As December marks 10 years since the passing of Nelson Mandela, an icon of 20th-century struggles for justice and peace, a new generation of activists is building from his legacy to counter our 21st-entury crises of rising global violence. Among the signs of Mandela’s vital relevance for us now is a global, online conference to bolster nonviolent social action in pursuit of justice and peace that opens December 7, hosted by the Stanford University-based World House Project with partner groups from South Africa, India, Mexico and elsewhere.
Nonviolent action can be a powerful way to bring about peaceful transitions from autocratic rule to democracy. But even when initially successful, movement leaders often face significant challenges, from frustrations that grievances are not addressed quickly enough to counterrevolutions aimed at restoring the authoritarian status quo. This report examines two recent transitions—the 2011 Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia and Armenia’s 2018 Velvet Revolution—and presents recommendations for improving the likelihood that change initiated through nonviolent action leads to robust and lasting democracy.
A striking feature of many successful nonviolent action campaigns is the outsized presence of young people, especially on the front lines. Recent history is replete with examples — mass movements in Iran, Hong Kong, Sudan, Lebanon, Algeria and others have all drawn strength from major swells of determined youth mobilization.
In recent weeks, the world has watched in awe as Iranian women rise in peaceful protest against their country’s violent and patriarchal theocracy. Their courage is at once extraordinary and familiar, paralleling other inspiring episodes of women-led nonviolent activism. Indeed, women have played central roles in many of the world’s most impressive nonviolent campaigns.
Iran’s women are seizing worldwide admiration with 26 days of courageous defiance against their authoritarian government’s violent confinement of females as second-class citizens who may not freely work, marry, divorce, travel or even be seen with their heads uncovered. Less noted are this audacious movement’s existing, and potential, connections to the tenacious, 14-month campaign by Afghan women resisting the even tighter oppression of the Taliban. Street protest slogans, social media posts and other links illustrate a synergy between the movements that both should use in the difficult task of converting their inspiring courage into real change.
Three and a half years after Sudan’s military deposed the authoritarian ruler, Omar Bashir, in response to massive protests, the current military leadership and divisions among political factions are stalling a return to elected civilian government. This year has brought a deepening economic crisis and violent communal clashes — but also a new wave of nonviolent, grassroots campaigns for a return to democracy. As Sudanese democracy advocates and their international allies seek ways to press the military for that transition, all sides should note, and work to sustain, Sudan’s nonviolent civic action.
Although social contact theory — the idea that encountering someone with a different group identity can lead to greater understanding, empathy, and trust — has become a bedrock of most peacebuilding initiatives in recent decades, doubts remain about whether such initiatives prevent violence. This report provides practical insights and recommendations for improving peacebuilding efforts by more effectively factoring an understanding of human behavior into the design, implementation, and evaluation of social contact interventions.
The ouster of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak in February 2011 was brought about using the tools of nonviolent action, including massive protests and nationwide strikes. Yet the transition that followed showed that initiating change through nonviolent action is no guarantee of a peaceful, smooth path to democracy. This report, based on data on 72 political transitions that occurred between 1945 and 2019, provides key insights into the kinds of mobilization, in terms of tactics and actors, that tend to be most effective in carrying transitions to a democratic outcome.
The surprise announcement by Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the leader of Sudan’s coup government, that the military is willing to hand power back to civilians presents an opportunity to get the democratic transition back on track.
From 2013 to 2018, Sudanese civil society actors carved out a variety of civic spaces that laid the foundation for Sudan’s 2018–2019 December Revolution. This report assesses the factors that gave rise to this remarkable mobilization—in particular how civil society development ultimately enabled the Sudanese opposition to sustain a decentralized, nationwide, and robust nonviolent campaign characterized by widespread mass participation, unity of leadership and purpose, and a commitment to nonviolent discipline—and what it will take to keep the country’s democratic transition on track.