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Professor Lee Smithey Reflects on Power of Nonviolent Resistance Movements

Professor Lee Smithey Reflects on Nonviolent
Resistance Movements in Tunisia and Egypt

by Maki Somosot '12

Lee Smithey
Associate Professor of Sociology and
Coordinator of the Peace and Conflict
Studies Program Lee Smithey

Lee Smithey, associate professor of sociology and coordinator of the Peace and Conflict Studies Program, recently published an article in The Atlantic regarding the revolutionary nonviolent resistance movement that toppled the long-established authoritarian regimes in Tunisia and Egypt. The article addresses "a shared set of ideas about nonviolent resistance" from "a new generation of scholars and advocates" such as Gene Sharp, whose inspirational role in the Arab peace movement was featured in a widely-read article in the New York Times.

According to Smithey, successful nonviolent resistance can be attributed to the large-scale impact of regular citizens who withdraw from their daily activities and responsibilities, thus applying a range of economic, political, and social pressures to coerce a regime into complying. 

"As Sharp aptly puts it, political power constantly rises from below in many forms in daily life: labor, military service, civil service, traffic patterns, going to school, voting, etc.," says Smithey. "Once enough people decide to stop doing those things on which the regime relies for its credibility and functioning, the regime becomes a kind of hollow shell."

Sharp is based at the Albert Einstein Institution, whose papers the College's Peace Collection recently acquired. "The world is becoming increasingly aware of the power and proliferation of nonviolent strategy over the last century," Smithey says, "and Swarthmore hosts the professional papers of the father of the academic field, after Gandhi perhaps, who was both scholar and practitioner."

In his article, Smithey also proposes that the uprisings were already "local phenomena" that Egyptians and Tunisians had been organizing for years, contrary to the New York Times article that holds Sharp implicitly accountable for the movement.

"Determined resisters often find space or methods for that kind of work in even the most authoritarian settings, but it is still challenging, and as we have seen in the Middle East, opportunities sometimes present themselves unexpectedly," said Smithey. "The Egyptian opposition took advantage of Tunisians' uprising, and as it turns out, enough Egyptian organizers were ready."

Smithey acknowledges Facebook's influential role in spreading ideas of nonviolent resistance, but was quick to point out that the knowledge base was already in place.

"Social media has almost certainly helped accelerate the spread of theoretical knowledge about how and why nonviolent resistance works, but that information was spreading long before social media arrived on the scene," added Smithey, stating that there is much room for debate and for further learning about social media in nonviolent resistance.

"Modern media also spreads information about particular struggles. Have we not all been glued to Al Jazeera and the BBC of late?"