President John F. Kennedy once said, “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.” Change always happens. Sometimes slowly and gradually. Sometimes with a violent lurch.
In Tunisia a fruit stand operator who had had his fruit stand confiscated by the police set himself on fire and started a revolution that resulted in the 23-year reign of Tunisia’s strongman, 74-year-old Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, coming to an end two weeks ago.
Currently, Hosni Mubarak who has ruled Egypt since the assassination of Anwar Sadat in 1981 is seeing his country protest his regime. A regime that has become increasingly more autocratic. Mubarak has created a virtual police state. Over the last thirty years his regime has instituted censorship of the media even going so far as to try to censor bloggers, imprisoned prominent pro-democracy activists such as Saad Eddin Ibrahim, and during the most recent protests placed 2005 Nobel Peace Prize co-winner Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei under house arrest. All this while while a younger generation of Egyptians goes hungry and without opportunity. It is not one fruit stand owner who is protesting, but many people.
I remember in 1989 when one lone man in Tiananmen Square refused to yield to a column of tanks. He stood with his plastic grocery bags and defied the military might of the Chinese government and halted the progress of the military machine. He became the symbol of one person standing up and saying that things had to change. He refused to be oppressed any longer. That image of him before the tanks is burned in my memory. He is and will always be a source of inspiration.
I think revolutions come in waves when people witness that others are standing up and fighting or protesting oppression and realize that it is possible for one man to make a difference. Then others can see that their voices can be heard and/or their influence can be felt. They can make a difference. The Chinese student protest happened in 1989. Czechoslovakia finally became a democratic nation during the non-violent Velvet Revolution of 1989 after thirty years of nonviolent protest lead by that country’s citizens. P.W. Botha resigned as the president of South Africa in 1989 and Nelson Mandela was released in 1990 ending the era of Apartheid. While the dissolution of the Soviet Union began around 1985, it split into 15 separate states in 1991. Germany was reunified in 1990. The years between 1989 and 1991 were exciting and there was hope. Hope for peace and a more open world. Hope that the arms race of the cold war would be over and the nuclear arsenal would be dismantled. Hope for a more humanitarian world.
Now we have revolution in Tunisia, Egypt, and the Yemen. It is my hope that peace and a better way of life ensue for the peoples of those countries. I can only imagine that the desire to revolt is born out of anger and frustration. To take to the streets and confront tanks takes both courage and hope that something better can be obtained. It is the result of years of people not being able to be heard until they feel they have nothing to lose.
Even when the protest is non-violent, it takes courage. The concepts of nonviolent civil disobedience taught by such individuals as Henry David Thoreau, Leo Tolstoy, Vaclav Havel, Lech Walesa, Mohandas K. Gandhi and the Rev. Martin Luther King do offer an alternative to violent revolution and when there is a peaceful path for revolution, a violent revolution is not necessary. But even civil disobedience is not without danger, it means risking one’s life as the man who stood before the tank. It means sacrificing one way of life for something better and pouring energy into that ideal. It means going against those who are in power and resolutely, albeit peacefully, demanding change. Civil disobedience works when the participant has a belief that they can make their voice heard with enough persistence. It is the higher ground that can bring change to improve everyone’s lives and do so without the hatred that sometimes comes as an aftermath of violence. And after change reconciliation and solidification of the new ideals is necessary. Violent protest and revolution comes when there is no belief that those protesting will be heard and are willing to die to effect change.
One person can make a difference whether it is a man peacefully standing in front of a tank or another committing suicide to protest the seizure of his fruit stand.