America and the Arab Spring 

Dr. Peter Ackerman
Founding Chair
International Center on Nonviolent Conflict

July 15, 2011 Interview Synopsis

Dr. Peter Ackerman is a strong advocate of nonviolent civil resistance and believes that conditions particular to a state (including history or demographic makeup) are irrelevant to the success of toppling authoritarian regimes. He maintains that as long as organizers understand civil resistance theory and plan their strategies effectively, they will be met with success in attempting to oust an oppressive regime. Success is achieved by employing any number of methods designed to “highlight disloyalties and make it easier for people who are part of [the] pillars” that support oppressive regimes to defect from those regimes, including but not limited to protests, boycotts, and strikes.

Dr. Ackerman holds that civil resistance is more effective than violent insurrection because the latter involves threatening groups that could defect and cripple the regime. Threats only cause non-resistors to consolidate around the leadership for protection. Thus, protestors using violence are less likely—both theoretically and statistically—to achieve their goal of toppling the regime. Civil resistors, according to the theory, aim to maximize the amount of defection they can achieve with minimal disruption of life for others. Conversely, autocrats work to generate the most amount of obedience to their rule while employing the least amount of repression, which staves off mass defection.

Dr. Ackerman believes that the role of social media has been largely overstated in the West, primarily because commentators do not truly understand nonviolent resistance, yet they can relate to the political usage of social media. He did say that social media was beneficial as a venue to discuss and produce strategy. The “key element of a civil resistance movement is the capacity to plan,” according to Dr. Ackerman. Unfortunately, as he mentioned, the issue with social media is that it can easily be turned off or used against the protestors via tracking and monitoring—both strategies were employed by the Mubarak regime in Egypt.