Rusty Nelson: On Peace and War

Reprinted from the March-April Handful of Salt

The way people mark significant events in increments of centuries makes it hard to consider something a part of history until 25 years has passed. Many Americans found it easy, in January, to frame memories of the Shuttle Challenger disaster in terms of a quarter of a century. For me, that context was even more compelling because I remember learning of the NASA tragedy after returning to my parents’ home from the cemetery where my father had been buried on the coldest day I ever spent in Winder, Georgia.

Twenty-five years since 1986. In February, those 25 years became a memory bridge for two huge events, witnessed by millions around the globe.

In 1986, Corazon Aquino became President of the Philippines upon the battered shoulders of people who had been oppressed by Ferdinand Marcos, who had been patronized by the money and military of the United States. There are amazing parallels to his demise and that of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, 25 years later.

As an advocate of nonmilitary national defense and active nonviolence, I might hesitate to draw the connections between the people power risings in The Philippines and Egypt. I was thrilled by the achievement of these revolutions, but there are observers who will tell you Egypt will not be able to handle democracy and historians who will claim the gains in The Philippines were fleeting, at best. Filipinos and Egyptians, alike, however, proved that an entrenched tyrant, armed with the finest weapons the U.S. has to offer, could not withstand determined and organized people who are willing to suffer but not to kill.

Whether or not you remember the stunning collapse of the Marcos regime or watched days of television coverage of Mubarak’s unlikely disgrace, you should be impressed by the handle on history afforded by PJALS. Shortly after Aquino’s inauguration, Jim Forrest, Executive Secretary of the International Fellowship of Reconciliation, was the speaker at the PJALS annual meeting, having been scheduled before it was clear nonviolence would seize Philippine history. Few people on earth knew more about the grassroots training of Filipinos to be steadfastly nonviolent in the struggle against a brutal and corrupt dictator than Jim Forrest. This year, Nancy and I hoped to convince participants in the PJALS nonviolence series that the legacy of Gandhi and Martin Luther King is still superior to violence and brute force as a means of supplanting oppression or defending freedom. The entire Tahrir Square drama transpired between our first session and our third, with sentinel framing from Tunisia to Yemen and Iran.

Even skeptics will have to admit that a violent overthrow of either Marcos or Mubarak would have had no chance because of monopolies in military strength. There was, however, a common deterioration of loyalty in these juggernaut armies, deterioration that would never have begun if troops had been sent to quell violent, armed revolutionaries. From the troops to the top generals, there was reluctance, and then an unwillingness, to shoot, beat, or bomb their neighbors, their relatives, their fellow Egyptians or Filipinos.

Egyptians and Filipinos had several advantages over most populations waging nonviolent struggles. Filipinos are overwhelmingly Catholic, just as Egyptians are overwhelmingly Muslim. A single language is common to most citizens, and ethnic divisions rarely determine political aspirations. It was not difficult for a huge majority of the populations to see themselves in the same boat, oppressed economically and politically by an extremely wealthy dictator. Filipinos had a national memory of democratic participation. Less than a century ago, Egypt used people power to drive out the mighty British Empire.

For several years, Filipino Catholics had been exposed to the concept of active nonviolence through the efforts of Cardinal Jaime Sin and the Fellowship of Reconciliation. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood had learned to communicate and act within the constraints of nonviolent affinity groups in order to maintain community in spite of being considered an enemy of the state. These were extraordinary assets when it was time to put people into the streets and maintain discipline and crowd coherence. For Egyptians, the framework was enhanced by state-of-the-art cyber communications. In The Philippines, Marcos controlled all mass communications except the Catholic Church’s Radio Veritas, which stymied most attempts at broadcasting blackouts and went underground when its equipment was damaged. Veritas delivered people power in critical mass in Manila the same way email, tweets and text messages did in Cairo.

A trigger event is needed to convince potential political activists that they must not be left out of a movement, even if it will put their lives at risk along with the bit of personal freedom that has been allowed to trickle into their lives. The assassination of Ninoy Aquino in 1983 galvanized the determination of millions of Filipinos that Marcos must go. The Tunisian people’s successful ouster of their dictator drove the hopes of Egyptians that they could transcend their resentment and fear of Mubarak’s excesses.

Marcos and Mubarak each believed himself to be invincible. Each had proved capable of dealing quickly and harshly with challengers, and each had a tested and true pipeline to U.S. money and influence. As time and power spiraled down the drain, each began to shuffle the deck chairs of his government, offer concessions while refusing to step down, and demand help from U.S. leadership. Marcos had endeared himself to U.S. leaders in general, and President Reagan in particular, because he was fiercely anti-communist. Reagan liked Ferdinand and Imelda personally and had to be warned repeatedly by close advisers that even he might not survive backing blatantly corrupt efforts to foil the election of Corazon Aquino. International media had made Aquino a champion, even after coverage of her husband’s assassination had been managed with deference to Marcos, and the best Reagan could do was escort his friends to sanctuary in Hawaii.

Mubarak gained his stature with the West by accepting U.S. billions to be buffer/protector between Israel and the rest of the Arab world. Radical Islam is the bogeyman that Communism was in the Reagan era, and President Obama was wary of supporting a grassroots movement that might make his support for Israel appear soft. Oddly enough, the domino tilted toward Israel seems to have struck the Palestinian Authority, but few thrones are secure in the Middle East at this moment.

Rather than writing a text on successful nonviolent action, I must lament at least one missed opportunity. What might have happened if Al Gore had been a great leader, committed to nonviolence, individual civil liberties and grassroots action, when the 2000 presidential election was taken from the people of the United States? Could millions of Americans have behaved while converging in squares and plazas to demand justice? Would mobilized troops have refused to fire upon, or even bully and threaten, their sisters and brothers who dared to have high expectations of our institutions? I have a hunch that the only folks with the temerity to take it to the streets were those of us who had already been in the streets, who had already risked questions about our patriotism and our sanity, who had already been condemned for bleeding hearts, mushy brains, and tolerance for diversity and new ideas. Many of us who didn’t vote for Gore because we didn’t trust him to stand up to corporations in favor of people would have had his back in that revolution, but we never would have reached critical mass. We wouldn’t have mobilized enough people to attract CNN, moderate Bernie Madoff, or alarm Antonin Scalia.

I don’t say that in surrender. I say it in awe of the ordinary, comfortable people in Egypt who cared enough to put their lives on hold and at risk for the future of their country. I say it with respect for people all over the planet who will never again accept TV programming and cell phones in lieu of a voice in their country. I say it with hope for young Americans who value freedom more than the security of their consumer goods. I hope we all learn something from these contemporary nonviolence movements before we make deals to give us smarter computers, meaner government, and higher walls.

Be ready for the next opportunity. Not locked and loaded, but enlightened and empowered.