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Interview: Gene Sharp, The 'Clausewitz' Of Nonviolent Resistance

Gene Sharp, the "Karl Von Clausewitz of nonviolent warfare"Gene Sharp, the "Karl Von Clausewitz of nonviolent warfare"
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Gene Sharp, the "Karl Von Clausewitz of nonviolent warfare"
Gene Sharp, the "Karl Von Clausewitz of nonviolent warfare"
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.
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Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: Anthony Costello
February 22, 2011 12:56
Are you liberal, harvard elitists that out of touch with reality, or is the a further example of the intentional twisting of facts in order to fit the human narrative that you are trying to force upon free-thinking people? How do you simply call what were so openly and overtly violent, angry and hate-filled protests "peaceful?" How do you dare invoke the name of a Ghandi when talking about Egypt or any of the other revolutions occurring around the Middle East? It amazes me that Liberals can be so cavalier with objective truth and still get away with it. Have you know shame or sense of decency in the face of what is so obvious to those of us who have not been socially engineered to think that "Black is white" and "White is black/" I guess the power of the Liberal media allows for such blatant disregard of anything even close to truth. And this Harvard elitist, Mr. Sharp, does he really believe in his own teachings if he can honestly relate Ghandi's campaign against the British empire to the Sheikh Qaradawi inspired chaos of Egypt! What a fool. Here is the latest Wikipedia assessment of the "peaceful revolution in Egypt." This is not to mention the multiple attacks on journalists and near rape of one female reporter. I suppose that is the "maintaing of discipline", right?

"As of 16 February, at least 365 deaths had been reported, and those injured number in the thousands. The capital city of Cairo was described as "a war zone,"[21] and the port city of Suez has been the scene of frequent violent clashes. The government imposed a curfew that protesters defied and that the police and military did not enforce. The presence of Egypt's Central Security Forces police, loyal to Mubarak, was gradually replaced by largely restrained military troops. In the absence of police, there was looting by gangs that opposition sources said were instigated by plainclothes police officers. In response, civilians self-organised watch groups to protect neighbourhoods
In Response

by: ben
March 01, 2011 18:05
Waht exactly are you claiming Professor Sperling has done? He wrote a manual, "From Dicatorship to Democracy" that has been used in Serbia, Burma, Egypt which people have used to organize grass roots opposition to horrible despots. What about this offends you so deeply? He does not force this onto free thinking people (a contradiction if those people are truly free thinking) but rather they come to him for advice. And by the way, if you read the manual, you would realize that he does not claim such revolutions will be non-violent. The point is for the protesters to resist as much as possible the temptation to use violence and use shaming tactics against the government. Obviously, the protesters outsmarted Mubarak, in part, by also making alliances within the military.

And why do you assume the violence among the protesters you cite was the result of the protesters and not the government? There were several stories which demonstrated that Mubarak and the secret police were attempting to infiltrate the protesters to make it appear that they were using violence--in order to justify the use of force to crack down on the protesters. This is a common tactic to discredit such movements--even Governor Walker contemplated planting rabble rowsers to discredit his opposition protesters. As for Lora Logan's rape, how can you say who was behind it? Why would you assume it was a group of protesters?

Your liberal use of stock phrases (Harvard elitist, Liberal Media) suggest that you view many events through this myopic lense. Not every story is reducible to liberals vs conservatives: sometimes the goals of both ideologies align even if they differ on the means to achieve them. In this case, a non-violent grassroots ideology--and not the threats or actions of a foreign power-- inspired the overthrow of a dictator.


by: Bill Webb from: Phoenix AZ
February 23, 2011 19:45
In Cairo a large group of police where advancing on the crowd of protesters, who were hastily retreating. It did my heart good when 3 armored personnel carriers from the protesters side quickly arranged themselves side by side as a shield between the police and the protesters. The police stopped their advance and the protesters stopped their retreat. The army did not attack the police, only shield the protesters. The police would not have dared attack the arny. Then I knew the protesters would be OK and the revolution would be a success.

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