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


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

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

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