Peace Science Digest

Nonviolent Resistance Movements, National Identity, and Security Force Defection

Photo credit: Michael Kappel via flickr

This analysis summarizes and reflects on the following research: Hancock, L. E. & Gurung, A (2018). Capturing the flag: The struggle for national identity in nonviolent revolutions. Peace and Conflict Studies, 25(2), Article 2. 

Talking Points:

  • A cohesive national identity may be necessary for nonviolent movement success but does not itself fully explain why some such movements succeed while others fail.
  • Of the cases examined, nonviolent movements in countries without a cohesive national identity (or a common identity among activists and security forces) failed, whereas the vast majority of those in countries with a relatively cohesive national identity (and therefore a common identity among activists and security forces) succeeded.
  • Of the cases examined, movement success appears to be a function of a movement’s ability “to create connections with members of the security forces and to base those connections on shared senses of identity, often revolving around national identity.”
  • A nonviolent movement’s ability to bring about security force defections depends, first, on the existence of a relatively cohesive national identity and, second, on the movement’s decision to act on this national identity by effectively framing itself as “the legitimate representative[ ] of the national identity.”


One of the most critical questions explored in the growing body of research on nonviolent resistance movements is what accounts for their success or failure. While some scholars point to structural conditions (like the “strength” of the regime being resisted), others emphasize the importance of agency—the decisions made and actions taken by the nonviolent movement itself. National identity has often been understood as a structural condition in such debates, something that is either controlled by the regime or available for control by the movement. The authors of this research suggest that, although national identity certainly can act as a structural constraint, it is also always in formation and can thus be influenced by movement choices—making its operation in the context of nonviolent resistance a function of both structure and agency. In other words, “collective identity can shift in meaning and interpretation” depending on what the movement does and how it frames its actions. With this understanding in mind, the authors are interested in examining the role national identity plays in the success or failure of nonviolent resistance struggles, particularly its influence on security force defections.

To explore this question, the authors assess several cases of nonviolent resistance. The movements examined all concern domestic regime change as opposed to ousting foreign occupiers, as national identity would function differently in such cases. They look first at whether there was a cohesive national identity available for contestation and next at whether the movement took the opportunity to claim ownership of that national identity—and the effects doing so may have had on security force defections and ultimately movement success or failure. The authors consider a country to have a somewhat cohesive national identity if “ethnicity, race, or religion [is] not the basis for division between those with the access to the levers of power and those without.” The cases examined include Northern Ireland (1968), Iran (1979), Philippines (1983), Serbia (2000), Georgia (2003), Ukraine (2004), Iran (2009), Egypt (2011), Bahrain (2011), and Libya (2011). Of these, Northern Ireland, Bahrain, and Libya lacked a cohesive national identity, exhibiting instead “stratified societies,” where access to power corresponded to different sectarian or tribal identities. The others had some measure of cohesive national identity available for “capture” by the nonviolent movement. Notably, the nonviolent movements in countries without a cohesive national identity failed, whereas those in countries with some measure of cohesion to the national identity succeeded (with the exception of Iran in 2009). In the former cases, nonviolent activists and security forces did not by and large share a common identity, whereas in the latter cases they did.


National Identity

Main Division



Northern Ireland (1968)

Iran (1979)

Philippines (1983)


Not shared


Shared core










Serbia (2000)

Georgia (2003)

Ukraine (2004)

Iran (Green) (2009)



Shared core

Weak split













Egypt (2011)

Bahrain (2011)

Libya (2011)













Source: Hancock, L. E. & Gurung, A (2018). Capturing the flag: The struggle for national identity in nonviolent revolutions. Peace and Conflict Studies, 25(2), Article 2. 

Note: The authors use several different terms in this table to characterize the national identity of their cases. They understand the cases of Northern Ireland (“not shared”), Bahrain (“split”), and Libya (“none”) as examples of “stratified societies” lacking a cohesive national identity, where “the primary division of identity [ethnic, racial, or sectarian] is coterminous with wealth and access to power.” They see all the other cases as exhibiting “some level of national identity,” with “shared,” “shared core,” and “weak split” describing progressively less unified (and more contested) forms of national identity. “Outcome” in this table refers to whether the movement was successful in reaching its goals or not.

Despite the relationships observed here, the presence of a cohesive national identity can be understood as a necessary but not sufficient condition of success for a nonviolent movement. The question remains: how—if at all—did each of these movements work to capture this national identity, and what effect did such efforts have on security force defections and ultimately movement success? The authors find that “in the more successful campaigns, civil resistance groups attempted to create connections with members of the security forces and to base those connections on shared senses of identity, often revolving around national identity.” For instance, nonviolent activists wielded national symbols (like the flag) in their protests and employed nationalistic slogans (like, “Resistance because I love Serbia,” in the case of the Serbian resistance group Otpor), while also reaching out to security forces by offering them flowers or food, framing the movement as a joint struggle (as in Egypt: “The people and the army are one!”), and drawing on the patriotism of security forces to urge them to join the protesters.

In sum, a nonviolent movement’s ability to convince security forces that it—and not the incumbent regime—represents the nation, and therefore to bring about defections, depends, first, on the existence of “a cohesive enough national identity[…] to be contested over by popular resistance movements and the incumbent.” Further, the movement needs to act upon this structural condition (the presence of “a cohesive enough national identity”) by “mak[ing] the case they are the legitimate representatives of the national identity” to those whose support is crucial to keeping the regime in power.

Informing Practice

The past year’s surge in civil resistance movements—Algeria, Hong Kong, Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, and Sudan, to name a few—brings to mind questions about what makes success more likely for some movements than for others. While one widely acknowledged determinant of movement success is the maintenance of nonviolent discipline, another—as this research indicates—may be a movement’s ability to harness national identity in a way that attracts support from both security forces and the broader public. In considering the role of national identity, the authors here highlight how national identity can both function as a structural constraint on movements and be manipulated through movement choices, arguing that both structure and agency are key to movement success. In other words, to be successful, a movement first needs the background condition of a somewhat cohesive national identity—material that it can then work with to influence security forces and the general public.

It is worth noting, however, that some recent successful nonviolent movements are in countries that would be characterized as lacking this “necessary” structural condition of a cohesive national identity, according to the parameters of this study. In particular, Sudan and Lebanon have notable and deeply entrenched ethnic and sectarian divisions, across which wars have been fought. What are we to make of these successes in light of this research study’s assertion that a cohesive national identity is a necessary condition for movement success? Perhaps these cases suggest that we take even more seriously than the authors intended their proposition that “collective identity can shift in meaning and interpretation” depending on the actions and framing of movement activists—a move that would seem to further diminish the importance of structural conditions in determining movement outcomes. Put differently, maybe having an already-existent cohesive national identity is not a strict prerequisite for movement success after all. What we see in Sudan and Lebanon are concerted efforts on the part of activists to create a common identity and broad-based movement out of a previously fragmented populace. In Sudan, when the government tried to use ethnic divisions to weaken the movement, accusing Darfurian students of fomenting violence, the movement instead adopted a stance of solidarity through the chant, “You arrogant racist, we are all Darfur!” In Lebanon, the movement has been proactively cross-sectarian, making prominent use of the Lebanese flag and national anthem, with activists in Sunni-dominant areas chanting in support of their counterparts in Shia-dominant areas of the country.

In other words, even in a country not endowed with a cohesive national identity, concerted efforts on the part of movement activists can enable the emergence of such an identity; through the crucible of shared protest, with an intentionally inclusive ethos, a new national identity can be wrought and can then be instrumental to movement success. But although doing so may be possible, that does not mean it will be easy—especially when the regime can readily draw on a well of ethnic or sectarian animosity to try to divide a movement. Nonviolent movements should therefore bake this inclusivity—along with their commitment to nonviolence—into their foundational principles and ethos, while also proclaiming it in chants, public statements, and symbolic displays. These experiences of diverse collective resistance can then become touchstones for a new, inclusive national identity in the political order that emerges.

Continued Reading

Yacoubian, M. (2019, November 19). What’s next for Lebanon? Examining the implications of current protests. Testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Middle East, North Africa, and International Terrorism. United States Institute of Peace. Retrieved on November 25, 2019, from

Kushkush, I. (2019, April 13). Protesters in Sudan and Algeria have learned from the Arab Spring. The Atlantic. Retrieved November 25, 2019, from

Merriman, H. (2019, November 21). Lessons of uprisings around the world: The present moment, and possible future. International Center on Nonviolent Conflict. Retrieved November 25, 2019, from

Chenoweth, E., Dahlum, S., Kang, S., Marks, Z., Shay, C. W., Wig, T. (2019, November 16). This may be the largest wave of nonviolent mass movements in world history. What comes next? The Washington Post. Retrieved November 25, 2019, from

Nepstad, S. E. (2013, November 13). Civil resistance and military dynamics: Examining security force defections in the Arab Spring. Webinar, International Center on Nonviolent Conflict. Retrieved November 27, 2019, from

Peace Science Digest. (2019, February). Making civil resistance work against rightwing populism. Retrieved November 27, 2019, from

Keywords: nonviolent/civil resistance, national identity, security force defection, Arab Spring, color revolutions 

The following analysis appears in Volume 4, Issue 6 of the Peace Science Digest.