Credit for the “people power” revolutions that have swept longstanding despots out of power in the Middle East and now threaten many similar regimes goes first and foremost to the courageous people in those countries who have taken it upon themselves, often at great personal risk, to demand the right to rule their own lives.
But their efforts have also been aided and sometimes influenced by support and ideas from the wider world. And one of those influences, it has been suggested, is nonviolent action guru Gene Sharp (Sheryl Gay Stolberg, “Shy U.S. Intellectual Created Playbook Used in a Revolution,” New York Times, 16 February 2011)
When Egypt’s April 6 Youth Movement was struggling to recover from a failed effort in 2005, its leaders tossed around “crazy ideas” about bringing down the government, said Ahmed Maher, a leading strategist. They stumbled on Mr. Sharp while examining the Serbian movement Otpor, which he had influenced.
When the nonpartisan International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, which trains democracy activists, slipped into Cairo several years ago to conduct a workshop, among the papers it distributed was Mr. Sharp’s “198 Methods of Nonviolent Action,” a list of tactics that range from hunger strikes to “protest disrobing” to “disclosing identities of secret agents.”
Dalia Ziada, an Egyptian blogger and activist who attended the workshop and later organized similar sessions on her own, said trainees were active in both the Tunisia and Egypt revolts. She said that some activists translated excerpts of Mr. Sharp’s work into Arabic, and that his message of “attacking weaknesses of dictators” stuck with them.
Peter Ackerman, a onetime student of Mr. Sharp who founded the nonviolence center and ran the Cairo workshop, cites his former mentor as proof that “ideas have power.”
Sharp and his Albert Einstein Institution reject any credit for the events in the Middle East. As Stephen Zunes writes (“Credit the Egyptian people for the Egyptian revolution,” Truthout, 17 February 2011), outside training and ideas played at most a very minor role in the events in Egypt: Egyptian democracy activists “were already very knowledgeable and sophisticated in terms of strategic thinking about their struggle.”
There can be little doubt, however, that the concepts of nonviolent action played a vital role in the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt.
And predominantly nonviolent tactics may yet succeed even in countries where the so-called security forces are attempting to suppress public demonstrations through the use of brutal violence.