Civil resistance and 'people power' movements: beyond regime change

Today it is obvious that unarmed popular movements are able to overthrow authoritarian regimes, even militarized and dictatorial regimes that have controlled countries for decades. Through mass demonstrations, civil disobedience, noncooperation, strikes and boycotts some 30 dictatorships have fallen during the last decades. We have more recently seen how entrenched authoritarian regimes have fallen within “the Arab Spring” in Egypt and Tunisia, and previously similar dramatic transitions have happened throughout Latin America, Easter Europe, Western Africa, as well as in South Africa, Iran, Indonesia, the Philippines, etc. All these examples point towards the people power or nonviolent revolution that Gandhi was instrumental in developing during the struggle in South Africa and India. However, it is also obvious today that these regime changes point towards a number of problems and challenges, some of which our theme group want to engage with.

It seems today equally obvious how difficult it is to get a really different and more just society after that the regime collapses. Probably the recent 96 % election of the military leader Asisi in Egypt in an election that had problems to gather enough voters is the clearest example of this. But other examples are plentiful. The recent second regime change in Ukraine also illustrates the problem. The new rule after the Orange Revolution became not only less democratic and more corrupt than what the opposition imagined, but the old ruling elite came back after an election victory, and now with the “second Orange revolution” the country seems to be violently divided between a Russia oriented East and EU oriented West. This tragic development also risks bringing us a second Cold War. Furthermore, already the first recognised nonviolent revolution, the Indian liberation from colonial rule of Britain, also did lead to a depressing development. India joined the nuclear weapon club, the force behind the liberation, the Congress, developed a kind of family rule and system of endemic corruption, centralized large-scale industrialization, maintained the caste system and accepted permanent poverty. The result was quite the opposite of what Gandhi worked for; the disempowerment of the rural villages that Gandhi viewed as the basis of a future decentralized village republic.

In Kirgizstan the old elite seem to keep hold by exchanging the persons in power. In Eastern Europe the people gained political freedom but lacks the social security they had during the communist era, and now neofascists and the extreme right are gaining popular support. In South Africa the fall of the racist apartheid regime was indeed a success. The political revolution did produce a different society with universal suffrage, increased media freedoms and a rule of law, but at the same time, the economic and social inequality is in many ways even worse than before. The ANC turned into a neoliberal and market friendly party, and the poor black majority that were the backbone of the struggle against apartheid are still waiting for the change.

Therefore, a key problem we see in these regime changes is the difficult transformation of society, particularly the lack of real democratic change, equitable economic development, and justice.

Another linked problem is the lack of broad based unity behind the new regimes; instead we see even outright endemic divisions emerging from the transitions. In Egypt the revolutionaries that ousted the militarised regime of Mubarak, celebrated last year the military coup against the newly elected Muslim Brotherhood regime. The opposition against the Brotherhood was so massive that the military did mainly confirmed an already ongoing unarmed revolutionary movement. Today, thousands of Muslims are in in prison and hundreds were killed by the military in protests against the military take over. In a similar way Thailand is deeply divided between the Red Shirts and Yellow Shirts, which takes turn in making the society ungovernable. What evolves in the Venezuelan society seems to be something similar: a majority elected regime with massive popular support, but with an opposition that is a powerful minority that uses unarmed resistance as part of their repertoire. And the result is a more and more divided society, and a less governable country. But in Thailand the problem is worse since the military and the courts are on the side of the Yellow shirts and against the Reds, despite that every election gives the majority to the parties of the Reds.

Perhaps not all these situations should be understood in the same way, contexts are very different and so will also the answers be to the challenges these societies face. However, the point here is that if nonviolent activism was ever the articulation a “good” people in a fight against “evil” rulers and elites, the situation today is far more complex and even contradictory. There is a necessity to elaborate on how unarmed resistance movements are linked to the construction of a different and more just society.

There seems to be a need to revisit and more critically examine the role of how these movements conduct their struggles. What is the role of the context or the kind of groups that are involved, how they organize, their strategies or how they are funded? For those of us that are interested in true human liberation the issue is acute. We have to recognize that the overthrow of a dictator is not enough, it is just a step in the work to be done.

One key problem is the role of the international community. The IMF a

nd the World Bank moves in already before the dust of the regime collapse has settled. They offer loans and support, but with conditions and terms that make the new regime prisoner to the present global financial world order. This is not easy to deal with. Also a revolutionary regime needs to pay the salaries of the state employees and the money needs to come from somewhere …

The “deep state” is difficult to get rid of. Behind every regime (that falls) there is a social, political and economic elite structure that has evolved over the centuries. They are able to influence the dynamic, especially in a situation when there is disunity and tensions within the opposition. It seems the courts, the military and the state apparatus together with the business sector are to be able to transform the revolution in their interests.

What we need is an unarmed liberation movement that addresses the ‘deep change’ of society, rather than (only) the quick fix of regime change. But what does that involve and how could it be done?

Gandhi proposed a ‘constructive program’ and emphasized that it was more important to liberation than resistance, but few within the Indian anticolonial movement understood or agreed with him. Is that what is needed?

Some propose that a nonviolent resistance movement need to have a more sophisticated and diverse strategy, more of training and preparation, in order to be effective. Few movements have more than a rudimentary knowledge of nonviolent theory and strategy. They are pragmatics and look for what is available, and trainings are difficult to carry out during repressive situations. Strategies evolve according to lived experience of what works and what does not work. And who is able to convince a repressed population that they should not hurry and not focus on how to get rid of the hated regime? Who is able to convince people that they have to work on what society they want and develop new institutions before they are ready to resist?

Often oppositional movements are surprised of the victory when it suddenly comes. Suddenly the momentum is there, people are on the streets, and the pressure builds up – and the regime falls. A revolution happened! Then the difficulties begin (again). What kind of society is it people want and how is it going to be constructed? How to form the ruling alliances and manage the tensions, different interests and aspirations?

No surprise

then that after a time of infighting between oppositional groups and fractions, after economic decline and political insecurity and international pressures, people start to long for the strong leaders that are able to create stability and progress … Like in Egypt today that elects the military coup general in a free election, and where political apathy spreads. No wonder that there is a moment when people get tired of never ending protests and unfinished processes of negotiations.

The challenges:

Basically the challenge is to find ways of how to build a sustainable society after a regime change that is (at least more) just, democratic, developed and secure for humans and their rights:

  • To deal with the divisions after a regime change (the old elites, the different social/ethnic groups and earlier tensions, etc.)

  • To find the resources and finances to run the country after regime change without being hostage to IMF and the World Bank (very few countries have succeeded to avoid the power of these finance institutions and their pressures of ‘liberalization’)

  • To prevent a counterrevolution, return to old politics or fear of (more) change in society

  • To make new alliances within and outside of the community in order to stabilize the revolution and get the needed support (Cuba as an example, had to forge ties with a whole set of new countries and stakeholders in order to survive when the US and some right wing Latin American countries decided to isolate and boycott)

  • Punishing the crimes and criminals of the previous regime and/or reconciling a society? (There is most likely a limit to how much criminal proceeding a society might take before renewed tensions arising or risks of civil war evolve. Many countries tend to not punish much at all, not making rule of law powerful and letting old elites and criminals be, even giving them seats in the new regime alliance)

  • How to avoid that the eruption of opposition against a repressive regime evolves into a chaos of different strategies by different groups and even a civil war situation? (There are those both inside and outside that might take advantage of a stalemate and existing opening, as in the civil war in Syria)


The challenges for nonviolent and antimilitarist struggles is to find ways to not just resist and counter the violent actors and structure of a present situation, but to take into account what could be done in order to avoid getting into an even more difficult situation later, when the regime control collapse and the existing elites mobilise their forces out of fear, revenge and attempts of fighting out the insecurity of a new situation.

It is basically about understanding that it is not enough to overthrow the old regime. The regime comes from somewhere, and its institutional roots and forces are not gone just because their (present) leader(s) are killed, imprisoned, absconded somewhere abroad. There was a reason for a particular configuration of social, economic, military, judicial and political forces to settle for a certain regime and to uphold it, despite their internal tensions and various interests, and in a new situation, with the (perhaps) unwilling acceptance of a (violent or nonviolent) regime change, there is a new territory to control and fight out, new alliances to make, and interests to protect. These elites have always had international connections, and these flows of resources do not stop just because a dictator is falling down. Basically, some of these elites will see a new force to make alliance with (as the business elites, IMF/WB and ‘international community’ did in the new South Africa, when ANC came to power), while others will look for other ways to restore and reconstructed version of the old regime (like in Thailand repeated times), or we might get in influx from opportunistic violent resistance groups that use the revolutionary opening to their own interests (as in Syria).

Partly the problem is, of course, a matter of how to conduct postrevolutionary governance, but partly, and that is our concern in this theme group: it is a matter of how you conduct the resistance while in opposition. Are there differences in how you can and should make the resistance in order to prevent or lessen the risk of new catastrophes after the regime change?

In that sense the theme group works on the question on the question of how to do the resistance. It is about the possibilities of going beyond mere resistance. If resistance is possible to conduct in a way that also builds the solidarity and alliances needed for the time after change.

To run a country/community has its particular challenges: to regularly paying the salaries of those that work for the government, to deal with conflict issues (in a different and more fair way), to deal with the compensations of past crimes and violations, to forge (new) alliances with other states and business sectors, to secure law and order and human safety, to stop those that take advantage of the power vacuum and tries to forge criminal activities, etc. etc

Among those that perhaps can be seen as having done their struggle differently are, for example MST and the Zapatistas. They belong to the Latin American autonomist tradition, the political trend that refuses to take over state power, and instead tries to forge less dependent societies, regenerating their own resources, and build a different society irrespective of what regime that formally controls the country. In a way that is a rejection of the whole idea of regime change. But where are those that have done their transition differently and in a way that is inspiring us to learn? Cuba? Certainly not India. But perhaps there are things to learn from South Africa? In terms of a political revolution they have quickly, even amazingly quick, consolidated their liberal democracy. However, in other respects they must be seen as mostly a failure, or...?



What is the role of the constructive program? To Gandhi it was the most important aspect of the struggle. To build your own institutions and organizations, the capacities to run schools, media production, economic activity, political decision making, yes, even cleaning of waste in the community. However, few within the Indian liberation movement understood or appreciated this effort. Most felt it was something that would be easier to do once the British were gone, and the state power in the hands of a domestically elected government. But was it? Was it easier or more difficult? What models of development and governance were developed and sustained? What leadership existed, on a national, state and local level? In our discussion we have an ongoing illustration and give examples of challenges and possibilities from West Papua.

What other cases of ongoing struggles or post-regime change situations do we have, from where we can learn?

Questions and problems to discuss:

  • What alliances matter for forging a strong opposition?

  • Is it the same kind of alliances that are needed in order to govern and develop after a regime change?

  • Could the alliances be forged in a way that serves both purposes?

  • What kind of resistance strategies are needed to effectively fight the repression and authoritarian regime?

  • Is it the same strategies that are needed to govern and develop the society towards a more just, democratic and rights-based society?

  • Could the way and forms of resistance adapt to the needs of governance and development already during the struggle?

  • What kind of models of alliances, regimes, governance and development are celebrated and evolving in the oppositional movement? Could they be refined, tried out and trained on somehow during the struggle?

  • Should the same kind of people and groups that have been successful in overthrowing a regime be the ones governing after the revolution?

  • What kind of lessons could be drawn from the present situation of regime changes, challenges and possibilities?

  • Is a negotiated outcome, where the regime and the opposition agree on a transition process, better for creating a more just, democratic and rights-based society, or is it rather more difficult (since the elites are still within the transition, having a stake and forging the terms of change)?

  • There have been some 30-50 regime changes today, as a result of unarmed popular movements. There seems to exist a tendency to have less risk of civil war and more chance of liberal democracy if the struggle is clearly nonviolent in character. But what could we learn from the differences in outcome?

Our theme group will start by making an inventory of the experiences and resources of knowledge among the participants, and then work on the theme through a problem presentation, and discussions and evaluations of experiences in different contexts. A recurrent illustration will be the struggle in West Papua. Our aim is to develop a number of recommendations and questions for movements to consider, and ideas of projects that could help us understand possible solutions.

Stellan Vinthagen

Programmes & Projects

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