In 2011, the world watched millions of Egyptians rally peacefully to force the resignation of their authoritarian president, Hosni Mubarak. “When Mubarak stepped down … we realized we actually had power,” recalled Abdallah Hendawy, a prominent activist. But, having won a victory in the streets, Egypt’s pro-democracy activists found they were ill-prepared for the negotiating table and the collaboration needed—among themselves and with Egypt’s politically powerful military—to consolidate their gains.

Labour Protest in Egypt in 2010
Labour protest in Egypt in 2010. Photo Courtesy of Flickr/Sarah Carr

Hendawy, now a consultant with the U.S. Institute of Peace, recalls that pro-democracy leaders who tried to negotiate with Egypt’s generals were criticized by fellow activists for “shaking hands” with oppressors whom they had opposed weeks earlier. Ultimately, negotiations over government reforms failed, and the movement lost initiative. Egypt cycled through an elected government with too narrow a political base, and then back to military-dominated rule.

In social and political conflicts, grassroots movements use nonviolent civil resistance, while conflict resolution specialists use negotiation, in pursuit of a sustainable peace. But as in Egypt, these two groups often work with disparate mindsets. Activists sometimes see conflict mediators as elitists who risk “selling out” a just cause in their search for stability and win/win resolutions of conflict. Peacebuilders, promoting dialogue and negotiation, can label activists as rebel-rousing revolutionaries, unwilling to compromise for the greater good.

Research finds that nonviolent action and peacebuilding tactics can achieve a more just and sustainable peace when they are combined strategically. A recent conversation between scholars and activists highlighted how these two approaches can converge.

Protests in Egypt
Photo Courtesy of Abdallah Hendawy

When significant power imbalances exist between conflicting parties, negotiators may find it difficult to advance a peace process because there is no incentive for the more powerful side to make concessions. In those situations, nonviolent actions like protests, strikes or boycotts can give negotiators leverage. Berlin-based scholar-activist Véronique Dudouet highlights how, in 2006, mass demonstrations for democracy, comprising grassroots activists, civil society organizations, and opposition parties (including recently disarmed Maoist insurgents), succeeded in pressuring the country’s absolute monarch, King Gyanendra, to accept negotiations and make concessions. That peaceful outcome helped ensure the end of what had been a decade of civil war.

Likewise, if nonviolent activists are invited to the negotiating table, they will be more successful if they already have built strong relationships with other peacebuilders and worked on their negotiation skills. In Nepal, USIP promoted just that evolution with a series of “Justice and Security Dialogues” to bridge gaps and build trust among activists, communities and Nepalese police. The program helped prevent violence, which would have unhinged the 2006 peace accord that formally ended the war. It also triggered reforms among Nepal’s police that have helped the country sustain the postwar peace.

American University professor Anthony Wanis-St. John cites Nepal and Egypt to highlight how negotiations can help build broad coalitions among diverse groups in society. The success of movements depends on such internal negotiations and alliance-building. 

Nonviolent action and peacebuilding share a common goal: just peace through nonviolent means. Yet, when practitioners fail to communicate or even to recognize the value in integrating civil resistance and negotiation, avoidable challenges can arise. Potential allies may wind up working directly against each other. Negotiations can lack the broad base they need within a community in conflict, and thus break down at the first sign of tension.

Civil resisters can be skilled negotiators in seeking more inclusive peace agreements, and peacebuilders can strategically leverage the strengths of collective action to overcome a negotiation impasse. Both working in tandem is what can best achieve a just and sustainable peace.

Related Publications

Amid War in Ukraine, Russia’s Lavrov Goes on Diplomatic Offensive

Amid War in Ukraine, Russia’s Lavrov Goes on Diplomatic Offensive

Thursday, August 25, 2022

By: Heather Ashby, Ph.D.;  Jude Mutah, Ph.D.;  Jason Tower;  Ambassador Hesham Youssef

As Russia’s unprovoked and illegal war against Ukraine enters its seventh month, the Russian government continues its diplomatic offensive to prevent more countries from joining international condemnation and sanctions for its military aggression. Between July and August, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov traveled to Egypt, Ethiopia, Uganda, the Republic of Congo, Myanmar and Cambodia — the last as part of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Foreign Ministers’ Meeting. This tour represented an evolving reorientation of Russian foreign policy from Europe to the Global South that has accelerated since Russia’s first invasion of Ukraine in 2014.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Global Policy

‘Firefighting’ Diplomacy Will Not Achieve Peace Between Israelis and Palestinians

‘Firefighting’ Diplomacy Will Not Achieve Peace Between Israelis and Palestinians

Monday, May 9, 2022

By: Ambassador Hesham Youssef

The good news is that there are intensive regional and international efforts to avoid another Israeli-Palestinian war. The preventive effort has been extensive, and the United States seems to be carefully monitoring the situation. The bad news is the reconfirmation of what most already know: the Israeli-Palestinian status quo is volatile and not sustainable. The resulting successive wars only take us many steps further away from peace.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Peace Processes

Egypt Timeline: Since the Arab Uprising

Egypt Timeline: Since the Arab Uprising

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Since 2011, Egypt has witnessed protests, political turnovers, sporadic violence, and waves of repression. This analysis spans key events: a new generation of activists energized long-stagnate politics and countrywide demonstrations; political rivalries pitted secularists against Islamists; and internal turmoil led to the election of a former field marshal.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Conflict Analysis & Prevention

Not Just a Punchline: Humor and Nonviolent Action

Not Just a Punchline: Humor and Nonviolent Action

Thursday, May 16, 2019

By: Adam Gallagher;  Anthony Navone

In the span of a few weeks in April, two longtime North African dictators—Abdelaziz Bouteflika in Algeria and Omar al-Bashir in Sudan—were toppled by nonviolent movements. These successes further bolster what nonviolent theorists have long argued: nonviolent resistance is twice as effective as violence in achieving major political goals. Less understood and examined is the special, disarming role that humor can play in propelling nonviolent movements and defeating oppressive structures.

Type: Blog

Nonviolent Action

View All Publications