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If you paid too much attention to some media commentators you might think the Arab uprisings were caused by Gene Sharp, an elderly American professor who writes books about nonviolent political defiance. A former assistant editor of Peace News, Sharp has been propelled into the limelight by events in north Africa, his ideas now credited with inspiring movements from Indonesia to Serbia to Egypt.
It makes sense, then, for Merlin Press to reprint Sharp’s classic text: his 1993 treatise From Dictatorship to Democracy, a generic guide on how to bring down a dictatorship. It is a short and simple book with two key arguments. First, dictatorships cannot survive without ‘the assistance of the people they rule’. Second, violence must be avoided because it is ‘the very type of struggle with which the oppressors nearly always have superiority’. The book ends with a now famous list of 198 methods of nonviolent action.
All dictatorships are taken to be the same. The only relevant factors are the determination of a dictator to rule and the willingness of a people to acquiesce. Revolution can happen any time the people wake up. Economic power relations within society are not mentioned. Freedom is a federal, liberal state.
The approach is conspiratorial. ‘Planners’ must have a ‘grand strategy’. But in real life revolutions are most often spontaneous and feature violence and nonviolence simultaneously. This was true of Egypt, exemplified in the brave defence of Tahrir Square with Molotovs and rocks.
Some Egyptians, particularly the publicity-savvy April 6 Movement, did cite Sharp. But as prominent activist Hossam el-Hamalawy says, most activists’ inspiration was ‘not Gene Sharp, whose name I first heard in my life only in February after we toppled Mubarak’. Egyptians even started a sarcastic hashtag on Twitter, #GeneSharpTaughtMe, to mock the notion.
Sharp is not responsible for some journalists exaggerating his influence. But as the complex reality in Egypt shows, there is no simple how-to manual for revolution.