LONDON (Reuters) - Gene Sharp’s writings on how to use non-violent techniques to bring down autocratic regimes are often cited as a major influence on the activists who led the campaign against Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak.
The 83-year-old American academic had never met or spoken to those behind the successful uprising. But he has strong views on what happened in Egypt and what is happening elsewhere in the Middle East. First and foremost, he stresses the importance of preparation and discipline. The Egyptian protesters were prepared while the Libyans were not, Sharp said in an hour-long telephone interview from Boston, where he runs the Albert Einstein Institution, a non-profit organization that advances the study and use of nonviolent action in conflicts around the world.
Discipline means remaining non-violent despite brutality and provocation. “Sometimes the people using non-violent techniques don’t fully understand the methods,” says Sharp, who has written numerous books on the history of non-violent struggles, including two books on India’s Mahatma Gandhi. “They think that if they refrain from violence, their opponents will too.”
Quite the opposite, Sharp argues. The more authoritarian a regime, the more you have to expect it to resort to violence. That’s partly because it’s in its DNA; but also because it deliberately uses violence to provoke a response, knowing that this will solidify its own power base.
On the other hand, if protesters can maintain a disciplined non-violent approach, the regime’s brutality will boomerang on itself. Sharp calls this “political jujitsu.” Massacres undermine the support of all but the most hardened members of an autocrat’s entourage. Soldiers and policemen find it hard to mow down peaceful civilians. The turning point in the Egyptian revolution was when the army said it would not fire on the crowd in Tahrir Square.
Sharp says political jujitsu can be used in situations that look particularly unpromising — for example, Norway during World War Two. When the puppet regime of Vidkun Quisling sent teachers who refused to promote Nazi theories to concentration camps, further protests erupted. Eventually, the teachers were released.
The key mistake in a non-violent struggle is resorting to violence oneself. This is not a matter of morality but of efficacy. A classic case, he argues, were the protests against Russia’s Czar Nicholas II in 1905. After hundreds of people were killed or injured in a peaceful march on the Winter Palace, the army was on the point of mutiny as soldiers did not have the stomach for further bloodshed. But it closed ranks after the Bolsheviks resorted to violence, according to Sharp — and the Romanovs lasted another 12 years.
Sharp believes the same mistake was made in Libya. Early on in the revolution, some parts of Gadaffi’s army joined the rebels’ cause, especially in the second city of Benghazi. It was good that the reliability of the army had been undermined, he says, but bad when some soldiers turned their guns the other way. That allowed the crumbling regime to close ranks. Ideally, the disaffected soldiers would have sat in their barracks and gone on strike.
But wouldn’t Libya’s protestors have been massacred if they hadn’t resorted to violence? This happened, for example, in Yemen, where 52 anti-government protesters were killed in the capital on March 18 by plain-clothes snipers; and in Syria, where at least 37 demonstrators were killed on March 23 in the southern town of Deraa.
Sharp’s answer is “probably yes.” But he argues that the need to take casualties is no different in non-violent struggles than in violent ones; and when one suffers casualties, in both cases, it is necessary to maintain discipline. To run a successful non-violent struggle, one has to overcome fear.
But what happens if you haven’t been trained like the Egyptian revolutionaries and can’t therefore maintain discipline in the face of brutal attacks? Sharp says you shouldn’t start a struggle you are not competent to see through. Better to start with smaller campaigns until you build up expertise and discipline, as happened in Egypt, before you try to overthrow a whole regime.
That said, Sharp acknowledges that it can be hard for protesters in one part of the Arab world to stand idly by when the whole region is in ferment. And he says it is sometimes possible to win without discipline and training: he points to non-violent uprisings in El Salvador and Guatemala in 1944. But such an approach is risky.
Sharp also says it is vital that protestors don’t try to short-cut their road to freedom by relying on outside intervention. Part of the reason is that the international community has its own agenda. But it’s also because it’s “extremely important for the future that the victory is won by the people on the ground. They have to cherish that victory.” If you rely on others to get you your freedom, you don’t overcome fear. You are then more vulnerable to the next dictator. He thinks that won’t be the case with Egypt’s revolutionaries — whom he’d be very happy to meet.
Editing by Simon Robinson and Sara Ledwith