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Egypt’s revolution vindicates Gene Sharp’s theory of nonviolent activism

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Cairo demonstrators and militaryWhereas most pundits have focused on the role of social media in Egypt’s revolution, what impressed me most was that one of the most powerful, entrenched regimes in the world was toppled by a nonviolent uprising. Does anyone doubt that if the protesters had resorted to violence, they would have been violently crushed by Mubarak?

Egypt represents an extraordinary vindication of the philosophy of Gene Sharp, a political scientist whose work I described here last July. For decades, Sharp has argued that nonviolence is the best means of overthrowing corrupt, violent, repressive regimes. He disseminates his ideas through books such as From Dictatorship to Democracy: A Conceptual Framework for Liberation (1993), which has been translated into 24 languages, including Arabic, and can be downloaded from the Web site of The Albert Einstein Institution, a tiny nonprofit founded by Sharp in 1983.

Sharp is not a moralist but a pragmatist, who bases his claims on an empirical analysis of history. He asserts that violence, even in the service of a just cause, often results in more problems than it solves, leading in turn to greater injustice and suffering; hence, the best way to oppose an unjust regime is through nonviolent action. Nonviolent movements are also more likely than violent ones to garner internal and international support and to lead to democratic, non-militarized regimes.

Nonviolent resistance, Sharp acknowledges, requires enormous dedication, courage and hard work, all of which may culminate in failure, including the death of resistors. But nonviolent resistance has played a much more significant role in human history than generally acknowledged by historians. "Using nonviolent action, people have won higher wages, broken social barriers, changed government policies, frustrated invaders, paralyzed an empire and dissolved dictatorships," Sharp wrote.

In 494 B.C., working-class plebeians in Rome, protesting their treatment at the hands of the Roman consuls, staged a kind of sit-down strike on a hill near the city, later called the Sacred Mount. They remained there for several days, disrupting everyday life, until the consuls agreed to many of their demands. Roman soldiers employed a similar nonviolent strategy more than 200 years later to win concessions from the Roman Senate.

Nonviolent resistance even worked in Nazi-occupied Norway. In 1942, Norway’s puppet leader Vidkun Quisling ordered teachers to join a "corporation" that would promote fascist principles. As many as 10,000 of Norway’s 12,000 teachers refused to join the organization and signed statements of protest. Quisling had 1,000 teachers arrested and sent to concentration camps, but the others maintained their resistance. Quisling finally gave in, allowing the imprisoned teachers to return home.

The necessary first step toward changing an unjust regime, Sharp emphasizes, is for people to reject the self-fulfilling view of themselves as weak; after all, even the most brutal tyrants must rely to some extent on the cooperation of citizens, not just in the military but throughout the society. Sharp is not the first scholar to offer this insight. The Scottish philosopher David Hume wrote: "Were you to preach, in most parts of the world, that political connections are founded together on mutual consent or a mutual promise, the magistrate would soon imprison you, as seditious, for loosening the lies of obedience, if your friends did not before shut you up, as delirious, for advancing such absurdities."

Asking how 30,000 Englishmen "subdued" 200 million Indians, Tolstoy responded: "Do not the figures make it clear that it is not the English who have enslaved the Indians, but the Indians who have enslaved themselves?" Gandhi, Sharp’s most important influence, said his campaigns against British rule required convincing his fellows Indians to "consider it a shame to assist or cooperate with a government that had forfeited all title to respect or support."

Millions of Egyptians apparently reached a similar conclusion about the Mubarak regime. Even Sharp seemed taken aback by the success of the Egyptian uprising. "I would not have predicted this," he told the Catholic National Reporter 10 days before Mubarak’s resignation. Sharp said the Egyptian revolution may be "the most powerful example of ‘people power’… in world history." May Egypt—and the writings of Gene Sharp—help other people fighting injustice recognize the power of nonviolence.



Photo of Cairo’s Tahrir (Liberation) Square courtesy Wiki Commons

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  1. 1. jplaca 4:17 pm 02/11/2011

    I was very happy to see that the Egyptian public was able to overthrow a 30 year dictatorship within 18 days. Although 300 people have died, it is very impressive that they were able to commit a revolution through non-violent means.

    I was thinking about "why" such a non-violent revolution is possible. I came to the conclusion that since it is a peaceful protest, the revolution HAS to be supported by foreign nations, thus increasing foreign pressure on the dictatorship. I think that THIS is the key for a successful, non-violent revolution; foreign influence…

    …if all else fails – go riot.

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  2. 2. letxequalx 7:05 pm 02/11/2011

    The first revolution comes as a result of the real the dissatisfaction of the people of Egypt with their government. The second revolution will come as result governments in the region supporting various religious groups in Egypt in an attempt to strong arm the formation of a theocracy. The battle will be long and bloody and will result in suffering and oppression in Egypt much greater than what has been experienced in recent years.

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  3. 3. lreed 7:24 pm 02/11/2011

    The democracies of the world should immediately begin exploring with the Egyptians what their view of "democracy" is. If a new Egyptian constitution fails to have appropriate safeguards for minority rights, safeguards that can be institutionally enforced, "democracy" may include suppression of minorities who fail to have some prevailing view held by the majority.
    According to a a survey conducted in Egypt and in six other majority Muslim countries by the Washington-based Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, 84% of Egyptians believed that those who left Islam should be put to death. Further, 49 percent say they favor Hamas, 30 percent favor Hezbollah, and 20 favor al-Qaeda. At every opportunity, established democracies must encourage the support of minority rights in the nascent democracies of the Middle East.

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  4. 4. MrGneissGuy 7:28 pm 02/11/2011

    I was also impressed by the nonviolence of this revolution. Quite frankly I was surprised it seemed to work so well. I was halfway expecting another Tienanmen Square atrocity to occur. Was social media networking really the deciding factor? Wouldn’t it be crazy if Facebook and Twitter became the new AK-47 of revolutions?

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  5. 5. KachinaPeak 10:33 pm 02/11/2011

    I would not call throwing firebombs nonviolent. It’s interesting how people describe events to suite their own ideology. Stones and firebombs precipitate further actions. The death toll in Egypt is close to 300. Not an astronomical number; however, do not gloss this over by calling it nonviolent.

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  6. 6. Iahmad 1:05 am 02/12/2011

    It is interesting to see how comments are already posted about future religious conflicts and rights of minorities in Egypt. I wonder whether such people go beyond CNN, NYT and Fox Islamophobic rhetoric. Yes religion will play a role in Egypt the way it plays role in West, Israel and India. Minorities rihts are in constitution in many nations but look at its abuse. You can arrest a Mulsim in US, Europe and many of their agent states in Asia. Such arrests, torture and detention without charges is justified in the name of "War on Terror". Dont these people have rights in other societies. Abusers of constitution will get away with crimes whether in Egypt, US, EU or other states. Defenders of minority rights must work in their neighboorhood and nation before raising fingers at others.

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  7. 7. lreed 9:16 am 02/12/2011

    The previous writer fails to understand that it is because minority rights have been abused in many established Western democracies, we can appreciate why it is so important that in new democracies the people avoid such mistakes and not simply believe their new power-as long as it is majoritarian-is legitimately used against minorities.

    Muslims are not legally oppressed in the United States (or Europe). Thought-to-be terrorists, however, have not always been given the fundamental due process they should have, and that is of great concern to many of us who recognize the strong minority protections emphasized in the U.S. Bill of Rights. It is why I was glad to see that President Obama urged first that negotiations in Egypt over a new democratic government should address "protecting the fundamental rights of all citizens."

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  8. 8. ludhriq 2:13 pm 02/12/2011

    I wonder what criteria or standard Gene Sharp based his statement when he said the Egyptian revolution may be "the most powerful example of ‘people power’… in world history." In terms of numbers, the People Power that happened on 1986 in the Philippines had the most number of people actively participating on the streets. There was no internet or cellphones to help organize them, but purely out of concern and desire to stop a 20 years rule of tyranny. It was non-violent. In fact, it was supposedly a prayer march that extended and transformed into a peaceful revolution of the people. And like the Egyptians, the civilians hugged the military and distributed flowers, even inserting some into gun muzzles. Anyway, the important thing here is that, this sort of activism is spreading. And yes, I agree John, may this help cleanse the world of tyranny.

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  9. 9. notslic 12:28 am 02/13/2011

    Let us just wait and see if the people get something better, or worse, for their trouble. Personally, I don’t have much faith in them or their "revolution". We give a billion worth of weapons to them for not waging war on the Jews and we give a billion to the Jews for not raging war on Egypt. I think we should just stop the funding and let them fight it out on their own nickel. No matter what….we pay for it and it sucks.

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  10. 10. anth2 5:00 am 02/13/2011

    jplaca, with respect, ‘foreign interference’ was not responsible for the success of the popular uprising nor its success in dethroning Mubarack. Such myths were also prevalent after the people power overthrow of Marcos in the Philippines. Far from accurate – what they do is remove the agency from the millions of ordinary people who deliberately withdrew their tacit support for the dictatorship and began, on mass, to non-cooperate. The US, like the rest of the international community was taken by surprise by the uprising. (Obama, apparently was cross at his intelligence agencies for not ‘warning’ him). In fact the Egyptian movement was able to successfully draw the international community away from its support from Mubarack. The scale, persistence and nonviolent nature of the movement forced the US to adopt the stance it did and withdraw its support for the regime. Most critically, the movement drew other key sectors of Egyptian society, the mines, transport and ports workers, medical professions, legal professionals, key journalists and eventually state-run media, and even the rank and file military – to withdraw their support form Mubarack. The deliberate and constant fraternization with the rank and file soldiers meant the army was unreliable to carry out repression, even if ordered. All this is entirely consistent with Sharps’ consent theory of power and well articulated in the literature of nonviolent struggle. Non-cooperation was the core dynamic. The US were but a side player for once.

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  11. 11. RogerE 4:04 pm 02/13/2011

    I am hoping that the rare thing, a transition to something truly better, something that lasts and flourishes as a spring blossom becomes a flower in full bloom…that this becomes the well-nourished result of the rising of the people of Egypt.

    Freedom is a worthy goal.

    Best wishes
    RogerE

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  12. 12. Pazuzu 12:53 pm 02/14/2011

    But the firebombs were thrown by Mubarak’s supporters, not the democracy demonstrators.

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  13. 13. billberit 4:32 pm 02/14/2011

    This couldn’t be further from the truth! A handful of boisterous rabble did not make history. The behind the scene arm wrestling between international players likely did, along with the help of internet savvy activists.
    What segment of the Egyptian population has internet. What was the percentage of the Cairo population that was represented on the town square where all cameras focused on the banner waving. In a city of several million inhabitants, those represented a fraction of the polity and even less at the national scale. Get it right and speak the truth!

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  14. 14. jgrosay 4:49 am 02/15/2011

    I’m sure Mubarak never will act violently against people, as it will represent a suicidal, besides a criminal act. In the last days of Franco regime we had the same in Spain: demonstrations against it that some places received strong police action and somewhere else not. The final result was that the people become grateful to Juan Carlos action, when he was also part of the government that put the pressure on, it’s some kind of a psychological torture. Is anybody sure that the men that eventually may replace Mubarak are more peaceful for Egypt and the region than he is ?. Sometimes solutions are worse than problems, and an evidence that democracy probably exists nowhere is the serial killings of Kennedys. Salut +

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  15. 15. 4karats 9:21 pm 02/15/2011

    Next – China, we hope, although the word ‘Egypt’ was suddenly removed by the communist government in Red China from the Chinese internet when the recent Egypt revolution took place. The fear of chain reaction, of course.

    How to find all the money that Mubarack has hidden? After finding it, how to return to the Egyptian people? These are definitely some of the questions that the whole world would like to ask right now.

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  16. 16. SmithMillCreek 2:24 pm 02/16/2011

    Kachina- You need to bone up on nonviolent theory (and John needs to explain it better!).

    Nonviolence doesn’t guarantee that no one dies. It is that no one dies by the hands of the oppressed.

    The vast bulk of the 300 deaths were unarmed democracy protesters shot by paid people with guns & other lethal weapons, most of whom will be silent about their role in this, just as many racists who were violent in the civil rights movement are just as happy to not focus on that.

    If the protesters had been armed, and shot at the thugs; thousands of people in the square would have been slaughtered & Mubarak could have sold this to the public as regrettable but necessary. There was no way that a slaughter of the crowd would have been accepted, however.

    Here’s a list of 16 massacres, none of which solved the problem for the people with guns, and each of which backfired for the regime:
    http://smithmillcreek.blogspot.com/2009/06/massacres-don-work-for-long.html

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  17. 17. parsonz 6:16 pm 02/17/2011

    Theres only one problem with Sharps methods of reasoning. The Egyptian protests we’re indeed violent in part for several days. Quote’ More than 300 people are estimated to have died in Egypt since the turmoil began, according to human rights groups’… Yes there was also peaceful campaigning that continued in mass numbers though only AFTER the fact that many people had already caused widespread damage and set fire to buildings as a result of the chaos which ensued. It was partly this violent show of commitment and strong stance by the people of Egypt that ultimately initiated Mubarak’s departure and which proved defiance to the rule of Mubarak’s power. This in turn created the infrastructure necessary to provide the strength in numbers which stacked up in favor of all Egyptians and against the word of Mubarak. Unfortunately without the turmoil and violent clashes that caused such widespread destruction and damage to property, the peaceful protests had no real cause for concern other than for Mubarak to continue in power until the upcoming election date which was scheduled for September. 

    The military did not intervene other than to separate some Pro-Mubarak supporters from that of anti-Mubarak protesters. Why? Because the military knew they were out numbered and fighting a losing battle which would ultimately destroy the entire context for which the military were supposed to be protecting – its citizens, society and religion. Mubarak had no where to go. The people of Egypt threatened more violence every day, some wore white shirts displaying slogans that they were happy to die for Egypt in the name of democracy. We should show the Egyptian people a little respect for what they have accomplished and it was only their courage that put the final nail in the coffin over Hosni Mubarak’s ruling regime. Anyone who disagrees with what they done or should have done or not done in accordance with Professor Sharps methods of reasoning is in my view stabbing the Egyptian people in the back and not giving them the recognition and due credit they deserve. 

    To the families of the victims of this tragic loss of life, we must portray their lost loved ones as heros and for those people that have helped changed the future of Egypt for eternity – for it is without them that Egypt may not be the same as it is to this very day. For those who died, they we’re all victims of a heavy handed regime, not violent in nature themselves but as heros who protected their human values like a Saint protects its moral obligations to that of gods way. Professor Sharps heart is in the right place, any war against another is unjustified which one would also agree any war is not the answer though it was without justice for which the Egyptian uprising cemented itself to liberate and free the people of Egypt for eternity. Indeed respect also goes to those peaceful protestors who did not take part in retaliation toward the heavy handed Police brutality, Military defiance or any other authoritarian pressure by Mubarak’s rule at that time, however it has taken thirty years of torture, corruption and poverty for this to eventuate and to liberate the people of Egypt, it had gone far enough without the need for violent protest which tells us a lot about the very nature of the Egyptian people and it tells us they are a peaceful society and have been for a long time. Lets not get confused or caught up in a debate over ‘Do we condone violence?’ is was merely a sacrifice the Egyptian people were willing to give to their next generation so to not suffer the same demise which they had endured for far too long. That is the respect they deserve and they were entitled to it. Anyone who disagrees or by means try to find some other ‘terminology’ to justify the same results by notion that violent clashes were unnecessary does not in my view fully understand what has happened in Egypt and will not understand what is about to happen to all other hierarchy by which single dictatorship rules over a majority.       

    It is correct in saying peaceful protesting is an effective tool against the rule of law and by law it is legally justified and everyones right to protest given it is peaceful. Though many also agree only a majority vote in a democracy can have a final say that has any true effect for which will make changes to government. The Egyptian people had neither a government or a democracy and by their right showed the world a ruling dictatorship regime is out dated and corrupt in many respects. Peaceful protests do not work in these circumstances and to all the single dictatorship regimes still in power as to this day they will see a continued violence of repression by the people of their countries until they have their final say. 

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  18. 18. parsonz 6:17 pm 02/17/2011

    http://libertariansocialistmovement.blogspot.com/

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  19. 19. neuron 12:14 am 02/18/2011

    This seems to me to be a selective reading of history. As so often happens, Gene Sharp and his friends see only the examples that support their theory. For every successful mass peoples’ protest like the Philippines, there is a Tienanmen Square, where non-violent protesters were simply crushed by the regime. Sometimes non-violent protest works, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes it’s the right thing to do, sometimes only forceful reaction will end barbarism. Does anybody seriously suggest that the non-violent appeasement practiced by Britain and France in the mid 1930′s was the best reaction to the rise of Nazism? If the early Nazis were strongly opposed (yes, with guns), rather than with the trite Norwegian sit-in quoted in the article, maybe the second world war would not have happened. Whether non-violent protest achieves real long term success depends on so many things. Gandhi is often cited as an example, but if Gandhi used the same non-violent techniques against say, the Belgians rather than the British, he and his followers would have been cut down with machine guns. The US rid themselves of a dominating power not by non-violent protesting, but by fighting for their freedom. There seems to be a huge amount of romantism in many western observers when they see spontaneous outpourings of rage against an oppressive regime, and they cheer about their pet theory when it works (like the Philippines), and ignore it or find excuses when it doesn’t (like in Iran). Maybe non-violent protest will end in a better regime, maybe it won’t.

    I just don’t buy it as a general rule that non-violence is always the best thing to do, there are too many counter examples.

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  20. 20. KittyAntonikWakfer 6:11 pm 02/18/2011

    Those reading this brief article about Gene Sharp’s writings on non-violent protest would profit considerably by actually reading the author’s works. The methods he details are numerous and he includes their historical practice with varying levels of success. He also notes where certain methods were not used but very well might have been successful.

    The peaceful street protests in current usage in the Middle East and elsewhere are good but insufficient in the various methods of non-violence actually possible but being overlooked.

    It is the government enforcers themselves who are *key* to it all government atrocities continuing, as it is with the initial implementation of whatever form of words used by the rulers. If the vast majority of the much larger in number non-enforcers treat the enforcers as 3rd class citizens *because* of their jobs, few will want to continue in such government positions.

    Selective (discriminating) association to exclude those who cause harm – and also toward those who support such harm-causing – is a potentially very powerful method of non-violent action, referred to as ostracism and shunning by many down through the ages. It is included in Gene Sharp’s 2nd volume (of 3), "The Politics of Nonviolent Action", Chapter 4, "The Methods of Social Noncooperation". I and husband Paul Wakfer use the term "negative Social Preferencing" for purposeful non-voluntary association (contrasted with positive Social Preferencing towards those who do provide value) and have described how it is the ultimate effector of social order in a truly free society (The Freeman Society) – http://selfsip.org/solutions/Social_Preferencing.html

    The message of Gandhi’s that is the most important in my evaluation is the one conveyed in his description of his own speeches: "My speeches are intended to create ‘disaffection’ as such, that people might consider it a shame to assist or cooperate with a government that had forfeited all title to respect or support."

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  21. 21. RBanerji 6:57 pm 02/20/2011

    Not sure that Egypt is a good example of the success of nonviolence against the military. Egypt’s military drives much of their consumer economy, so they have strong incentives to align themselves with the consumer base of the country vs. the government; this is a highly unique pairing of roles in an autocratic government, and not a factor in Bahrain, Libya, or any of the other countries currently facing massive populist uprisings.

    Also, as with many examples of non-violence, much of the violent context of the Indian independence movement is excised in the retelling. Alongside Gandhi’s nonviolent non-cooperation was Bose’s urban/guerrilla work using Indian soldiers trained by the British and seasoned in British military adventures in South Asia, as well as a violent Naxalite movement still active and committing acts of terrorism to this day. Gandhi no more ran out the British from India by embarrassing the Crown in the Western press Communist movement than William Wallace routed the British by fighting as a warrior poet.

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  22. 22. knowthyself 12:44 am 03/17/2012

    Okay, I totally agree with the non violent theory. My question to you is why did you neglect to mention Dr. Martin Luther King and his contribution. You people make me sick. You shape history the way you would have it, then you feed it to people who accept it because they trust you. Shame on you.

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