“The key to success is not how many people we put in, but how many we keep from coming back."
Gene Sharp is the single most influential proponent of nonviolent change in our time. His work has served as a how-to manual for activists in countries across Eastern Europe, Asia, and Africa, and has been translated into dozens of languages. And it played a role in the Arab Spring, as anti-Mubarak protesters in Egypt, particularly, found inspiration in his teachings.
Indeed, Sharp’s work is so globally respected that Gabonese activist Gloria Mika told the BBC that when she traveled to Boston to see Sharp in person, “I felt like I was going to meet the main man in terms of nonviolent resistance in the world.”
At eighty-three, Sharp shows little sign of slowing down. His new book is Sharp’s Dictionary of Power and Struggle: Language of Civil Resistance in Conflicts, a comprehensive glossary of terms and phrases used in nonviolent action. A recent documentary, Gene Sharp: How to Start a Revolution, focuses on his ideas.
I had met Sharp back in 2006 at his Boston office to interview him for The Progressive. In the wake of recent events, I e-mailed him questions to get his take on what’s happening with nonviolent resistance—in the Middle East, as well as here in the United States.
Q: What’s your reaction to the Arab Spring, especially Tunisia and Egypt?
Gene Sharp: The struggles in Tunisia and Egypt have demonstrated that the old preconceptions about nonviolent struggle are no longer valid. These cases demonstrate that nonviolent struggles are realistic and that they can be successful in a violent world.
There was a time when it was widely thought that nonviolent struggles required a charismatic leader, a mahatma, to be successful. We now know that is not true. Dependence on such a leader can even be a liability. Regular people can learn enough to enable them to create a wise and competent strategy for their self-liberation.
It was also once thought that violence works quickly, while nonviolent struggle takes forever. The events in Tunisia and Egypt have shown that belief to be false.
Q: Why did the region finally rise up?
Sharp:The region rose up against longtime oppression because people became confident that they could win by nonviolent defiance.
Q: What do the various Middle Eastern uprisings teach us about the efficacy of nonviolence, since some (notably Libya) have been quite violent?
Sharp: The start of the Libyan struggle demonstrates that dictatorships can be expected to behave brutally when they are attacked nonviolently, and that defecting military units must practice nonviolent discipline if they are not to wreck the nonviolent uprising. The Libyan case teaches nothing about the efficacy of nonviolent struggle, except that people will sometimes panic in tough times and that violent “assistance” can put control of the struggle into foreign hands.
Q: What’s your own assessment of the role you played in the Arab Spring?
Sharp: I lack sufficient hard facts at this time to assess what role my writings may have played. In any case, the primary credit for successes must go to the peoples of Tunisia and Egypt.
Q: What’s your take on recent peaceful protests in the United States, such as the Occupy Wall Street movement and the fight back in Wisconsin?
Sharp: The protest actions in Wisconsin and the “occupy” actions are encouraging for their intentions and initiative—and cautionary for the need for greater skill and advance thought.
Q: Where do we go from here, both globally and domestically, in terms of nonviolent civil disobedience?
Sharp: The breakthrough of understanding and recognition of nonviolent struggle that I have been predicting for more than thirty years has now happened. We are now challenged to move ahead with research, evaluation, policy studies, disciplined action, and education. Doctrinalism must be avoided and clear thinking cultivated. New possibilities can await us if we use our heads.
Amitabh Pal, the managing editor of The Progressive, is the author of the new book “ ‘Islam’ Means Peace: Understanding the Muslim Principle of Nonviolence Today” (Praeger). His longer interview with Sharp for the March 2007 issue of The Progressive is available online.