Create a Nonviolent Overthrow of a Dictator

Thinking about the ingredients of a revolution, the old theory of the dialectical process applies to current youth revolutions. Frederick Engels developed the idea of the dialectical process in the 19th century. In the youth revolutions beginning with the Arab Spring in 2011, the thesis was educated youth who want civil rights and a middle-class lifestyle. The antithesis or contradiction was old dictators in power for decades and high youth unemployment rates in “the waiting generation.” When opposing points of view are intense, it just takes a spark to set off change. Gene Sharp’s From Dictatorship to Democracy spelled out tactics to undermine the pillars of autocracy that were used in Serbian and Egyptian revolutions. The synthesis is a gradual movement towards more democracy, although youth unemployment remains problematic.

When the masses move from fatalism and resignation to hope that a better future is possible, then it only takes a spark of an idea to set off revolt as in Tunisia. “The survival of any existing power structure is dependent upon the elimination of possibility,” observed Allan Goldstein.[i]  He says, “The Magna Carta, the American Revolution, the French Revolution, the fall of the Berlin wall, the Arab Spring” were fuelled by the belief in people power. Abolhassan Banisadr analyzed why revolutions took place in Iran in 1979 and the recent youth revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt.[ii] He identified the common conditions as repressive corrupt governments offered no hope or goals for a better future, recent moves towards less traditional views of Islam as with the Muslim Brotherhood’s and Ennahdha’s discussion of democracy in Egypt and in Tunisia, a large politicized youth population, and prominent international pro-democracy sentiment as associated with Presidents Carter and Obama.

The ingredients of a revolution are spelled out by “social futurist” writer Sara Robinson:[iii] In order to create change, 15% of the people must support a revolution (about the number who supported the American Revolution and the current Tea Party movement, activist organizers are needed along with intellectuals (to create a compelling factual story), artists (professional storytellers, songwriters, filmmakers), insiders (political operatives), and disaffected elites who transfer their allegiance to the upstarts.

Peace Studies Professor George Lakey analyzed the stages of a successful “living revolution” based on his research of global movements: cultural preparation and “consciousness-raising” around a new vision to replace injustice, organization-building with various alternative institutions and networks, confrontation that creates drama and media attention to the good guys vs. the bad guys, mass political and economic non-cooperation as in boycotting and striking, and building parallel democratic institutions such as Argentina’s neighborhood assemblies.[iv]

Lakey gives as a model the Optur revolution in Serbia that ousted dictator Slobodan Milosevic in 2000 as a model of non-violent decentralized strategies. Egypt is another example when rebels agreed to target replacing the regime rather than some other issue, leading mass actions in January 2011. Rebels haven’t united around a plan to replace the regime or designed alternative organizations, so the better organized Muslim Brotherhood filled the vacuum. Nonviolent movements succeeded when they ousted dictators in the Philippines (Marcos), Communist dictatorships in Eastern Europe, segregation in the US south, opposition to the Vietnam War, apartheid in South Africa, the Shah in Iran, Pinochet in Chile, etc. As Gene Sharp instructed, the pillars of support for the regime must be undermined. Lakey refers readers to the Nonviolent Action Database at Swarthmore College,[v] David Sollnit’s Globalize Liberation (2003), and Bill Moyers’ Movement Action Plan in Doing Democracy (2002) for more examples of how to create a revolution.[vi] He added that his model assumes a declining society while Moyer assumes a basically viable society.

Bill Moyers states that the source of power for social movements is generated by outrage when people realize their values and self-interests have been violated and gain hope that change can happen. The main task is to inform the public about political abuses, not easy when those in power lie, cover up, deny, blame outside enemies such as terrorists, create mythologies like calling Nicaraguan contras “freedom fighters,” infiltrate with spies, appoint commissions or make minor changes, and otherwise distract from real problems. Moyers suggests that the use of symbols and reference to cultural values such as freedom should be used to prove the problem exists.

It takes many years to build discontent that occurs when people realize that conditions are getting worse, or they have rising expectations like Black college students who engaged in the civil rights movement, or they learn that specific people have been harmed in a shocking “trigger event” such as police brutality or the arrest of Rosa Parks for not moving to the back of the bus in 1955. Change occurs when the public is aware of the truth and feels empowered to make change. Grassroots organizations must be built to take advantage of the emerging anger about a conflict in values to stage a nonviolent action campaign in “politics as theater.” Moyers warns that after a year of two activists burn out, expecting change to happen quickly and the media reports the movement is dead. Support groups are necessary to sustain activists, to provide training and strategic planning, and to develop empowering leadership models. Loose organization works for the beginning of a new movement, but becomes too inefficient and people burn out from long meetings and an informal hierarchy develops anyway. A new paradigm and specific alternatives to the old system must be developed. Success occurs when policies or leadership change, such as the dictator gives up power or the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965. There is no end, however, only ongoing struggle for people-power movements in an era of widespread poverty and environmental destruction.

[i] Allan Goldstein, “The Revolution Equation,” OpEdNews.com, July 10, 2012.


[ii] Abolhassan Banisadr, “What Makes a Revolution?” The Harvard International Review, April 6, 2011. http://hir.harvard.edu/what-makes-a-revolution

[iii] Sara Robinson, “6 People You Need to Start a Revolution,” AlterNet
April 12, 2012

[vi]Swarthmore College Global Nonviolent Action Database,

Bill Moyer, “The Movement Action Plan,” Spring, 1987: http://www.historyisaweapon.com/defcon1/moyermap.html


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