The Daily Beast calls Gene Sharp "The 83 Year Old Who Toppled Egypt." The New York Times reports that "for the world's despots, his ideas can be fatal." In the last month he's been praised in venues ranging from Scientific American to the BBC. It's an unprecedented level of attention for a scholar whose work has always circulated on the edge of our political debates, gathering influence but never driving the discussion. "It's really been quite amazing," Sharp says of the sudden wave of media attention. "It's never happened before."
Sharp didn't topple Mubarak, of course. The Egyptian people did that. What he did do was write books that activists in Egypt—like activists in other countries, from Serbia to Burma and from the Baltic states to Iran—found useful in forging their own revolutions. In an earlier age, rebels seeking strategic and tactical knowhow might have sought the advice of Che Guevara or Vo Nguyen Giap. Today they're more likely to read Gene Sharp. The differences between Che and Sharp are many, but the most important distinction may be this: Where Guevara would attempt to instruct the insurrectionists in the art of armed struggle, Sharp draws on the Gandhian tradition of organized, nonviolent noncooperation.
Sharp's magnum opus, 1973's three-volume The Politics of Nonviolent Action, clocks in at over 800 densely packed pages, so I won't try to boil his insights down to a few sentences. But three strands of his work stand out. The first is his careful combing of the historical record for empirical examples of civic resistance, which he not only recounts but sorts into useful categories, from "rude gestures" and "letters of opposition or support" to strikes, mutinies, and the creation of parallel grassroots governments. The second is his theory of political power, which aims to explain how such tactics could work in a world where the state has far more arms than the citizens. Drawing on several sources—Gandhi, Arendt, the anarchists—Sharp takes the insight that the government relies on the cooperation of the public and then explores its ramifications, probing the ways those habits of loyalty and obedience can be strengthened or weakened.
The third strand is a style that stresses strategic effectiveness more than moral appeals. For many people, the word nonviolence connotes a shelf in a New Age bookstore. But Sharp writes for realists eager to end oppressive dictatorships, not for would-be mahatmas.
Sharp lives in Boston, where the tiny Albert Einstein Institution serves as his base of operations. I spoke with him via phone on Wednesday, as the revolutionary fire lit in Tunisia in December was burning across the Middle East and Africa.
Reason: Do you know of any historical parallels with what happened in Tunisia?
Gene Sharp: Jamila Raqib [executive director of the Albert Einstein Institution] has been working on an account of the development of the Tunisia case. It seems quite special. It was way off in a part of the country that was relatively backward economically and politically. It was on a very small scale—an individual was very much wronged by the local officials—and then it escalated up to what finally happened. I don't know of any other case that started that way.
Reason: Right after Tunisia, a lot of people pointed to Egypt and said the same thing couldn't be done there. What was your level of optimism or pessimism as the protests there began?
Sharp: Well, I hoped they'd do something right. But I didn't expect what happened. It was very remarkable in at least two major ways.
One, that they somehow cast off their fear. They kept saying this to person after person, reporter after reporter, that they're no longer afraid. That is very dangerous for a dictatorship. Dictators always want to install fear, to get compulsive compliance and obedience and cooperation. When people cast off their fear and are not afraid, the dictator has very little means to control anymore.
And then they maintained nonviolent discipline. Not perfectly, but relatively very well. Even when they had a million people in a massive day of struggle and protest, when there was tension that might have developed into violence, I heard they kept saying: "Peaceful, peaceful!" This is an amazing achievement with that many people in a short period of time.
Violence is a tool that the dictatorship has more of than you. They are equipped to wage violence and to put down riots and that kind of resistance. They are not well-equipped to control a nonviolent movement. You have a chance of winning there.
Reason: How optimistic are you about the interim, or allegedly interim, military government? Do you feel there's more likely to be a transition to self-rule or just to another flavor of dictatorship?
Sharp: I don't know enough about the situation in Egypt to be either pessimistic or optimistic. I have noticed that the Egyptians themselves are being very careful about that. After the fall of Milosevic, the Serbs put up big posters: "We're keeping our eyes on you." You have to do that.
We have this danger of a coup d'etat in the transition period. It could easily be a military coup, as the Egyptians have had their spate of before. It could be some outside group, like the Bolsheviks did in 1917 after a successful nonviolent struggle had brought down the old czarist system. We have a handbook called The Anti-Coup that's a detailed account of what you can do and must not do during that period.