Was Tahrir Square Revolution a Failed Effort in Applying Nonviolence?
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 29 Jul , 2017

Although Islamic groups do not hold a monopoly on violence, the prevailing trends are such that many in the West, and also in the East, now conflate Islamic traditions with a propensity for violence. This article offers an Indian perspective on nonviolence to explain the ‘winter’ that has followed the Egyptian Arab Spring revolution of 2011. Does the Tahrir Square experience represent a failed effort in application of nonviolence tenets?  To answer the question, the Tahrir Square experience is compared with the experience of the protestors and red shirted Khudai Khidmatgars in Peshawar’s Kissa Khani Bazaar in 1930. It discusses the absence, in Tahrir Square, of the prerequisite conditions that made nonviolence effective in Kissa Khani Bazaar of Peshawar.[1]

The Arab Spring turns to Arab Winter

The year 2011 saw both, nonviolent and violent revolutions in North Africa and Middle East.  The revolutions began nonviolently on 17th December, 2010, in Tunisia, and then spread to other predominantly Islamic countries. Political power showed promise of shift from dictators to the people. The world watched transfixed, as so called Arab Spring brought an end to decades long autocratic rules in Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Tunisia.[2]  In the United States, people were generally hard pressed to comprehend these events taking place within the milieu of Islamic cultures.  U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton “claimed validation of Mahatma Gandhi’s principles on the streets of Cairo.” [3] Yet, to many who viewed Islam as being violent, the possibility of nonviolent Muslim protest seemed not possible.  Even today, President Trump of the United States is locking horns with his country’s judiciary to ban inbound travel from a set of predominantly Muslim countries to promote ‘homeland security.’

The protestors were variously seeking democracy, free elections, economic freedom, human rights, employment, regime change, or freedom of religion.  Methods of nonviolent protests deployed in different countries, included civil disobedience, civil resistance, defections, demonstrations, internet activism, protest camps, silent protests, sit-ins, social media, and strike actions.  Violence also erupted with insurgencies, revolutions, riots, self-immolation, urban warfare, and uprisings.  The final outcome was mixed.  The initial nonviolent momentum dissipated soon after it started, and the rest of the momentum for revolutions faded by the middle of 2012. Generally, the peaceful beginning was overwhelmed by violent responses from the authorities and counter-demonstrators.  Major conflicts resulted in civil wars in Syria, Iraq, Libya, and Yemen, and a coup in Egypt.[4] Only Tunisia shook off its authoritarian rule.  Elsewhere, fallen dictatorships were replaced by new dictatorships.

A brief review of the Egyptian Crisis

The Egyptian revolution of 2011 was led by three individuals: software developer Alaa Abdel Fattah, former Muslim Brother Moaz Abdelkarim, and architect Basem Kamel.  They had used the social media to bring the demonstrators to the Tahrir Square.  On 25th January, 2011, there were about 25,000 people gathered in the Square.  By the beginning of February reports varied from below 300,000 to a million.[5]  In the morning of 2nd of February, 2011, the word spread through Cairo that Egyptian President Husni Mubarak had promised, in a speech the night before, to step down as President, ending his dictatorship.  The news seemed to generate the sentiment among a segment of protesters on Tahrir Square that Mubarak need not be chased out of office, but be allowed to leave with dignity. Even as this sentiment was growing, unexpectedly, and encouraged by pro-Mubarak counter-demonstrations, pro-government security forces violently attacked the demonstrators in Tahrir Square. “The scenes were horrific. A cavalry charge of thugs on horses and camels opened the hostilities, the riders whipping the crowd as they galloped through … The violence … intensified, with Molotov cocktails and, later, gunfire causing deaths and terrible wounds. The army simply stayed in their tanks, refusing to act.”[6]  Yet, through the night, the demonstrators held their ground, and even advanced “behind shields of corrugated iron and bits of car, like a ramshackle Roman legion breaking a siege.”[7]

The rising sun next morning saw Tahrir Square again in the hands of the protesters.  In February 2011, Mubarak was out.  Muslim Brother Mohammed Morsi was elected the civilian president of Egypt in accordance with an election law formulated by the temporary, caretaker government, which the Constitutional Court declared unconstitutional.  Morsi’s government wanted to create Egypt as an Islamic nation, rather than a secular country.  Protests continued against his policies His term started on 30th June, 2012, but was over on 3rd July, 2013, when he was unseated by the military. General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi became the next President in a 2013 coup.  Egypt was again a dictatorship.  In May 2014, el-Sisi consolidated his power by winning an election against a sole opponent, with more than 97 percent votes in his favor. The Egyptian Arab Spring was over.[8]

Events leading to the Kissa Khani Bazaar gathering

To understand the failure of the Arab Spring revolution in Egypt from the strategic perspective of nonviolence, we compare the Egyptian experience with that of Gaffar’s Khudai Khidmatgars, who sought independence from the British in the Northwest Frontier region of the Indian subcontinent in 1930s.  To subjugate the region, the British had made a number of expeditions into the Pathan territory since late 1830s.  They had shelled, burned and bombed Pathan villages, and flogged and jailed Pathans in the thousands.  The Pathans never gave in.  A twenty-two year old Winston Churchill (30 November 1874 – 24 January 1965), participating in these wars, was impressed and wrote, “Their swordsmanship, neglecting guards, concerns itself only with cuts and, careless of what injury they may receive, they devote themselves to the destruction of their opponents.”[9] However, while the Pathans remained free, they could not rid themselves of the British nuisance. In this milieu, a tall man emerged from among the Pathans.  He was a gentle, nonviolent Pathan! His name was Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan (6 February 1890 – 20 January 1988).

Gaffar understood Gandhi!  Gandhi had explained the conditions that must prevail for a nonviolent strategy to be effective; that the effectiveness of nonviolence was in direct proportion to the intensity of the violence it countered; that nonviolence was a strategy for the strong and the brave; that nonviolence was highly effective in opposing one who had the intellectual capacity to understand the superiority of the nonviolent premise, especially when the nonviolent agent had clear capacity and strength, but not the will, for violence.[10] Gaffar was certain that the Pathans possessed the prerequisite qualities of character. They had already demonstrated to the British their ability to fight, and to meet the severity of British attacks and brutality with unflinching gallantry and strength. To fight the British, Gaffar changed the rules of warfare.

Gaffar raised an army of brave people who did not know fear, were fierce and daring fighters, and preferred death to dishonor. His was an army different from any other army; an army of peace loving, ferocious lions!  His unique army consisted of nonviolent soldiers that drilled, were disciplined, had officers, cadres, uniforms, and even a flag.  The soldiers called themselves, Khudai Khidmatgars, the Servants of God, and called Gaffar, Badshah Khan, the King, and also, with deep affection, Bacha Khan, the Child, referring to his child-like countenance!

Gandhi had demanded openness in the practice of nonviolence.[11] Khudai Khidmatgars donned bright, blazing, brick red shirts for easy identification, and replaced concealed weapons with a walking stick. They were nonviolent even when the British took up “gunning the red shirt” as “a popular sport and pastime,” or when members of the Khudai Khidmatgars “were unclothed and forced to run down the middle of rows of British soldiers while being kicked and jabbed with rifle muzzles and bayonets.”[12]  Both, the British and the Indians were amazed by the Pathans’ deep understanding of nonvio­lence and absolute commitment to its practice. For the Pathan to willingly put down his weapons in face of worst brutality the British could mete out, and not retaliate, was unthinkable!  Surprised, Gandhi said of the Khudai Khidmatgars:[13]

“That such men, who would have killed a human being with no more thought than they would kill a sheep or a hen should at the bidding of one man have laid down their arms and accepted nonviolence as the superior weapon sounds almost like a fairy tale.”

An Approach Steeped in the Islamic Culture

To Gaffar Khan and to Khudai Khidmatgars nonviolence made sense.  As Gaffar put it:[14]

“Is not the Pathan amenable to love and reason? He will go with you to hell if you can win his heart, but you cannot force him even to go to heaven. Such is the power of love over the Pathan … There is nothing surprising in a Muslim or a Pathan like me subscribing to the creed of nonviolence. It is not a new creed. It was followed fourteen hundred years ago by the Prophet all the time he was in Mecca, and it has since been followed by all those who wanted to throw off an oppressor’s yoke.  But we had so far forgotten it that when Gandhiji placed it before us, we thought he was sponsoring a novel creed.”

Any Pathan could join Gaffar’s army by taking the oath of the Khudai Khidmatgars: “I am a Servant of God, and as God needs no service, serving His creation is serving Him.” [15]  With the oath, Khudai Khidmatgars promised to seek freedom of the country, obey all legitimate orders of all officers all the time, live in accordance with the principles of nonviolence and refrain from taking revenge, forgive those who oppressed them or treated them with cruelty, live a simple life, practice virtue, never seek reward for service, and so on.  Gaffar understood that a Pathan’s word was a lasting bond.  Even their enemies were keenly aware that a Pathan would never break a given word.  By having his soldiers take the oath and undertake promises, Gaffar played into their deep-rooted culture and identity, and was assured of their dedication, discipline, and sacrifice.

The War

In the late hours of December 31, 1929, at the meeting of the Indian National Congress in Lahore, a declaration of independence was read out to the nation.  It was a Jeffersonian declara­tion, inspired by events that had occurred more than 153 years ago in Philadelphia, but against the same colonial power.  But, the declaration reflected Gandhian perspective. As in the case of the American declaration, the Lahore declaration explained why India must divorce Britain.  But it went on to state that freedom would be sought “by withdrawing … all voluntary association from the British government”, through “civil disobedience, including the nonpayment of taxes … without doing violence even under provocation.”[16]

Gandhi devised a simple strategy that dramatically illustrated, both, India’s resolve to reject Britain’s bidding, and act nonviolently. The British held a monopoly over production and sale of salt, which they taxed to generate essential revenue. Salt, like water and air, is essential for life. On 12th of March, 1930, Gandhi began a journey by foot from Sabarmati Ashram to the village of Dandi, on the shores of the Arabian Sea, about 300 kilometers away. He arrived there on the 6th of April. Today, one can cover the distance by car in less than 6 hours. At the beach in Dandi, Gandhi reached down and picked up a pinch of salt.  This simple act broke the British law and demonstrated to the world the oppression meted out by colonists. As if on cue, all India began to make, sell, and buy salt, defying the British law.  The British were enraged.  People were beaten with steel-tipped sticks. Jails were filled with about a hundred thousand Indians.

The Pathans suffered the worst of the British wrath. April 1930 saw the entire population of Peshawar violate the Salt Law.  The British knew Pathans’ potential for ferocity and were greatly worried. On 23rd of April, Gaffar told his people in Utmanzai to join civil resistance.  He then headed for Peshawar, but was arrested in Naki. The entire town of Naki took the oath of the Khudai Khidmatgars, then and there. Additional leaders were arrested.

Peshawar responded spontaneously with a general strike on 23rd April.  A large crowd gathered in peaceful protest in Kissa Khani Bazaar (the Market of the Story-tellers) that day. Panicked, the British called in army troops in three armored cars. They drove in at high speed, right through the assembled crowd.  Some Pathans were killed; others were wounded.  But the crowd behaved with restraint. More people collected. Then, the troops were ordered to open fire! Several more Pathans were killed and wounded.

The troops commanded the crowd to dis­perse. The crowds indicated willingness to comply. But they wanted to remove their dead and injured, and asked for the withdrawal of the armored cars. A second round of firing began; then the third; and then more. This went on, again and again, from 11 AM to 5 PM!  Those in the front fell to bullets. Those behind came forward with chest bared! There was no panic! There were heaps of dead. The government ambulance cars carried away the corpses to be cremated. A British officer shouted contemptuously, “Any more Reds?”  A Pathan dabbed some red on his shirt and shouted back in defiance, “Yes!”[17]

For two days, the British troops brought hell to Peshawar. Khudai Khidmatgars were declared illegal. But they contin­ued their work. They marched. They were shot at. “Gunning the red shirt” became a popular sport.  They did not retaliate.  Their ranks grew.  They remained nonviolent, as did the country.

The Truce

The violence could not sustain against persistent nonviolence.  By the end of the year, Lord Irwin invited Gandhi to Delhi to discuss truce. Gandhi held no political office, but they signed an accord, as equals.  Gaffar’s movement won long-sought concessions from the government. Not only had the Pathans achieved political parity with the rest of British India, the British government had accepted the principle of a free India. Winston Churchill, who understood history well, saw in the Gandhi-Irwin truce the mak­ings of the end of British imperialism. [18]

Gaffar had raised history’s first nonviolent army of a hundred thousand men from among the most violent people of the world, and with them exploded three myths: that nonviolence can be followed only by those who are gentle, that it cannot work against ruthless repression, and that it has no place in Islam.

Arab Spring revolutions did not meet the prerequisites of nonviolence

If we compare the case of the Red Shirts in Northwest Frontier in 1930s with the case of the Arab Revolution throughout North Africa and Middle East, but especially in Egypt, differences become evident.  In the case of the Red Shirts, Gaffar had organized the protestors as an army: they had all the elements of a well-trained, well-organized, thoroughly disciplined army.  The only difference from conventional armies was that instead of lethal weapons, Gaffar’s soldiers carried a walking stick. In Tahrir Square, the protesters were not trained as an army.  They were all from the civilian life, without preparation for confrontation with a physical onslaught.

In face of the worst of British cruelty, the Khudai Khidmatgars had resisted with full commitment to the principles of nonviolence, which were incorporated into their oath as Khudai Khidmatgar.  In Tahrir Square, there was no such oath. In Peshawar, all involved, including Gandhi, Gaffar, and the soldiers of Khudai Khidmatgar, had no illusions about the nature of war.  In conventional wars with lethal weapons, soldiers constituting an army are killed, maimed, and crippled. Injuries are both, physical and psychological.  In a nonviolent army, such outcomes are no different.  In the case of the Indian experiment with nonviolence, Gandhi, Gaffar, and every Khudai Khidmatgar soldier was willing to die for their cause.  In Tahrir Square, such awareness was not evident.

As discussed by the author in this periodical before, for a nonviolent strategy to be effective, it must meet set of prerequisite conditions in the environment, the agent and the methodology of application. [19]  A violent opponent provides the opportunity for a nonviolent response to one who has a violent alternative.  Nonviolence against a nonviolent opponent is simply ‘un-violent.’ During the Arab Spring, such an opportunity did exist.  The protestors had the opportunity to willingly choose a nonviolent response to the dictatorial violence. However, their choice was violent. Yet, the strength of their violence was not able to cope with the over-whelming authoritarian violence. The authoritarian regimes in a number of countries, except perhaps to some extent in Egypt, could also discern that the protesters did not have the unified capacity and strength to hit back with violence. In Egypt, too, the authorities seemed to discern that the protestors’ capacity and strength to mete out over-whelming violence faded with time. Therefore, the nonviolent protest lacked sustainability. The protestors’ nonviolence, too, weakened with factions resorting to violence.

Gandhi had also explained that nonviolence was highly effective in opposing one who had the intellectual capacity to understand the superiority of the nonviolent premise.  Gandhi had met this prerequisite condition through a sense of fairness ensured by the British court system. The British courts put limits on the British ability to continue their brutality and violations of basic rights in their colonies. Gandhi, himself a lawyer, made good use of the British courts to his advantage.  As stated earlier, in Egypt, one of the revolution’s leaders was Alaa Abdel Fattah. He had grown up in a family of activists and had been repeatedly arrested, since 2006, on flimsy charges, but each time, released by the Courts.  On 23rd February, 2015, after the military dictatorship returned, he was sentenced to five years in prison.[20]  The dictatorship did not demonstrate the prerequisite intellectual capacity.

Let us see what happened to the rest of the leadership of the Egyptian revolution. Moaz Abdelkarim had already gone afoul of Muslim Brotherhood.  He was against their decision to move away from a secular Egypt with separation of religion and state, and create an Islamic state.  In India, Gandhi, a Hindu, and Gaffar, a Muslim, had a common goal. They sought a secular society. Commonality of goals in diverse Indian society had added strength to the nonviolent movement.  However, on 14th of August, 2013, supporters of Morsi were camped out at Cairo’s Rabaa al-Adawiya Square, demanding Morsi’s reinstatement as president.  The security forces, supporting the military, invaded the camp with live fire.  In a single day more than 800 people were killed! Nearly 4,000 were injured.  An emotional Abdelkarim carried the injured to the hospital in his car, and saw his friends arrested within days.  When charges were prepared against him that included accusation of terrorism, he fled to Turkey.[21]

Basem Kamel, the architect, remained in Cairo and became a politician.  He has moderated his ambitions. Taking note of the enthusiasm with which his countrymen had elected el-Sisi as President in May 2014, he predicts that with time dissatisfaction will return and people will once more be driven by rage. [22]  But, that is a conjecture.  Today, there is not much left of the revolution.

In a 2014 study, Rikhil Bhavnani and Saumitra Jha suggested that in a diverse society, nonviolent movements fall short of realizing their goals due to two challenges: one is that of mass mobilization; and the other is that of “overcoming the enhanced temptations faced by members of large mobilized groups to turn violent, whether to secure short-term gains from mob action or in response to manipulation by agents who stand to gain from political violence.”[23]   Bhavnani and Jha’s contention was clearly demonstrated in the Egyptian experience of the Arab Spring revolution, with factions of protestors siding with the government, and  later, with Morsi.

The strategy of nonviolence is for the strong and the brave, and for the disciplined. Gaffar was able to obtain these qualities from his soldiers through the Oath of the Khudai Khidmatgars. They had already demonstrated to the British their lack of fear, and ability to fight, in face of severe brutality, with unflinching gallantry. In North Africa and Middle East, generally, there was limited opportunity to train the protestors for a disciplined deployment of nonviolence.  In Peshawar’s Kissa Khani Bazaar on 23rd April in 1930, when the armored cars crashed through the crowds, the protestors remained restrained and dignified.  In contrast, in Tahrir Square in Cairo, the cavalry charge of the security men met with vigorous violence from the protestors.  The voices of those who understood the significance of the nonviolent strategy were lost in the cacophony of religious and political leaders, even in the press.


In Peshawar, the Khudai Khidmaygars behaved with discipline like a well-trained army.  In Tahrir Square, such conception of protest was absent.  The Oath taken by the Khudai Khidmatgars proved to be a major basis for required discipline.  There was no such oath or explicit commitment to nonviolence. With the Khudai Khidmatgars, time had been invested in training the soldiers to fight nonviolently.  The ranks and files understood the nuance and dynamics of nonviolence as a strategy.  Such training or understanding was not evident in Tahrir Square. At the same time, there was little evidence that the government forces in Tahrir Square understood, or at least, respected, the superiority of the nonviolent approach to conflict resolution.  There was little evidence that those deploying the nonviolent alternative in Tahrir Square had the option to realize their goals through violence. It was not clear that the protestors chose nonviolence because they willed not be violent, and not because they had no alternative that would overwhelm the government’s violence.  Arguably, social media played a crucial role in bringing the protestors together at Tahrir Square.  However, it would seem that this media was not effectively used to unify the gathering around a core, nonviolent strategy of protest.  It would seem that the protestors’ commitment to nonviolence faltered at the most critical juncture.  Therefore, it would be fair to accept the premise that Tahrir Square revolution failed as an effort to deploy the strategy of nonviolence.  It was a failure of application, not the theory. The premise of nonviolence was not aptly applied to the situation by the protestors and their leaders.


[1] Colonel US Rathore reminds us that Peshawar is where al Qaeda was born in 1988-89 (see Col US Rathore. “Is al Qaeda waning?” Indian Defence Review. 01 October, 2013. Retrieved on July 22nd, 2017.

[2] Alan Greenblatt. “2011 has been a rough year for dictators.” NPR. December 21, 2011. Retrieved on July 22nd, 2017.

[3] Michael Shank. “Islam’s nonviolent tradition,” The Nation, April 27, 2011. Retrieved on July 22nd, 2017.

[4] Arab Spring. Wikipedia. July 8, 2017. Retrieved on July July 22nd, 2017.

[5] Tahrir Square, Wikipedia. July 10, 2017. Retrieved on July July 22nd, 2017.

[6] Nadia Idle and Alex Nunns. Tahrir Square tweet by tweet. The Guardian, 14th April 2011. Retrieved on July July 22nd, 2017.

[7] Nadia Idle and Alex Nunns, ibid.

[8] “2013 Egyptian coup d’tat, Wikipedia. June 30, 2017. Retrieved on July July 22nd, 2017/

[9] Con Coughlin. Churchill’s First War: Young Winston at War with the Afghans. New York: Thomas Dunne Books, St. Martin’s Press, 2013.

[10] Krishna S. Dhir, “Prerequisites for success of nonviolent strategies,” Indian Defence Review. 23 February 2017. Retrieved on July 22nd, 2017.

[11] Krishna S. Dhir, ibid.

[12] Mohammed Raqib. “Muslim Pashtun movement of the North-West Frontier of India.” In M. Stephen (ed.). Civilian Jihad: Nonviolent Struggle, Democratization, and Governance in the Middle East, pp. 107-118. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2009.

[13] Eknath Easwaran, ibid.

[14] Eknath Easwaran, ibid.

[15] Khudai Khidmatgar. Wikipedia, June 20, 2017. Retrieved on July 22nd, 2017.

[16] Eknath Easwaran, ibid.

[17] Eknath Easwaran, ibid.

[18] Eknath Easwaran, ibid.

[19] Krishna S. Dhir, ibid.

[20] Alaa Abdel Fattah, Wikipedia. March 1, 2017. Retrieved on July 22nd, 2017.

[21] Thanassis Cambanis. The broken dream of Tahrir Square, Der Spiegel. February 4, 2015. Retrieved on July 22nd, 2017.

[22] Thanassis Cambanis. Is Egypt on the verge of another uprising? The Atlantic. January 16, 2015. Retrieved on July 22nd, 2017.

[23] Rikhil Bhavnani and Saumitra Jha. “Gandhi’s Gift: Lessons for Peaceful Reform from India’s Struggle for Democracy,” Working Paper No. 517. Stanford University, CA: Center for International Development.  March 2014. Retrieved on July 22nd, 2017.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Dr Krishna S Dhir, PhD

is Research Professor at Széchenyi István University in Győr, Hungary; and Professor Emeritus at Berry College, USA. Earlier, he was a Dean at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo, and at Berry College, both in USA. He has served as visiting professor at Swinburne University of Technology and RMIT University in Australia, University of Pannonia in Hungary, and Coventry University in UK. He was head of business programs at The Citadel: The Military College of South Carolina in Charleston, USA. He worked with BioStar Medical Products in USA; Borg-Warner Chemicals in USA; and CIBA-GEIGY in Switzerland. He was elected Fellow of the Operational Research Society in 2004; and President of Decision Sciences Institute during 2011-2012. He earned a BTech in chemical engineering at IIT Bombay; MS also in chemical engineering at Michigan State University; MBA at the University of Hawaii; and PhD in Management Science at the University of Colorado. His address is:

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One thought on “Was Tahrir Square Revolution a Failed Effort in Applying Nonviolence?

  1. Wonderful work. It appears that the author is a born genius. From his appearance, he looks a Hollywood hero. Developing countries like India need prople like him. With my best wishes…. Zia

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