"Sometimes Rebels Have No Choice but to Take Up Arms."
Not true. The current civil conflict in Libya, it's easy to forget now, began with nonviolent protests in Benghazi around Feb. 15. The demonstrations were summarily crushed, and by Feb. 19, oppositionists had responded by taking up arms, killing or capturing hundreds of Qaddafi's mercenaries and regime loyalists. In his infamous Feb. 22 speech, Qaddafi said, "Peaceful protest is one thing, but armed rebellion is another," and threatened to go "house by house" in search of the rebel "rats." Few civilians would be willing to participate in unarmed resistance after such threats, and what had begun as a peaceful movement unequivocally became an exclusively violent rebellion. It appears now to have been a success, but one that came at an enormous cost: Although an accurate death toll for the conflict is thus far impossible to come by, some counts midway through the war put the casualties as high as 13,000 deaths.
Could it have been otherwise? Hindsight is 20/20, of course, but if Libya's activists had a chance to evaluate their experience, they may have recognized a few mistakes. First, the movement appeared to have been fairly spontaneous, unlike the well-planned, highly coordinated campaign in Egypt. Second, the nonviolent movement may have focused too much on a single tactic -- protests -- to pursue its aims. When movements rely exclusively on rallies or protests, they become extremely predictable: sitting ducks for regime repression. Successful movements will combine protests and demonstrations with well-timed strikes, boycotts, go-slows, stay-aways, and other actions that force the regime to disperse its repression in unsustainable ways. For example, during the Iranian Revolution, oil workers went on strike, threatening to cripple the Iranian economy. The shah's security forces went to the oil workers' homes and dragged them back to the refineries -- at which point the workers worked at half-pace before staging another walkout. This level of repression required to force the masses to work against their will is untenable because it requires a massive coordination of regime resources and effort.
In fact, what we know from previous cases, such as Iran, is that the kind of violent reprisal Qaddafi used against the nonviolent uprising at the outset is often unsustainable against coordinated nonviolent movements over time. Moreover, the rebels' nearly immediate turn to violent resistance evoked the strongest reaction from Qaddafi, and it immediately excluded large numbers of people who might have been willing to regroup and brave the streets against Qaddafi but who had no interest in joining what was sure to become a nasty fight. Before NATO lent its support, the largest gains the Libyan opposition made were during the nonviolent phase of the uprising, which involved massive protests that shut down the country, elicited numerous defections from key regime functionaries, and even led to the taking of Benghazi without significant bloodshed. But once the rebels reacted to Qaddafi's repression by taking up arms, they required NATO intervention to stand a chance.
Or consider Syria, where the decision to use violence or not is similarly wrenching. In August, following months of peaceful mass protests, Assad ordered a full-scale military bombardment of Hama, a largely Sunni city known for an armed Islamist uprising that was even more brutally crushed in the 1980s, and other opposition strongholds across the country. Time to grab your gun, right?
Even in such cases, nonviolent movements have choices. They could respond to regime violence by switching tactics. In fact, Syrian activists have been doing this well, avoiding regime repression by using flash mobs and nighttime protests, which are more difficult to repress. Daytime protests are now well-planned, with multiple escape routes and mirrors to blind snipers trying to shoot protesters. Syrian activists have also so far largely avoided the temptation to respond to regime provocations with violence -- a critical decision, not only because taking up arms may undermine their domestic bases of participation and support, but also because it makes security forces more likely to obey orders to repress the movement. Because the regime has expelled journalists and cut off electricity in cities under siege, Syrian activists charge their laptops using car batteries and make fake IDs to get close to security forces so they can document human rights abuses and share them online. The continued mobilization resulting from these acts may help the opposition forge indispensable links with regime elites.
Nonviolent resistance is, in effect, a form of asymmetric warfare. Dictators predictably rely on their perceived advantages in brute force to defeat challengers. It's best to fight the enemy where you have an advantage -- in this case, people power, unpredictability, adaptability, and creativity -- rather than where he does.