What I’m reading: Gene Sharp

January 21, 2013 — Leave a comment

The first time I heard of Gene Sharp was during the early weeks of the Arab Spring, when the masses were filling Tahrir Square in Cairo.  I heard about how-to pamphlets going viral among the demonstrators, written by an obscure writer in his mid-80s who had never really found a home within formal academia.  Writing out of his basement and a minimal organization known as the Albert Einstein Institute, Gene Sharp had somehow earned a reputation as the “father of nonviolent revolution” and inspired nonviolent activists from Burma to Egypt.  He’d even been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009, and is now the subject of a documentary called How to Start a Revolution.  Once I knew who he was, his name cropped up repeatedly.  On one occasion, a military strategist with COIN experience in the Philippines recommended studying his work.

Most of Sharp’s work is available for free on the Albert Einstein Institute website, so I loaded up my iPad before my most recent C-17 mission and spent my crew rests engaged with titles like From Dictatorship to Democracy, Self-Liberation, and There are Realistic Alternatives.

Taken together, Sharp’s body of work is based on a simple premise: dictators only function because frightened, demoralized people believe in the dictator’s power and grant their consent.  If they remove their consent, even the most brutal authoritarian regime will weaken and possibly even crumble.  Using violence against such a regime–whether direct or indirect–is dangerous, because it attacks the regime’s strength and is likely to end in violent tragedy for the revolutionaries.  Even if the revolutionaries find victory, the power distribution in the country remains the same and there is a risk of continued authoritarianism under the new government.

Nonviolent action is far more likely to bear fruit, Sharp writes, because it attacks the regime’s vulnerabilities and simultaneously sows the seeds for the thriving civil society and democratic mindset that will hopefully lead to better governance once the dictatorship ends.  Much of Sharp’s work is practical, helping would-be revolutionaries analyze their unique circumstances, plan strategy, and choose appropriate tactics and methods to enable those strategies.  He often references a list of 198 methods of nonviolent action.

Skeptics of nonviolent action need to understand something: Sharp’s nonviolence is not about cowering, spineless submission to tyranny.  It is not about “negotiating” deals with dictators and calling the resulting absence of bloodshed “peace.”  It is not about turning the other cheek.  Sharp’s nonviolence is about deliberate, courageous, and defiant effort to exercise power and undermine the pillars of a dictatorial regime.  Such nonviolent action is hard and exceptionally dangerous, and will probably be met with brutal repression.  Nonetheless, it can transform societies and governments.

It is fascinating reading Sharp’s work two years into the Arab Spring, because there is so much evidence to consider when evaluating his theory.  On the whole, Sharp’s theory seems to fit the facts quite well, with a couple notable exceptions.  I’ll comment on just a few points.

First, nonviolent action is indeed capable of leveraging tremendous power against a regime’s vulnerabilities.  Nonviolence can even be more powerful than violence.  The initial uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, which culminated in the hasty departure of both dictators, seem to confirm Sharp’s overall thesis.  Nonviolent action collapsed both regimes within weeks; I dread to consider what revolutionary violence would have led to. One might argue that Egypt would never have “flipped” without the backing of the Army, but this doesn’t necessarily contradict Sharp’s thesis.  He often notes the importance of institutions like the police and Army, and urges revolutionary strategists to consider ways to bring elements of these organizations to their side.  Also, the role of the Egyptian Army  illustrates Sharp’s point that a dictator depends on the consent of his people for survival; if that consent is withdrawn, the regime has nothing.

Second, strategy is essential.  Sharp laments that most revolutionaries and democratic activists have no grasp of strategy and no long-term plan for their actions, and warns that isolated use of nonviolent action will seldom bring real change.  I can’t think of a better example than Jordan, where a vast array of activists have engaged in countless demonstrations, sit-ins, grassroots campaigns, and online efforts.  These efforts–while often admirable–are characterized by a lack of higher organization and strategy, weak cooperation or outright conflict between groups, ambiguous goals, and a lack of sustainment and follow-through.  The result is frustration, burn-out, and a demoralizing failure to achieve tangible gains.

Third, nonviolent strategy must incorporate steps to prepare the society for what’s to come after the dictator departs.  To successfully transform from a dictatorship to a democracy, Sharp writes, a country’s power distribution must change.  People must feel empowered to speak and contribute to their future.  A lack of adequate planning is likely to result in the hijacking of power by a small group, perhaps even a group that didn’t play a central role in the nonviolent campaign.  It’s hard to think of a better example than the current situation in Egypt under the Muslim Brotherhood.

Fourth, it is very dangerous for nonviolent strategists to count on foreign assistance.  Sharp argues that there are no guarantees a foreign power will intervene on behalf of nonviolent activists, and even if they do, that intervention could lead to a host of new problems.  Although Syrian revolutionaries are not waging a nonviolent campaign at this point, it’s perhaps worth mentioning here, because the Syrian effort has depended from the beginning on foreign assistance that has failed to materialize.

If anything from the past two years appears to undermine Sharp’s work, it is the examples of Libya and Syria.  Qaddafi and Assad took a lesson from Ben Ali and Mubarak: if you want to survive, don’t capitulate when consent is withdrawn from your rule.  Instead, respond with savage violence.  That strategy seemed to work, and it ultimately took violent foreign intervention to end Qaddafi’s rule.  In Syria, initial efforts at nonviolent action were met with so much violence that the situation devolved into civil war.  I am still reflecting on what these examples mean for Sharp’s work; is it possible to imagine alternative histories, in which sustained nonviolent action would have worked despite the level of violent suppression?  Or is there a threshold at which nonviolent resistance is destined to fail?

Such questions deserve more scholarly attention, and I hope to find more good writing on the subject.  However, despite such questions, Gene Sharp’s work is important and needs to be read by anyone who cares about democratic activism or about strategy in general.

Mark Jacobsen

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A U.S. Air Force officer, C-17 pilot, Middle East specialist, and writer... a lifelong student dedicated to building a better world.

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