In his eloquent statement on regime change in Egypt, President Obama specifically invoked the achievements of Gandhi and Martin Luther King. “It was the moral force of non-violence—not terrorism, not mindless killing—but non-violence, moral force that bent the arch of history toward justice once more,” the president declared.
Unfortunately, he exaggerated the historical power of such peaceful protest. Only relatively civilized governments, connected to the democratic West, yield without major violence, as did the British in India, or segregationists of the American South. Elsewhere—as in Budapest in ’56, Prague in ’68, Beijing of ’89, or Teheran of 2009—ruthless regimes wield brutal force to crush resistance.
Non-violence can wield “moral force” only when challenged rulers maintain some concern for morality—as did pro-western leaders of the Egyptian army, who avoided firing on their own people.