Backfire in the Arab Spring

By Erica Chenoweth | Assistant Professor - Weslyan University | Sep 1, 2011
Flickr user Nasser Nouri
Flickr user Nasser Nouri
Backfire in the Arab Spring

Governments in the Middle East and North Africa have long relied on repression to intimidate, harass, and punish political opponents. During the Arab uprisings, dictators under threat have all ordered and used violence against peaceful protestors as a way to maintain power. But this repression has had widely divergent effects on the course of the different conflicts.

In Tunisia, Egypt, and Syria, government repression has not destroyed the movements and, indeed, may have breathed new life into them. In Libya and Yemen, government repression led people to more or less abandon nonviolent resistance, opting to take up arms instead. And in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and elsewhere, repression seems to have slowed or ended the uprisings there. What explains these divergent outcomes?

In this article, I describe how the Tunisian, Egyptian, Libyan, and Bahraini governments during the Arab Spring resorted to deadly force to quell dissent. I use preliminary evidence from these cases to pull out three major lessons for why repression sometimes backfired and other times did not: the importance of nonviolent discipline, publicity, and the invasion of foreign troops.


Ben ‘Ali’s dictatorship in Tunisia was the first to fall. The weeks-long protests, demonstrations, strikes, and rallies that began in mid-December 2010 have inspired similar uprisings throughout the Middle East and North Africa, as well as in Europe, Latin America, and East Asia.

In many ways, the Tunisian uprising was also the swiftest and most decisive of the Arab Spring revolts. Lasting just over three weeks, the uprising dislodged Ben ‘Ali’s regime as if it had always been fragile, although just three years before, the regime had crushed a coal miner’s strike in Gafsa in 2008.

Why was the “Jasmine Revolution” of 2011 different? Many observers have claimed that the uprising was swift and successful because security forces sided with the protestors. While true in the end, mass defections among the security forces only took place after security forces attempted to break the back of the uprising through brutal repression. Over 200 civilians died during the campaign in various incidents, and hundreds more were critically wounded. An especially high proportion of deaths occurred in the relatively small town of Ezzouhour, where security forces opened fire on a large crowd of peaceful demonstrators demanding that Ben ‘Ali step down.[1]

Although security forces had relied mostly on water cannons, rubber bullets, beatings, and arrests during the first several weeks of the uprising, they began to use live ammunition on January 8. During the next five days, snipers from an elite unit shot and killed 21 protesters in Kasserine and Thala. Reports vary as to why the regime ordered the switch to lethal force, but it appears that the snipers were attempting to either force people to return to their homes, or to provoke a violent response from protestors to justify even heavier crackdowns.[2]

Instead of achieving either of these outcomes, these killings backfired, provoking such outrage in Tunisia that fresh demonstrations erupted throughout the entire country.[3] Huge numbers of people joined the opposition, launching symbolic funeral marches, protests, rallies, and sit-ins.

Unwilling to surrender, Ben ‘Ali ordered air strikes against dissidents, including in Ezzouhour, two days before he stepped down. This time, however, the order was not obeyed. Seeing the endgame draw near, the security forces refused to implement his orders and put pressure on him to step aside. Having lost this crucial pillar of support, Ben ‘Ali had no choice but to flee the country, effectively ending his 23-year rule. This was not a case of a reluctant oppressor falling easily to a mass uprising. It was a case of a dictator who had lost legitimacy among civilians and authority over his own security forces because of mass mobilization.


The Egyptian revolution displays a similar pattern to Tunisia. The uprising began in earnest on January 25, after years of frustrated attempts by pro-democracy activists to mobilize the masses against President Husni Mubarak’s rule. After weeks of dramatic sit-ins, clashes with security forces, and resistance against agents provocateurs, the largely nonviolent revolution succeeded in forcing Mubarak to leave, although the military’s transitional administration has continued to face pressure from pro-democracy demonstrators to implement swift and meaningful reforms.

While some observers claim that the Egyptian army was neutral during the conflict, members of the Interior Ministry, the feared mukhabarhat, were certainly not. Over 800 people died and many thousands suffered serious injuries at the hands of Husni Mubarak’s security forces before he left office on February 11.[4] Moreover, the army’s ruling government has continued to repress protestors even after Mubarak’s departure. Thus, it is clear that from the beginning, the security forces have been (and remain) willing and able to use violence against unarmed demonstrators.

When the uprising began on January 25, protestors were met with force from the state security apparatus. Home videos taken during the conflict show police beating and shooting protestors. Videos of security forces torturing activists in detention centers surfaced and were shared using the internet.

Mubarak’s regime was able to shut down the internet on January 26, presumably to reduce activists’ ability to communicate with one another about how events were unfolding. But this action backfired, as tens of thousands of people, no longer glued to their computers, went outside and joined the demonstrations. For the next several days, the crowd gathered at Cairo’s Tahrir Square swelled to include millions of people, who set up tents, refreshment stations, and even portable latrines, to give the gathering staying power. Meanwhile, Egypt’s other major cities, including Alexandria, saw mobilization increasing despite deadly repression by security forces.

In a dramatic turn, on February 2, pro-Mubarak demonstrators began to attack peaceful protestors in Cairo, riding into the Square on camels and horses, swinging sticks, swords, and clubs through the crowd. Many were suspected of being plain-clothes policeman. The army stood by while mayhem ensued. Hundreds were hurt, and for a rattling 24 hours, the fate of the uprising hung in the balance.

But many immediately sensed that Mubarak was relying on agents provocateurs, whose violence was meant to sow divisions within the opposition and cause some to retaliate with violence, giving the army a good excuse to surround and attack the demonstrators. Mubarak’s strategy backfired. Instead of intimidating the crowd and dividing the opposition, on February 4, hundreds of thousands of people descended on Tahrir Square to show their unity and solidarity with those who had been attacked. Indeed, their unity was well-represented by a mammoth multifaith Sunday mass on February 6, followed by even greater protests on February 10 after Mubarak announced that he would not resign. As it turned out, he did not have a choice. In the months and years leading to the uprising, few experts would have guessed that the Egyptian army would have remained “neutral” in such a fight, or that Mubarak would have left his position without bloodshed. But the actions of millions of unarmed protestors demonstrated to the army that Mubarak’s days were numbered. After his defiant speech on February 10, the army informed him that he must leave his post. On February 11, the army announced Mubarak’s departure.


In contrast to the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, the Libyan conflict has a much different trajectory. Inspired by events in Tunisia and Egypt, people in Libya’s western city of Benghazi began to protest Colonel Mu‘ammar al-Qadhafi’s grip on power on February 15. The protests were fairly spontaneous, and as such, were not prepared for the level of violence that Qadhafi unleashed on them. On February 17, security forces killed 14 protestors in Benghazi. The next day during a funeral procession for one of the victims, clashes between the funeral marchers and the security forces began, with police killing 24 protestors and protestors killing two policemen.

After that, violence quickly escalated on both sides of the struggle. Police and army defectors joined the resistance in nearby Al Bayda and Darnah and attacked Qadhafi’s security forces, forcing them to surrender the city to the opposition. But the next day, Qadhafi solicited the help of foreign mercenaries, whom he airlifted into contested zones in Benghazi and Al Bayda. Opposition forces engaged the mercenaries with arms, resulting in hundreds of deaths on both sides.

By February 20, the conflict had spread to the city of Misrata as well as to other cities throughout the country. Qadhafi’s Interior Minister, General ‘Abdul Fatah Yunis, defected to the opposition and began to command the opposition forces against Qadhafi. Misrata Airport fell under his control, and opposition force began to arm themselves with weapons abandoned by fleeing soldiers.

Qadhafi responded to these developments with still worse violence. On February 22, he broadcast a speech over television, in which he threatened to go house to house to find and kill those using arms against his regime. Although this speech was often interpreted as a threat to peaceful civilian protestors, the text of the speech makes clear that Qadhafi was referring to those who were killing his security forces, remarking that “peaceful protest is one thing, but armed rebellion is something else.” Indeed, he immediately took action on his threat, attacking armed and unarmed oppositionists and civilians alike with heavy artillery, air strikes, raids, and automatic gunfire.

But by this time, civil resistance actions, like nonviolent protests and demonstrations, had largely ceased, with the campaign now falling to armed rebels. They were at a major force disadvantage, and after heavy bombing, Qadhafi’s forces launched a counteroffensive beginning March 6, retaking a number of cities and flattening others. On March 17, to avoid the anticipated humanitarian crisis about to unfold in Libya, the UN Security Council authorized a no-fly zone over Libya to prevent Qadhafi’s relentless air strikes from continuing and opening the door for a NATO intervention. French warplanes began attacking loyalist positions on March 19, marking the beginning of a months-long multilateral military intervention involving most major NATO players.

However, it was not until over five months later, in late August 2011, that the Libyan uprising came to a head. During weeks of major offensives, the rebels succeeded in retaking strategic towns and cities along the Libyan coast, making a steady advance over Qadhafi’s stronghold in Tripoli. On August 22, the rebels advanced on Tripoli, overtaking it easily after a mass nonviolent uprising there the day before, which had shaken off the regime and forced Qadhafi to retreat. Although Qadhafi remains at large, the rebels declared victory, and the difficult tasks of stabilizing the country, re-establishing the monopoly on force, and rebuilding their government has begun.


Inspired by the uprisings sweeping across the Arab world, Bahraini civilians began to mobilize against the ruling Al Khalifa family, a decades-old Sunni monarchy widely perceived as corrupt and unjust by the country’s majority Shi‘a population. The uprising, which lasted about a month, began with considerable optimism, as Bahraini police appeared unwilling to repress the people collecting in the Pearl Roundabout, a national symbol of solidarity. However, in the early morning hours on February 17, Bahraini police followed the typical pattern of attacking unarmed protesters gathered there, killing multiple people. This initial wave of protest followed the pattern of Tunisia and Egypt: more Bahrainis, not less, began to rise up against the government.

Although the Al Khalifa regime offered some partial concessions, including the opportunity to engage in a dialogue with opposition leaders, protestors continued their standoff with increasing vehemence. But on March 15, Al Khalifa declared martial law, imposing emergency curfews, banning public gatherings and demonstrations, and ordering people to disperse from the Pearl Roundabout. Instead of relying on police to implement these orders, Bahrain called on troops and police from neighboring Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to enforce the emergency law. Such troops had far less hesitation in cracking down on protestors, particularly motivated by the fact that many of those leading the pro-democracy movement were Shi‘a. The regime also began to target and harass medical workers, identifying them as aiding the enemy and arresting them for sedition. These actions shocked and terrified those participating in the movement, and opposition activities ground to a near halt. In the case of Bahrain, instead of giving the movement the upper hand, Bahraini repression effectively terminated the movement’s momentum and drove opposition leaders underground.

Lessons Learned: When Does Regime Repression Backfire?

Although in-depth research is needed, a cursory look at these cases reveals a few patterns.

Importance of Remaining Nonviolent. Repression only backfired when the movements remained nonviolent in spite of regime provocations. In Egypt and Tunisia, the vast majority of activists refused to respond to violence with violence, even though the regimes deliberately attempted to provoke them into taking up arms. Because the protesters avoided violence, they did not physically threaten the police and military, allowing the military to remain neutral. Moreover, they were able to maintain the moral high ground domestically and internationally. In addition, Egyptian and Tunisian people were outraged when the regimes cracked down violently against unarmed civilians. People who had been “on the fence” about the movements soon saw that the regime was out of bounds and began to support the uprisings. If the movements in Egypt and Tunisia had been violent, on the other hand, the people may have seen this repression as self-defense, even if they had sympathized with the movements’ cause. This is why both Ben ‘Ali and Mubarak tried to blame the unrest on small, armed bands — a claim also repeated by Qadhafi in Libya, Bashar al-Asad in Syria, and Hamad Al Khalifa in Bahrain. What happens when movements do not remain nonviolent? One needs only look to Libya to find the answer. In this case, Qadhafi’s repression during the first three days of the peaceful uprisings led the people to take up arms. Notably, however, this development also forced many oppositionists back into their homes, no longer willing to risk exposure to violent battles in the streets. Although many people argue that Qadhafi would have continued to mow down unarmed protestors even if they had not turned to violence, the major gains achieved prior to the NATO intervention (such as high-level defections and the largely nonviolent overtaking of Benghazi) occurred before the rebels took up arms. And once they did take up arms, Qadhafi’s repression became a literal battle to the death — a battle in which Qadhafi’s capabilities clearly outnumbered the rebels’. In fact, the divergent cases in the Arab Spring follow a familiar pattern. Maria J. Stephan and I recently completed a study that shows that out of over 100 major nonviolent uprisings between 1900 and 2006, almost 90% of these campaigns experienced violent repression. Among those, many experienced repression at a similar level to that currently occurring in Syria, yet 50% of these campaigns ultimately prevailed because the government’s repression ultimately backfired. This is compared with violent uprisings, which only succeeded against dictators about 25% of the time. These movements, which have to fight force with force, are typically at a serious force disadvantage and must rely on external support, such as NATO air power in the case of Libya, to stand a chance. Paradoxically, as the Libyan case shows us, it is easier for dictators to deal with armed movements. They simply crush them with force with little risk of backfire. But nonviolent movements are much more disconcerting for them, because their normal methods of confrontation are at risk of backfiring. That said, we know that nonviolent discipline is not enough. The Bahraini movement did not respond with violence, yet repression crushed this movement anyway.

Importance of Publicity. Repression can only backfire when people are aware of — and disgusted by — the regime’s abuses. If repression is not documented in some way, it is very easy for the regime to deny its involvement. This is why the various regimes, including Syria, have gone to great pains to harass domestic journalists, expel foreign journalists, shut down electricity and internet service, and repress people with cell phones and other mobile technologies. In Syria, this has been fairly successful, as some people in Damascus allegedly continued to deny that a national uprising was even occurring until six months into the uprising when protests and demonstrations began in the capital city. Although social media has provided an alternative venue through which to publicize atrocities, internet communications are also vulnerable to regime manipulation. In Egypt and Syria, the regimes have actually disabled cellular and internet services. However, in both cases, activists had alternative ways to communicate abuses to alert domestic audiences — arguably the most important constituency — such as flyers, leaflets, and hand-outs with pictures. Activists in Syria continue to videotape grisly cases and share them by showing them to others on computers. The lesson learned here is that backfire occurs only when repression is widely known, and when ordinary people become unwilling to tolerate it anymore. And for that to occur, movements need to be creative about how to gain publicity, even when normal channels of communication are closed off.

Importance of Security Force Loyalties. Repression backfired when the soldiers and police enforcing regime brutality can relate to the protestors in some way. In Tunisia and Egypt, security forces were unwilling to indefinitely repress their fellow countrymen, although they were willing to repress them for a while. In Bahrain and Libya, the Al Khalifa and Qadhafi regimes brought in outside forces (including mercenaries) to quell dissent, perhaps recognizing that loyalty shifts were far less likely to occur among those than among local troops, who may have loyalties to family, neighborhood, and tribe. Does this mean that civil resistance campaigns that face foreign armies are doomed to fail? Not necessarily. Over the past century, there are many cases of successful resistance against foreign occupations (such as Gandhi’s independence movement in India and the East Timorese liberation struggle against Indonesia), although in these cases provoking security force defections was difficult. In general, nonviolent campaigns should avoid confronting foreign security forces by shifting to more dispersed methods, like strikes, that remove the opportunity for the imported troops to crack down, or by focusing on creating cracks within the civilian bureaucracy and among economic elites. In Bahrain, for instance, although expatriates from Asia make up the majority of the labor workforce, Bahraini nationals make up 43% of the workforce, which is largely concentrated in the public sector and in the petroleum industry. As in the Iranian Revolution of 1977–1979, if oil workers or civilian bureaucrats withdraw their support from the regime through a general strike, it could be crippling to the state. The other option is to simply retreat, wait, regroup, and when the foreign troops go home, relaunch. Foreign powers like Saudi Arabia might be willing to take decisive action like this occasionally, but probably not regularly. And in Libya, Qadhafi’s reliance on mercenaries did not end up working for him either. Mercenaries are expensive and, in this case, their repression of the Libyan people deeply offended many in that country and around the world.

In sum, despite failures in Libya and Bahrain, the Tunisian and Egyptian cases show that, paradoxically, a ruler’s reliance on repression may also be the source of the regime’s greatest weakness. Repression is costly. Regimes must pay police and soldiers to do their jobs — and as the risk of the job goes up, the pay must also increase to keep these workers coming back. Politically, repression can undermine the legitimacy of the government, while simultaneously creating even more grievances against the government — grievances that, if widely shared, can cost a dictator his throne.

But opposition leaders must bear in mind the importance of maintaining nonviolent discipline, publicizing regime abuses, and evading direct confrontations with foreign troops in order to elicit the backfire that can dislodge these leaders.

[1]. “Ben Ali Ordered Air Strikes on Tunisia, Says Probe,” Agence France Press, April 13, 2011,


[2]. Yasmine Ryan, “The Massacre Behind the Revolution,” Al-Jazeera English, February 16, 2011,


[3]. “Timeline: Tunisia’s Uprising,” Al-Jazeera English, January 23, 2011,


[4]. “Egypt: Cairo’s Tahrir Square Fills with Protestors,” BBC News, July 8, 2011,

[R]epression has had widely divergent effects on the course of the different conflicts.