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


WRI Conference, Cape Town, South Africa 5-8 July 2014

Report written by Stellan Vinthagen.

Group convening: Stellan Vinthagen, together with different resource persons each day

This theme group dealt with how to go beyond a superficial regime change that only change the top-level leadership, which might overthrow a hated authoritarian government and install a new leadership, but fail to create a just society.

The theme group work was initiated through a short theme introduction by Stellan Vinthagen and longer presentations by all participants commenting on the theme. And then, on day two, Kusta (MK Jack) presented a reflection on the South African struggle and regime change, and Stellan gave a longer exploration of the theme. From then on we made a group brainstorm on key words describing why it is so difficult to make a really different society after regime change. We had several small group discussions on WHY (regime change is not enough, and might even create new domination) and HOW we could struggle differently in order to make it more possible to create a really just, peaceful and different society after regime change. Over the days we had presentations and reflections from various participants on their struggles and experiences of both the problems and possibilities to go beyond regime change. We heard from the Palestine, US anti-apartheid movement, Western Sahara, Eritrea, Angola and South America. We took turns to make notes each day of some of the key points. However, this report consists mainly of the conclusions that the smaller discussion groups formulated on the last day.

We had a core of about 15 people that stayed on every day and worked on the theme, and then some coming and going on different days. Therefore the attendance of participants varied between 25 and 15. The people that came everyday created a continuum that made the group move towards a profound level of conclusions at the end.

This report consists of (1) a short background description of the theme area, and (2) the conclusions from the theme group discussions.

Background ot the theme of the group

[For a longer description, see]

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 % vote on the military leader Asisi in Egypt in an election that had problems to gather enough voters is the clearest example of this. But the 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 recognized 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 the 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 neo-fascists and the extreme right are getting 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 militarized 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 prison and hundreds were killed by the military in protests against the military take over.

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 and 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. Invested interests within the bureaucracy, administration, business elite and military accumulate, and influential groups and families will have something to loose from a change in society. 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 anti-colonial movement understood or agreed with him. Is that what is needed?

Partly the problem is, of course, a matter of how to conduct post-revolutionary 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?

Our conclusions

Our theme group started by making an inventory of the experiences and resources of knowledge among the participants, and then worked on the theme through a problem presentation, and discussions and evaluations of experiences in different contexts. The aim was to develop a number of recommendations and point to issues for movements to consider. Ultimately we looked for ideas of projects that could help us develop possible solutions.

We focused firstly on WHY and then on HOW: WHY is it so difficult to create a new, just and peaceful society after regime change, and HOW can we struggle differently today in order to increase the possibilities to create a new, better and a more just and peaceful society after a regime change.

Case study of South Africa: WHY did regime change not create a just society?(MK Jack)

  • During the struggle for liberation, people had a good image of the struggle and what the results should look like (non-racial society with equal rights)

  • Once money was involved, there was less of an idea of how to use these resources responsibly and less of an idea of how to implement the image (clear on image, unclear on implementation)

  • Liberation came so fast (after decades of struggle), and there was no time to debrief and re-strategize

  • Liberators who came into power have good ways of controlling the people who were previously like them (patronage; deployment)

  • There was a positive euphoria, and people wanted to stop talking about resistance and liberation. The shift from liberation to governance had no sense of continued liberation through governance

  • Leaders protect each other // corruption from the top down.

  • Outcomes post-1994 are often as bad or worse than during Apartheid

Unfortunately, the story of South Africa is not the exception to the rule. From the participants summary case presentations we learnt that:

  • INDIA: People understood civil disobedience from Ghandi. They didn’t necessarily understand the village-based economy, and urban elite and higher castes ignored this.

  • WEST SAHARA: Abandoning the tribal models during the resistance movement

  • ZIMBABWE: Ruling elite benefit from Mugabe’s changes

  • ANGOLA/SWAZILAND: Land grabs and domination from the top

  • PALESTINE: Youth and women pushed out of key leadership roles

  • SOUTH AMERICA: The opposition had no alternative society model, and gave over power to the experts, church, media, corporations and politicians, and stopped the struggle.

  • ERITREA: The military organized the whole society during the struggle (hospitals, schools, etc.), also after the national liberation. A kind of militarized constructive program evolved, in which the military became the society, or society became a military camp/prison. Uniforms and the command structure, structured everything, even its own loyal ‘civil society’.

After longer discussions on the root problems, everyone tried to give a one-word explanation on WHY it so difficult to create a new society:

Institutions, cooptation, non-criticism of ideology, participation, systems, winner takes all, recycling, elite paths, trappings of power, old habits die hard, capitalism, education, inclusiveness, permanence, difference, globalization, mobilization, expectations, difference, mind-set, regime, permanence, inclusiveness, accountability, silence, integrity (no need for rules), divide and conquer, opportunism and awareness, corruption/ethics, capitalism, education, nepotism/patronage, caste, trauma, victims become perpetrators, nature of power, Canonization / Movement cant be questioned,

After new discussions we tried to formulate the key reasons behind the recurrent failures of regime change.

CAUSES: WHY does this happen again and again?

  • The ‘Deep-state’ is not changed by a regime change that replace the top level leadership

  • Corporate and patriarchal power stays on the same as before

  • Money places a key role.

  • The state has limited capacity: Corporate power and Patriarchy is global

  • The regime change happens on a top-level, not through empowerment at grassroots

  • Oppositions are built around what they are against (not what they are for) (easier to keep alliances then, especially in a divided society, but functional for autocratic and opportunistic opposition leaders)

  • We do not deal/learn from the past in a proper way (lacking a process)

  • People change from the struggle and from being in power.

  • There is a dynamic from the opposition and elites that creates the problem (weak civil society is exploited, strong elites find ways to use power vacuum).

  • Not only the opposition might transform from leadership corruption and new pressures, but there is also elites that will change and use the new situation (there are mechanisms both within the opposition and within elites that matters)

  • We tend to elect new leadership based on their words of promises, not their know deeds and character

Having spent the first half of the theme group on the question of WHY, we now turned our focus on the HOW.

We started of by formulating OUR GOAL: We need to build new systems now while we attack and transform the system. There is no final solution, since victories are on the way (Ghandi’s Constructive Programs), but we need to move towards a more just and peaceful society.

From then on the theme group focused on developing ideas of strategies and projects, or key issues to deal with in order to counter the recurrent problems of regime change, and increase the possibilities of a truly different society, a more just and peaceful result of transition processes.

On HOW we have come up with several suggestions:

  • Constructive program (Gandhi) together with nonviolent resistance (as in MST)

  • Self-liberation

  • Local level organizing, combined with a challenge of the top-level

  • Trans-local links

  • Broad social alliances through local practical work

  • Target root problems: Power structures, not leaders

  • Build new/parallel institutions/structures while struggling at every level

  • Be the change you want to make

  • Proactive! (Not reactive)

  • Parallel resistance: against the regime and against marginalization of the new institutions

  • Don’t stop struggle after regime change

  • Link with other struggles, at all levels

  • Empower broadly at the grassroots

  • Undermine concentrated commercial media and build public, independent, credible and grassroots media

  • Try to generate your own economic resources

  • Train/diffuse power, skills, knowledge within the movement

  • Build structures of accountability at all levels, example in the movement, and in judiciary

  • Working inside the system AND outside

  • Egalitarian sharing of resources (small wage difference for leaders)

  • Develop alternative visions and models of a new society

  • Build road social alliances

  • Resist ‘divide and rule’ in the resistance

  • Always keep the door open for uniting the oppressed

  • Create spaces (both physically and ideologically) to unite sectors of society (before and after)

  • Emphasize institutions and sustainable mechanisms for education (that can’t be taken away after regime change)

  • During transition to New Regime: now the real work begins (accountability)

  • People’s history needs to consistently be recovered

  • Shift from resistance against to resistance for

  • Keen awareness of capitalist and neoliberal ‘help’: aid, World Bank, IMF

  • Build awareness of the risk of looting of the new

  • Consistant awareness raising towards “Know Your Rights”

  • Judiciary: independent and champions to uphold rule of law

  • Be critical of what needs to change and what “works” that should remain (non-discrimination, for example)

  • Safeguard independent human rights institutions => keep liberation movement in check

  • Be creators and implementers of our own solutions

  • Build and lift up the alternatives to the systems/neoliberal structures while resisting it

  • Balance construction vs. obstruction (people don’t listen until we break something but lift up and celebrate construction and nonviolent alternatives)

  • Nothing should be canonized (Besides equality and value systems), everything can be questioned. Even when we get there we are really not there!

  • In struggle mode, women count. This needs to be the case: post and during transition


  • Strong effective institutions

  • Proactive civil society

  • Education and training

  • Effective alternatives


  • Adequate and appropriate policies

  • Skills development

  • Coordination

  • Consolidation of different expectations

  • Transparency and accountability

  • Strengthening and collaboration of different stakeholders

  • Autonomy of social movements

  • Citizen participation at all levels

We did not think we had solved this urgent and difficult problem of course, although we did produce a lot of ideas for further discussions and exploration. Many questions remain, primarily how to actually be able to do the things that are suggested or recommended above … Some questions, however, did stand out:



HOW do we both resist and lift up alternatives to the system simultaneously? Will alternative models be able to continue if they become too big (ex: MST Brazil)? What can we do when the state or the resistance movement pretends to support radical reforms?


The formulations in this report is the responsibility of Stellan Vinthagen, but it would not have been possible to make without the collaborative efforts of all note-takers during the theme group.

Programmes & Projects

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