Gene Sharp's Nonviolent Impact

The successful Egyptian uprising demonstrates the ability of good ideas to travel across the world. Protest organizers there took major inspiration from the work of an American strategist of nonviolence, Gene Sharp, according to a recent New York Times story.

“They were especially drawn to a Serbian youth movement called Otpor, which had helped topple the dictator Slobodan Milosevic by drawing on the ideas of an American political thinker, Gene Sharp,” the paper reports. “The hallmark of Mr. Sharp’s work is well-tailored to Mr. Mubarak’s Egypt: He argues that nonviolence is a singularly effective way to undermine police states that might cite violent resistance to justify repression in the name of stability. ... Another influence, several [organizers] said, was a group of Egyptian expatriates in their 30s who set up an organization in Qatar called the Academy of Change, which promotes ideas drawn in part on Mr. Sharp’s work.”

Sharp is perhaps the most influential proponent of nonviolent action alive. He stresses the practical utility of nonviolence, de-emphasizing its moral aspects. His work has served as a how-to manual for activists in a swath of countries across Eastern Europe, Asia and the Middle East. His intellectual contribution to the Egyptian movement is further proof of his remarkable global impact.

Sharp propagates his ideas out of a two-room office in his three-story brick home in an East Boston residential neighborhood. There are a sum total of two people on staff, including Sharp himself. It is from such modest surroundings that Sharp is able to shape happenings worldwide.

Now, countries such as Egypt do have their own historical examples of nonviolence to emulate. In fact, Egypt won its independence from Britain early in the twentieth century through a largely nonviolent campaign, using demonstrations, strikes, and boycotts. (Gandhi stopped by in Egypt on the way to India after two decades in South Africa and was so impressed by the Egyptian effort that he incorporated a lot of the techniques into the satyagraha campaign he launched for Indian independence.)

Sharp is a humble man, and even in the case of Iran, where he’s said to have been an intellectual force behind the Green Movement, he has pointed to the country’s past.

Nonviolent “struggle broadly has important precedence in Iranian/Persian history, both in the 1906 democratic revolution and in the 1979 struggle against the Shah—all predominantly nonviolent forms of struggle,” he presciently told me when I interviewed him in 2006. “If somebody doesn’t decide to use military means, then it is very likely that there will be a peaceful national struggle there.”

But there’s no denying the contribution he’s made to the efforts of people yearning to be free. The Iranian protests sparked a huge increase in the copies downloaded in Farsi of his most popular manual, “From Dictatorship to Democracy.”

“These regimes always present themselves as all-powerful—absolutely omnipotent, so that resistance becomes futile,” Sharp told the Christian Science Monitor. “But if you learn this regime has these five ... or twenty weaknesses—and you can deliberately aggravate those weaknesses—it weakens the regime. It helps it fall apart.”

Another place he’s had a big effect on is Palestine, where his ideas were employed in the First Intifada against the Israeli occupation that started in the late 1980s, as I chronicle in my upcoming book on Islam and nonviolence. Palestinian activists compiled their list of 120 methods of nonviolent civil disobedience from Sharp’s three-volume work, “The Politics of Nonviolent Action,” a classic on the subject. Thousands of copies of Arabic translations of Sharp’s work were produced and put in public places. Palestinians devoured them clandestinely, giving them a status comparable to the underground literature in Eastern Europe in the 1970s and 1980s.

“I was there in the mid-1980s on at least three trips, and met with people in the West Bank and Jerusalem,” Sharp told me. “Most of the methods—90 percent of the methods—used in the First Intifada were that of nonviolent struggle.”

A charge made against Sharp by the Iranian government and Hugo Chavez—and echoed by some in this country—is that he acts in cahoots with U.S. officialdom in subverting anti-American governments. This is absurd, since Sharp’s work has played a significant role in movements against Israel and Mubarak’s Egypt, the two most pro-American countries in the Middle East.

“Rather than being a tool of imperialism, Dr. Sharp’s research and writings have inspired generations of progressive peace, labor, feminist, human rights, environmental, and social justice activists in the United States and around the world,” stated a 2008 open letter signed by Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky, among many others.

Gene Sharp is a global treasure who deserves much more recognition here at home.

If you liked this article by Amitabh Pal, the managing editor of The Progressive magazine, please check out his article entitled "Rumsfeld Memoir Absolutely Worthless."

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