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In Revolutions, Do Nice Guys Finish Last?

The Egyptian liberals who played a big part in the insurrection that toppled Hosni Mubarak now find themselves marginalized, pushed into a minor role in parliament and reluctantly withdrawing from the electoral commission.

A similar situation has befallen Syria’s liberal, mostly peaceful protesters, who led last summer’s protest marches but have since been sidelined by the Free Syrian Army’s violent revolt. The story of one of Homs’ first protest leaders, as reported by the Christian Science Monitor, is a telling example:

“In September last year I had been arrested again by the regime for organizing protests,” says Mr. Alloush, speaking on a cafe terrace in Beirut. “After they released me, I ran into a group of men I knew as members of the Free Syrian Army. I walked up to them and screamed: “You guys have stolen our revolution! You are just as bad as the shabiha,” the pro-regime militia in Syria.

The rebels kept Alloush for four days, after which they told him not to show his face in Homs again. . . .

In February, Alloush went back to Homs clandestinely. He made the rounds of the city’s mosques to persuade the imams there to preach against the use of violence. When the FSA found out he was in town he fled to neighboring Lebanon once again.

The FSA, made up mostly of deserting soldiers, joined the revolutionary protests last year and added firepower to the shouts of “Down with Assad!”

Nonviolence can achieve great political changes, but that route is not easy to follow, and it becomes harder the longer a revolution continues in the face of an intractable or despicable regime. In Syria, the thugs engaged in violence against the regime may be no better than their enemies, but the unhappy truth is that they might topple Butcher Assad faster than unarmed protesters. And as more innocents and rebels die or are tortured in prison every day at the hands of Butcher Assad’s shabiha, toppling the regime as fast as possible has for many become the most important aspect of the revolution.

And yet, the FSA is faltering, as peaceful demonstrators are returning to the streets, gratefully cheering the ceasefire that still seems to be holding. Assad’s forces have pushed the FSA out of Homs and a number of other cities where they once controlled neighborhoods. FSA brigades have run out of weapons and don’t seem to be getting the equipment they need to continue to shoot back. Meanwhile, protesters are gathering in Cairo this week, hoping for a united declaration of a return to the nonviolent protests of last summer.

Via Meadia hopes the nice guys win the battle for Syria, but we are not holding our breath. It’s unfortunate, but sometimes a gun speaks louder than a protest chant.

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  • Walter Sobchak

    The notion that a “revolution” is a defined process with identifiable outcomes, is, at best romantic nonsense. First promulgated by liberal supporters of the French revolution during the romantic era [Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, But to be young was very heaven!]. Later in the 19th century, Marxist revolutionaries seized the idea of revolution as the praxis through which they would create heaven on earth.

    The whole notion was rubish. All moments that are called revolutions and a number that are not so called, begin with the collapse of an existing regime. In France in 1789 the chronically insolvent Bourbon monarchy went acutely bankrupt. In Russia in 1917 the Romanov autocracy crumbled under the wight of WWI. In Russia in 1991, the Soviet Union, hopelessly insolvent, simply fell apart.

    What happens after regime collapse cannot be subject to ordinary rules that are the sum and substance of a regime. It certainly will, in the medium to long run, be determined by the culture and its deeper institutions. E.G. France, after the Terror, Napoleon, and a great deal of fussing, emerges as a country run by a mandarin bureaucracy centralized in Paris.

    But, the short run is always anomic and chaotic. Violent men, unconstrained by non-existent laws, will push forward to grab what they can get, and sometimes will wind up with everything. Despite their name, the Bolsheviks were never more than a tiny terrorist faction. Sometimes the winner will be the second or third man to seize power, like Napoleon, who was better organized, armed, and trained than his opponents.

    Liberals who tie themselves up in worries about legalities in a revolutionary environment are surefire losers. Even Lincoln, our paragon of a lawyer-president, needed to forget about constitutional niceties on several occasions during the Civil War.

    In Egypt, it will be the Army versus the Brotherhood. They are best organized, and best trained. I don’t have a favorite, but I do note that the Army has ruled Egypt for most of the last 15 centuries.

  • alex scipio

    Dr. Nead:

    I’d be intrigued to know what peaceful interests have been advanced using nonviolence against non-Western adversaries – if any.

    It worked for MLK becaue his opponents were Western. It worked for Ghandi because his opponents were Western (Had KSM been his opponent, no one would ever had heard of Ghandi as he would have been beheaded the first chance any non-Western “culture” had).

    It’s nice to understand nonviolence, but it must come with an understanding of the culture (singluar) in which it grew and has worked. I am unaware of it ever being successful outside of the West or our areas of engagement.

  • Luke Lea

    Non-violence would probably work for the Palestinians. If they tried it.

  • f1b0nacc1


    Look up a Harry Turtledove story ‘The Last Article’, you will probably enjoy it…

  • Dr. Kenneth Noisewater

    Hold a seance and ask Kerensky..

  • Mark Buehner

    “It’s nice to understand nonviolence, but it must come with an understanding of the culture (singluar) in which it grew and has worked. I am unaware of it ever being successful outside of the West or our areas of engagement.”

    India seemed to make it work.

  • Robert S. Pierre

    Wasn’t India part of the west’s area of engagement?

  • Joe Miller

    Has there been a revolution, other than the American Revolution, that didn’t end up with the most ruthless, blood-thirsty people in power?

  • Ted B. (Charging Rhino)

    About the only politically-important revolution that didn’t radicalize or turn cannibalistic was the American Revolution, and it part that’s due to it NOT being a “revolution”. It was in many ways a counter-revolution that reasserted much of the status-quo from before the conflict.

  • gazzer

    Mark – India made it work because it was the British, and the indian culture embraced large parts of their imports – administration, the law, cricket (!) etc

  • gringojay

    Nice guys get assassinated in revolutions, sooner or later.

  • Rebel Yell

    Ho Chi Minh once said that non-violence only works when your opponent has a conscience. That, if Gandhi had come up under French rule he would have joined the saints many decades earlier.

  • Fred2

    I know of only two revolutions that improved things:
    Britain’s Glorious Revolution of 16 something 34?

    And the US Revolution.

    There may be other exceptions, but mostly they take the bad and make it worse.

  • Georgiaboy61

    Re: “India seemed to make it work.” Non-violence worked in India because those against whom he and his followers were rebeling were British. Nice try, but no dice…

  • JMH

    “India seemed to make it work.”

    At the time, India was part of the British Empire, and thus inside of “the West.”

  • Trashhauler

    Mark, India was and is part of the West, for the purposes being discussed here. Whereas the Brits were inclined to allow peaceful demonstrations, even at the risk of losing India, Mr. Ghandi would have been chopped in almost any other culture.

  • Lin

    Mark Buehner said,

    “India seemed to make it work.”

    . . . Because Gandhi’s adversaries were constrained and western.

  • Big D

    Would it be more accurate to say that non-violence has only ever worked against a post-Victorian Anglo-Saxon opponent?

  • deadman

    In the end, the Not Nice Guys don’t do so well either. Jacobins (think Robespierre), the SA (Night of long knives), Trotskyites… The “vanguards of the Revolution” are generally the second up against the wall after their usefulness runs out. The winners are the quiet faceless guys who adapt to any environment.

  • LTC John

    The Glorious Revolution in Britain was 1688… it, and the American Revolution do seem to be the ones where the nice guys finished first. But that leaves an awful lot of time since that has happened.

  • Mr. G

    Best line from the book “The Mouse That Roared”.

    The pen is mightier than the sword but the sword does pretty well for itself on any given day.

  • teapartydoc

    I’m about half-way through Pauline Maier’s From Resistance to Revolution. It is about the events leading up to the point where the Americans finally gave up on any hope of continuing to live amicably under British rule. One consistent pattern of behaviour shown by these gents was the disavowal of violent resistance in that period, despite the fact that occasional riots and intimidation of officials were occurring. I think that this habit of restraint allowed the resistance to become ever stronger and organized in the time leading up to the rupture, and kept things on an even keel, preventing the ascent of the kind of folk that rise to the top in more precipitous upheavals. In other words, whether bad folk come out on top in revolutions largely depends on the character of the people where these revolutions take place.

  • Rich Rostrom

    Joe Miller says: Has there been a revolution, other than the American Revolution, that didn’t end up with the most ruthless, blood-thirsty people in power?

    List of successful internal (non-colonial) revolutions with final ruling force

    England 1641-1653: Cromwell
    England 1688-1689: William III
    France 1789-1799: Napoleon
    France 1830: Louis-Philippe
    France 1848: Napoleon III
    Portugal 1910-1926: “Estado Novo” dictatorship
    China 1911-1927: KMT
    Mexico 1912-1921: PRI
    Russia 1917: Bolsheviks
    Germany 1918: Social Democrats
    China 1946-1949: Mao
    Cuba 1959: Castro
    Portugal 1974-1976: Social Democrats
    Nicaragua 1979: Sandinistas

    This omits a number of other extralegal changes of power which have not been called revolutions: the fall of the Soviet-bloc Communist regimes; De Gaulle’s Treize Mai coup d’etat in 1958; Hitler’s takeover of Germany; Nasser’s coup in Egypt, and many other coups.

    14 “revolutions” are listed: of these, seven clearly ended with “the most ruthless, blood-thirsty people in power”. (Sometimes these attributes were separate: Napoleon was more ruthless than the Jacobins, but less bloodthirsty.)

  • Snorri Godhi

    There are at least 2 kinds of revolutions: glorious revolutions and animal-farm revolutions.

    Glorious revolutions include, but are not limited to:
    the republican rev. in ancient Athens;
    the republican rev. in ancient Rome;
    the Baron’s Revolt;
    the Dutch revolution;
    the English rev. of 1688;
    the American revolution;
    the French rev. of 1830 (??);
    the Eastern European rev.s of 1989/1991.

    Animal-farm revolutions include:
    the French rev.s of 1789 and 1848;
    the Russian rev. of 1917;
    the Chinese revolution;
    the Iranian revolution.

    Contrary to popular belief, it is only the former that qualify as true change, as distinct from an unusually bloody game of musical chairs. Animal-farm revolutions could be described as “conservative” in some sense of the term.

    Unfortunately it seems to be difficult to tell whether a revolution is going to be glorious or not, except with the benefit of hindsight.

  • Bohemond

    The American “Revolution” wasn’t. It was a war of secession (which is why the Brits usually call it the “American War of Independence.”) Politically and socially almost nothing changed: courts operated, clerks recorded deeds, the same laws were on the books in 1781 as in 1775. The Colonies simply replaced their royal governors with elected ones and kept on going.

  • D

    I guess the Million+ killed during partition didn’t count, along with Millions brutalized, 100s of thousands (maybe Millions) raped, 15 Million or so persons who permanently lost their homes…

    I hope I never live through a ‘peaceful’ revolution like that.

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