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

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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