From Colombia to Egypt, Avoiding Fracture through Unified Diversity

by Lynn Johnson on February 4, 2011

farc-photo

Three years ago today, on February 4, 2008, an estimated four million Colombian citizens gathered in the streets of the country’s major cities to demonstrate against the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC), an armed insurgency that the country has battled for 40 years.  The march’s magnitude was unprecedented in Colombia and a remarkable show of national unity.

Their message was simple:  No mas FARC.

The movement managed to avoid fracture between the country’s diverse political groups.  March organizers went to great pains to remain politically neutral, saying, “This is a cause beyond all political interests or colors. It’s a humanitarian cause, encouraged by a simple sense of solidarity, for the sake and welfare of our citizens.”

The Rendon Group, in partnership with Arizona State University’s Consortium for Strategic Communication, conducted a study of this demonstration, as well as a spurt of smaller protests that followed, to better understand the dynamics in play there.  As we watch events in Egypt unfold, particularly today’s massive “day of departure” demonstrations, our Colombia study brings to mind more questions about the challenge of maintaining unity across diverse groups.

Colombians across the political spectrum could agree on the abstract principles of “No more kidnapping,” “No more death,” and “No more FARC,” even if they disagreed on the specifics of those beliefs. We refer to this as unified diversity. Unified diversity is achieved when a common goal or abstract idea transcends disagreements on specific details. This strategy defines their differences in a way that is not disruptive to the stability of the whole, thereby raising the threshold for fragmentation.

How long can the Egyptian opposition movement maintain unified diversity?

Thousands of protestors walk the streets in Alexandria, Egypt, on February 4. Al Jazeera photo used under CC license.

The opposition shares a single purposefully ambiguous message, “Mubarak must go.”  The Muslim Brotherhood has refrained from imposing messages of religious nationalism on the movement. Youth organizers even asked participants to avoid slogans or banners and instead carry only the Egyptian flag, the quintessential symbol of national unity. Their simple message of regime change accommodates the interests of diverse groups.

Unified diversity is not a lasting condition, however.  Real ideological and historical divisions among groups may be put aside temporarily but will reemerge when that goal is achieved or when the symbolic meaning holding them together begins to break down.  Should Mubarak leave his post, opposition groups may work through these differences peaceably, but the anti-government movement needs to remain relatively cohesive until then if it is to achieve its goal.  Unified diversity is not the only factor for success in this complex environment, but it is an important one.

One of the Egyptian regime’s tactics is to drive wedges between opposition groups, a signal that they know the threat of a unified opposition.  They ascribe criminal activity to members of the Muslim Brotherhood, who they “vowed” to root out, and adopted a message of superficial reconciliation with the youth movement.  Mubarak has offered concessions of “reform” and other stalling tactics in an attempt to outlast the movement and undermine its narrative.

The Colombia demonstrations lasted only one day, enough to open a new political discourse about public opposition to the FARC.  The opposition movement in Egypt, now in its eleventh day, has shown impressive stamina and cohesion in the face of more formidable obstacles.  But it cannot last indefinitely. The fact that it has lasted this long is testament to the deep-seated emotion this movement has stirred and the transcendent properties of their narrative.

The question everyone is asking is, can they sustain this movement long enough to bring about regime change?

RELATED

The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood’s Involvement in the Mass Protests by Dr. Liad Porat in the Huffington Post – February 2, 2011

Should We Fear Muslim Brotherhood Involvement in Egypt? by Jeffry R. Halverson in COMOPS Journal – February 4, 2011

Shorter Egyptian Government: #Jan25 is Over by Spencer Ackerman in Danger Room – February 3, 2011

Brotherhood says no plans for Egypt presidential bid Reuters.com – February 4, 2011

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