The writings of Gene Sharp, an 83-year-old former Harvard researcher, include the widely distributed and translated how-to manual "From Dictatorship to Democracy" and have been used to promote nonviolent resistance in countries as different as Serbia and Egypt.
Known as the "Karl Von Clausewitz of nonviolent warfare," Sharp recently spoke with RFE/RL correspondent Courtney Rose Brooks about nonviolent struggle, the Egyptian revolution, and the wave of protests that continue to spread across the Middle East and North Africa.
RFE/RL: The Serbian NGO Canvas, formed by veterans of the opposition youth movement "Otpor" that helped overthrow Slobodan MIlosevic, uses your works to train dissidents in Egypt and elsewhere. What's it like to see all these countries in the Middle East use your teachings in order to try to turn their countries into democracies?
Gene Sharp: Well, I wouldn’t refer to my teachings, maybe that's not the word you really wanted to use, but my studies, based on research and analysis. It's very good that my work, that people find it helpful, that's very good. But all the credit for the Egyptian revolution goes to Egyptians. Not to me.
RFE/RL: And what do you think of their work, of the revolution itself?
Sharp: It's very brave. They demonstrated their bravery quite some time ago, in the early days of the struggle. It was repeatedly announced on CNN and other sources that people have lost their fear, and that casting off of fear was something which Gandhi always emphasized in his thinking about the struggles in India. If people are no longer afraid, then that dictatorship is in big trouble.
But they also managed to maintain to a remarkable degree -- not perfectly, but to a remarkable degree -- their nonviolent discipline even when they were being attacked. They often were saying, people were interested in maybe using some violence, and people were saying peaceful, peaceful, peaceful. And that was even in demonstrations of over a million people. That's an amazing achievement and was key to their success.
RFE/RL: And where do you hope to see Egypt go from here?
Sharp: Well, I hope they keep it democratic, and they don't have any group that seizes control in the period of transition and set up a new dictatorship, because that can happen.
Keeping The Discipline
RFE/RL: What do you think about the rapid spread of the nonviolent protests across the Middle East and North Africa?
Sharp: Well, [if they can] keep that discipline, that's very good. If it just becomes a path so it's riots and violence and so, I think they lose. If they use their brains and organizational skills and keep it disciplined and nonviolent, that's very positive. This is a major tool for creating democratic institutions.
RFE/RL: Comparing the Egyptian and Iranian regimes, to, for instance, the Serbian, or Georgian, or Ukrainian regimes, what do you think are some of the challenges that protesters in the Middle East face in countries that are arguably more repressive or more violent than the earlier prerevolutionary societies were?
Sharp: Well, those revolutions were not always easy and really should not be dismissed quite so quickly.... I think that it's very important that these are spreading, that this can be a tool if they use their brains and plan, is to study what you're doing. Spontaneous movements develop sometimes and that can be very powerful.
In Tunisia, for example, it appears to have been largely spontaneous based on a small act of defiance, in a small, poor town in a distant part of the country from the capital. If this is spreading that will be quite good but they must not, then, in moments of difficulties, think they can defeat the military forces and the police forces of the government; they must retain the nonviolent discipline.
Advancing The Technology
RFE/RL: Do you think social media has added to your original studies and theories, and how do you think it fits into galvanizing these forces to overthrow the regimes?
Sharp: It's very clear they were used in both Tunisia and in Egypt. I'm not a specialist on those technologies, but it can't be denied that these were very important in enabling people to communicate with each other and act in a disciplined way together.
RFE/RL: Is there anything else you want to say about your work or the revolutions?
Sharp: Well, there's a little bit of my writings that seem to have been helpful. Those were based on many years of research, which didn't seem to be doing anything at the time, you know.
But the research is extremely important, the resources should be made available for education and research and guidance in developing this alternative; it's an alternative not only to violence but to passivity and submission in face of oppression.
And this is something which is a long, centuries-and-centuries-old history that people have tried to do this, and now it looks like they are learning to do it more skillfully and more effectively, where people would have normally dismissed that as a possibility, even.