Preemptive funeral marches

[NOTE: I wrote this draft on 17 February, the first day of the Libyan revolution. At the time there had been no reports of deaths. This article sadly became irrelevant to the Libyan situation very quickly. Still, there are many revolutions out there waiting to happen, so I thought I would share my thoughts anyway. Please read, therefore, with a historical lens in place].

In order to generate a mass movement that is unstoppable, you need to get very large numbers of people engaged, and at many points across a country.

The need to engage in a less concentrated way is critical. Most crowd control tactics use a large mass of force against any protestor group, certainly in relation to a core or front-line of protestors. The Egyptian protest movement gained force when a group split from Tahrir Square ( and moved to the other high profile locations. This divided up the state response forces, and also created the real risk that mote such splinter groups would emerge, straining the forces of repression.

The mass movements in Tunisia (, and in the Green Movement in Iran (–2010_Iranian_election_protests), were activated by funeral processions for people killed in previous protests. Think about it. One protest, two people get killed. Two separate funeral processions, lots of people, another three people get killed (and more injured). Now more mourning processions for the first two people who died, and new ones for the new deaths.  And more security services deaths.

By the way, as an aside: the security services report to the head of the ruling regime. It is crass stupidity to believe that there is some kind of lapse down the chain of the command, or that “we will investigate who is responsible‘. There is no one else who could be responsible, in the direction and deployment of such forces.  To admit otherwise is to admit one is not in control of the country, and there is and way any self-loving autocrat is going to admit that.

If one looks at engaging the masses, these funeral processions, particularly in places where this is a public way of life, is a good hook to attach engagement exercises. In contrast, cultures that prefer private ‘wakes’, in small homes, are not as good at spreading attention. They miss out on the ‘see the feet on the street’ approach.

Indeed, in the seminal activist handbook by Gene Sharp (, ‘From Dictatorship to Democracy’, he includes Funeral Processions as one of the tactics to gather large numbers of people and initiate or encourage mass-scale non-violent opposition. [NOTE: I only read Gene Sharp’s book in March 2011, so all my early thinking was done without being smart enough to have read the good stuff first – get the free download  at].

In the initial stages of regime change, relatively few people have been killed, if any. This means that the tactic of ‘see the feet on the street’ cannot start working. So you either have to wait for people to get killed, or engineer people getting killed – a very horrible and unconscionable thought, especially for non-violent protest movements – or…

And this is where we get controversial, albeit in a logical way…

Given the history of the state response in autocratic states, it is inevitable that people will be killed by the state and military police, and by the intelligence services (and the ‘rent-a-thug’ tactic, a failing tactic that is likely to become more popular, without actually working). So, given the inevitability of death, how about leap-frogging the bad bits, and jumping ahead to the ‘see the feet on the street’ method.

How about preemptive funerals for the sons and daughters who have not yet been killed? Around the country. Engaging all generations. Amplifying the themes and rational for the change to democracy. With all the emotive language of anger and rage over an unfair death, a lost life of a loved one.

If I were in Iran, Algeria, Chad or Uganda, I would be soliciting people willing to be ‘future dead people’. Ideally they will be well-known in their communities, potentially the children of well-known people, maybe a celebrity in their own right. I’d also consider the leaders of any current protest activity, and people who are likely targets anyway for incarceration or assassination. I’m thinking lawyers responsible for human rights (Libya – Fathi Terbil’s arrest kicked off the Libyan revolution),  prominent doctors at the major hospitals… People with stories that will tug the heart strings, and activate people at scale.

Fathi Terbil - Libya human rights lawyer

This needs to be done honestly, in the clear. Democratic regime change of the sort we are witnessing in North Africa is all about the people, and inspiring a new sense of hope, openness and inclusiveness. It is not about secret closed-door deals, or sneaky tricks. In the world of Wikileaks and ubiquitous camera phones with internet access, assume that everything becomes open.

The movement of preemptive funerals should also be designed to be viral from the start. This needs to be achieved both through technology routes (such as Facebook and Twitter), but most importantly the traditional face-to-face channels people use in communities (posters in frequented spots, local activists, etc).

It might even be possible to use these techniques to massively accelerate the movement. Part of the reason why Tunisia sparked off in a big way was the immolation event of the street trader in December. His suicide action created the impression that there were people in the country who believed so passionately about the need to change, to do something, that they were willing to make the sacrifice of their own life. ‘Hey, if he can do that, why am I so afraid?’

So, perhaps you can get people to start thinking whether the cause they are working towards, in a non-violent way, is worth being dead for. Not actually being dead, because  that would be very sad and cause pain to those around you. But maybe there is an angle in being visibly willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for a big cause.

This end conclusion is perhaps too far. It might emerge anyway as an outcome of the preemptive funerals. However, the core of the concept is a strong one. In cultures where they visibly demonstrate their mourning for the dead, this tactic has proven to energize the masses at local level, and to accelerate the pressure for change. Very doable.


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