Nonviolent Resistance in the Arab Spring: The Critical Role of Military-Opposition Alliances


In recent decades, we have seen an increase in “people power” movements that use civil resistance to challenge authoritarian regimes. From the 1986 ousting of Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos to the recent uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, these movements have demonstrated that citizens are able to overturn long-standing dictatorships without violence. While these movements struggle for regime change, they are distinct from the “classic revolutions” of the past, both in terms of their character and strategy. As Timothy Garton Ash put it, classic revolutions are “violent, utopian, professedly class-based, and characterized by a progressive radicalization, culminating in terror” while unarmed revolutions are “nonviolent, anti-utopian, based not on a single class but on broad social coalitions, and characterized by the application of mass social pressure—‘people power’—to bring the current powerholders to negotiate” (2009: 19).

Yet how do nonviolent movements succeed when they rise up against highly repressive rulers? Why are some movements victorious while others are defeated? In this article, I analyze the dynamics of nonviolent resistance in three Arab Spring cases: Tunisia, Egypt, and Syria. While several factors shaped these movements’ abilities to usher in regime change, I focus specifically on the role of the armed forces. I argue that the military’s decision to remain loyal to the regime or to side with civil resisters heavily shaped the outcomes of these Arab Spring uprisings.

Nonviolent Civil Resistance

Although nonviolent revolutionary movements are qualitatively different from violent revolutions, they generally arise from the same conditions. Such movements erupt when there are widespread grievances against the state and elites shift their allegiance from the regime to the opposition. Moreover, certain events – such as a brutal crackdown or an assassination of an opposition figure – often transforms longstanding grievances into moral outrage, which may make citizens willing to act. But indignation is not enough. There must also be a culture of resistance that situates this anger within a broader ideological critique of the regime. Moreover, there must be mobilizing organizations that can coordinate and direct the rebellion (Goldstone 2001, 2009).

Once underway, nonviolent revolutions display different dynamics than violent revolutions. The most obvious difference is that they rely on divergent tactics and strategies. The strategy of nonviolent resistance has been well articulated by political theorist Gene Sharp (1973, 2010). Drawing on the ideas of Thoreau and Gandhi, Sharp argues that no government can exist without the obedience and consent of the governed. Therefore, even ruthless dictators can be overthrown nonviolently if an oppressed population withholds cooperation, making it impossible for a regime to function.

How do civil resisters accomplish this? According to Sharp, citizens have six types of power that they can withdraw from a regime. First, citizens can refuse to grant legitimacy to a ruler. This may happen, for example, when a population rejects the results of a fraudulent election, making it difficult for the proclaimed ruler to gain credibility at home and abroad. Second, people can contest ideologies of obedience that encourage submission to the government. This may occur as religious leaders interpret scripture to support resistance, as Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. did during the U.S. civil rights movement, or as opposition leaders recast nationalism to encourage rebellion. Third, citizens can refuse to cooperate with a regime, as the Danish did when Nazi forces ordered them to turn over all Jewish residents. Fourth, citizens can withdraw their material resources from a regime by refusing to pay taxes or purchase government goods and services. Fifth, a population can undermine a regime’s ability to function by withholding its skills and labor through a general strike. Sixth, citizens can subvert a ruler’s sanctioning power – either by undermining the loyalty of the state security forces and encouraging mutiny or by refusing to be deterred by punishments and repression. If a civil resistance movement can systematically withdraw these various forms of support, then the regime can no longer operate and will collapse.

But which of these strategic actions matter most for nonviolent movements? Two recent studies conclude that a key factor is whether regimes’ sanctioning power is depleted through security force defections (Stephan and Chenoweth 2008; Nepstad 2011). While defections have no measureable effect on the outcome of armed struggles, Chenoweth and Stephan found that nonviolent revolutionary movements are 46 times more likely to succeed when security force defections occur. Why? When police are unwilling to attack or arrest protesters, and when mutinous soldiers no longer protect rulers, even the most tyrannical leaders are left powerless and vulnerable.

The Role of the Military in the Arab Spring Uprisings

Building upon the nonviolence literature’s emphasis on security force defections, I examine the role this factor played in several Arab Spring uprisings. Specifically, I emphasize how the military’s decision to side with civil resisters or the state has shaped the struggle in the following three nations: 1) Tunisia and 2) Egypt, where authoritarian rulers were successful deposed; and 3) Syria, where some defections have occurred but the regime has managed to retain power.


The Tunisian uprising emerged because citizens suffered from an ailing economy, a corrupt regime, and lack of political freedoms. Yet there had been little resistance to President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali during his 23-year-rule. What transformed popular discontent into resistance was an atrocity that occurred on December 17, 2010. On this date, a young vegetable vendor had his cart confiscated by police since he did not have a license to operate. When he was unable to recover the cart or appeal to officials, he set himself on fire. A few days later, a couple others committed suicide in response to the bleak economic situation. Protests erupted and escalated, expanding to several cities. By early January 2011, people from various socioeconomic backgrounds joined the protests. Thousands of lawyers and teachers went on strike. In response to the unrest, the regime imposed a curfew but few protesters complied with it. Despite widespread strikes and demonstrations, Ben Ali did not resign. However, when Army Chief Rachid Ammar refused orders to shoot civilians, Ben Ali realized that he had no means of enforcing his rule and thus he fled to Saudia Arabia on January 14 (Kirkpatrick 2011).


Inspired by the success of the Tunisian movement, Egyptian civil resisters mobilized in response to deteriorating economic conditions, police brutality, corruption and political repression. Their primary aim, however, was to oust President Hosni Mubarak, who had ruled Egypt for 30 years. Opposition organizers held their first demonstration on January 25, 2011. Widely publicized through social media networks, tens of thousands turned out. The regime responded by blocking the internet and sending out troops. When this failed to stop the demonstrations, Mubarak made several concessions, including a promise to not seek re-election. Civil resisters were not appeased and protests continued. During this time, the military began siding with the opposition. On January 29, soldiers refused to shoot at civil resisters; a couple days later, the military made a public statement that it would not use force to crush the movement (Black, Shenker, and McGreal 2011). Mubarak tried to retain his dwindling power by making further concessions – such as the replacement of his entire cabinet, the transfer of responsibilities to his Vice President, and a 15 percent increase in state pensions and salaries (McGreal and Tran 2011). It was not enough. Civil resisters wanted Mubarak to leave. When he refused, they launched a labor strike. On February 11, 2011, with several hundred thousand protesters refusing to back down and the military poised to oust him, Mubarak resigned.


Just as the Egyptian revolt erupted, Syrians began protesting high unemployment rates, declining standards of living, human rights abuses, and nearly 50 years of emergency rule that had severely restricted political freedoms. The Syrian state – which is solely controlled by the Baath Party, headed by President Bashar al-Assad – had kept a lid on protest through its emergency measures. However, on January 26, a citizen set himself on fire, imitating the immolation that sparked the Tunisian uprising. Subsequently, opposition organizers called upon citizens to attend the “Day of Rage” protest. Over the next weeks, small demonstrations took place but they were quickly crushed by the military. However, by late March 2011, hundreds of thousands protested in cities across Syria. With expanded resistance came expanded repression; the military used tanks and snipers to clear the demonstrations. While President Bashar al-Assad also made concessions, he relied mostly on violence as a tool of control. The result: thousands of civil resisters have been killed since the uprising emerged (Van Dam 2011).

Disturbed by orders to attack unarmed civilians, troops began defecting during the summer of 2011. One base in the northern town of Jisr al-Shughour saw half its soldiers defect (Chulov 2011). What has happened to these soldiers? Some have fled, seeking asylum abroad. Others have been publicly executed by the Syrian state (Owen 2011). And some formed the Free Syrian Army, which aims to overthrow Assad’s rule through an armed struggle (Sly 2011). Yet the overall number of defectors is still quite small, estimated at a few thousand (Oweis 2011; Karam 2011). This is miniscule compared to the 220,000 member Syrian military (Maclean 2011). Because most soldiers have remained loyal to the Assad regime, the uprising has been unable to succeed.


In comparing the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, and Syria, we see that in all three cases, civil resisters used the standard “weapons” of strategic nonviolence including mass demonstrations, general strikes, non-cooperation, and civil disobedience. But this was not enough. Consistent with other studies of nonviolent revolts (Chenoweth and Stephan 2011; Nepstad 2011), one factor distinguishing the successful movements from the (currently) unsuccessful Syrian case is whether the military as an institution shifted allegiance from the state to the opposition. In Tunisia and Egypt, long-standing rulers were deposed just days after the armed forces sided with civil resisters. In Syria, the majority of troops have remained loyal, diligently carrying out orders to repress the resistance, and hence the Assad regime has retained power. Yet the situation appears to be shifting: now that some defectors have taken up arms, Syria may be moving toward civil war, as happened in the Libyan struggle against Muammar Gaddafi.

Based on these observations, I propose the following theoretical premises:

  • 1 Nonviolent revolutionary movements that win the support of the regime’s military institution are likely to achieve regime change (e.g. Tunisia, Egypt).
  • 2 Nonviolent revolutionary movements that do not win the support of the regime’s military institution are unlikely to achieve regime change (e.g. Syria).
  • 3 In nonviolent revolutionary struggles, if military personnel are comprised of different ethnic or religious groups that have unequal power relations to the regime, the likelihood that the military as a whole will side with the opposition movement is low (Syria).
  • 4 In nonviolent revolutionary struggles, when military defectors take up armed struggle against the state, the nonviolent aspect of the struggle will dissipate and the nation will likely slide into civil war (Libya and potentially Syria).

I am not suggesting that defections and mutiny are the only significant factors in the outcome of these movements. Clearly, international pressures helped force Ben Ali and Mubarak out of office (Gardener 2011; Ritter, forthcoming in 2013), just as various structural factors contributed to their demise (Goodwin 2011). Moreover, the involvement of the military in these regime change processes can generate new problems as civil resisters work to establish democratic regimes. Thus it is clear that winning over the armed forces is not a panacea that guarantees a happy ending for each nonviolent uprising. Nonetheless, because this factor did play a role in the outcome of the Tunisian, Egyptian and Syrian movements, it merits closer attention.

As we give closer attention to the pivotal role of armed forces in these citizen-based revolutionary movements, one of the main questions that we need to ask is: what leads troops to jump ship? Binnendijk and Marovic (2006) argue that the military is likely to side with an opposition movement when there is a combination of incentives to defect (such as the hope for improved status and material wellbeing under a new regime) and deterrents against carrying out orders to repress (such as global broadcasting of any attacks on civil resisters, which might induce significant political costs to the state). In my own study of nonviolent revolutions in the late 20th century, I proposed that troops may be less reliable and more likely to defect if: a) they share a common ethnic or religious identity with civil resisters but not with regime leaders; b) they know others who are defecting; c) if resisters remain nonviolent, thereby making repression difficult to justify; and d) if troops do not derive any direct benefits from the regime (Nepstad 2011).

Did any of these conditions contribute to mutiny in the Tunisian, Egyptian, and Syrian cases? Current media coverage of Syrian defections indicates that sectarian religious identities may be playing a role. Approximately 11 percent of Syrians are Alawite, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, while an estimated 75 percent are Sunni (Van Dam 2011). Although they are a minority, Alawites hold most political positions and disproportionately fill the ranks of military commanders and security chiefs. In contrast, the military rank-and-file are largely Sunni conscripts. These conscripts are more likely to identify with the mostly Sunni civil resisters rather than with the Alawite-dominated state, which increases their odds of defecting.

Sectarian identities may also explain why the Syrian military as a whole has not jumped ship. The Alawite officers who control the military are unlikely to oppose Assad since their fate is tied to his. If Assad is deposed, Alawite dominance and privilege is likely to be lost, too. Thus the current concern is less about whether the Syrian military will abandon Assad and more about whether the military will split into opposing armed factions (Maclean 2011). If this happens, then Syrians are likely facing a protracted civil war.

The Egyptian case further underscores the premise that the military’s decision of whether to remain loyal to the regime is influenced by what it can potentially gain or lose. In Syria, Alawite officers remain loyal in order to preserve their privilege. In Egypt, military officers may have jumped ship to avoid losing financial assets. Over the past decades, the Egyptian military has not limited its focus to security matters; it has also acquired valuable real estate and numerous industries. By one estimate, the military commands up to 40 percent of the Egyptian economy (Hammer 2011). Before the events of 2011, Egyptian officers expressed concern about President Mubarak’s plan to appoint his son Gamal as his successor. If Gamal took office, many believed that he would implement privatization policies that would dismantle the military’s business holdings. Thus there was a financial incentive for the military to side with civil resisters to force the Mubarak regime out.

We know less about the reasons behind the Tunisian military’s decision to support the revolution. Some speculate that it is because Tunisia’s military is one of the smallest and poorest in the region and, unlike the Syrian military, it is comprised of officers from the entire socio-economic spectrum. Other analysts emphasize that the Tunisian military has an established tradition of being apolitical. That is, the military has been committed to providing stability and security to Tunisian citizens, not supporting a particular political party or agenda (Cook 2011; Kirkpatrick). Thus it appears that the Tunisian military had neither political nor economic interests at stake that would predispose it to uphold Ben Ali’s regime during the uprising.


Further research is needed to fully understand why militaries remain loyal or side with civil resisters during these types of political conflicts. Yet based on the reasons I explore in this article, one might ask if civil resisters have any influence at all on the path the military chooses. Is it merely about what the armed forces have to gain or lose if a regime collapses? Is it only about sectarian identities that may cause individual soldiers to sympathize with protesters?

I argue that civil resisters played a critical role in the following ways. First, it was these activists’ tactics of nonviolent disruption that created national crises, which in turned forced the military to choose sides. Second, the nonviolent discipline that most civil resisters demonstrated increased the likelihood that troops would defect. If resisters had used violence, troops may have accepted the regime’s view that these were radical terrorists. But the fact that most civil resisters were nonviolent made it difficult to justify the use of force. As one Syrian defector stated, he had been told by the regime that they were fighting heavily armed terrorists who were supported by foreign interests. When he realized that the protesters were unarmed civilians, he felt the regime had deceived him and he could not bring himself to shoot reasonable citizens who had reasonable demands (Chulov 2011). Finally, through their innovative use of technology and social media sources, activists – especially in Egypt – increased the potential political costs that the military would incur if it sided with the regime and violently attacked civil resisters. Since the whole world was watching, this type of crackdown would surely have elicited international condemnation and the potential end to diplomatic relations, trade agreements, and aid. In short, although there were other considerations involved, nonviolent resisters’ actions added new incentives and deterrents that undoubtedly helped the Tunisian and Egyptian militaries decide to support the revolutions.