Gene out of the bottle: an interview with Dr Gene Sharp, author of 'From Dictatorship to Democracy'

Last week openSecurity caught up with one of the chief proponents of political defiance, whose writings have been translated by activists the world over, to ask if non-violent tactics really yield concrete political victories in the face of violence.

Dr. Gene Sharp (84) founded the Albert Einstein Institution in 1983 to promote research, policy studies, and education on the strategic uses of nonviolent struggle in face of dictatorship, war, genocide, and oppression.

He is the author of numerous books on nonviolent struggle, power, political conflict, dictatorships and defence policy. His book From Dictatorship to Democracy was published in the UK for the first time in 2011, but has been circulated clandestinely and widely since its first publication in Burma in 1993. The text has been translated into 27 languages, and is available for download from the Albert Einstein Institution  From Dictatorship to Democracy is an example of the major efforts made by Dr Sharp to prepare simplified presentations on the nature of nonviolent struggle and its application against dictatorships. To this end he has conducted workshops and consulted on strategic nonviolent struggle in several crisis situations.

I meet Gene in Oslo. He is here for a screening of the documentary “How to Start a Revolution”, another forceful argument for – and timely reminder of – the power-potential of non-violent struggle.  

A year has passed since the unrests in Tunisia and Egypt marked the beginning of the Arab Spring. I ask Dr. Sharp what he has witnessed in the Arab world during the past year.

GS: The revolutions came as much as a surprise to me as to others. I’m impressed with how the masses have applied non-violent resistance. This is an absolute requirement for success in the struggle against dictatorships. The masses have also demonstrated that they have lost fear.

The mistake that was made in Egypt, however, was that the rebels negotiated with Mubarak to resign. The condition for his resignation was that power should be handed over from the people to the military. With the handing over of power to the military, the social power of the revolution collapsed. The people could have chosen not to hand over power to the military, and still face great challenges. These challenges would nevertheless be less than the challenges they face now.

We now know that this second phase of the revolution is a dangerous time. This phase needs to be planned for carefully, in advance. There will be groups coming in wanting to seize control, as the Ayatollahs did in 1979 in Iran, after the Shah was brought down with non-violent means. Or the Bolsheviks in 1917 after the Tsar-system, and their experimentation with democratic structures.  

EN: In Egypt, the top level of leaders have been replaced, but the regime is largely intact. Has the Arab Spring yielded real regime change, like in Libya?

GS: I don’t think we have a real regime change in Libya. It wasn’t a victory of the masses. It was a victory of the weapons that were used. The French supplied an air force, USA and NATO contributed with their means. We didn’t see the victory of people power.

EN: Is there an inherent conflict between external intervention, such as we saw in Libya, and people power, that is, a successful revolution?

GS: Yes, I think there is. The governments that supplied the military power will now have a major say in what happens in Libya. Their objectives and their interests become very strong.

EN: Still, looking back at the imminent threat that Gaddafi posed to the citizens of Bengazi and beyond, were there any real alternatives to foreign intervention?  

GS: Once you had the events that occurred, you sort of can’t wipe that off. The actions that were taken have consequences.

EN: In your theories on non-violent resistance, careful, strategic planning is much emphasized. I think of Mohammed Bouazizi (1984-2011), the Tunisian vegetable seller that set fire to himself. Were the Arab revolutions triggered more by pools of anger that finally flooded, rather than careful, strategic planning?

GS: I don’t know the details on how the revolutions were planned. We did however have several Syrian delegations coming over to the Albert Einstein Institute the last couple of years. They studied our material, did major research on their own situations, learned about non-violent operations, and how to conduct strategic thinking. They asked us “what should we do?” I don’t tell them what to do. I don’t know their country or situation in detail. If I gave advice, I’d be wrong. I teach them to plan their own strategy, teach them strategic thinking. They did a lot of studying.

EN: In the face of heavy restrictions against political activity, restrictions that are enforced by an all-encompassing security apparatus, the Syrian political opposition has nevertheless remained weak. The lack of an effective platform for protest, combined with decades of intimidation and humiliation, and, more recently, months of peaceful protests which have continually been slashed down by brute force, have for long encapsulated anger. Speaking to a friend of mine in Damascus in early January, just before the resistance turned more violent, and listening to his frustrations and shattered voice, it was hard to see that the masses could refrain from channelling their frustrations in violent ways.

GS: It is difficult, that is true. The alternative for violence is to have strategies to express the anger that you anticipate and to apply your anger in non-violent ways. One needs to be very careful about the objective of the uprising. Is the objective to express anger, regardless of results, or do you want to get rid of the oppression? If you want to get rid of oppression, then mere expression of anger and the use of violence does not get rid of the regime by itself. You can in fact do things that guarantee the regime victory, by merely using violence.

The Syrians must not be tricked into civil war. The Syrian government obviously has massive capacity for violent suppression. If there is a civil war, soldiers will obey orders. Violence will therefore help the regime to maintain its control. The trick will be to take the army away from government by mass disobedience, as has happened in other revolutions before.

The oppressors always have great powers for violence. If you choose violence, you choose to fight your enemy’s best weapons. This makes it very difficult to win a victory. By violence, you choose the torture-chambers, the army, all the guns, all the ammunition. It is more difficult to suppress an unarmed and disciplined resistance movement that has lost its fear, and more importantly has a good strategy - planned in advance - and has implemented it skilfully, than to crush a violent uprising. Sometimes spontaneous actions are effective, but they are risky.

EN: Protests following the 2009 Iranian presidential election occurred in major cities in Iran and around the world, starting June 13, 2009. The protests were given several titles by their proponents including Green Revolution. The Iranian regime however, like many of its Arab counterparts, proves to be durable, not to mention complex and with a great amount of support. Why didn’t the Green Revolution yield a regime change? People turned out in great numbers, seemed defiant, and were successful in implementing non-violent means of resistance?  

GS: It was insufficient. Take a military perspective. The war against the Nazis didn’t happen in a month or a week. Victory didn’t come quickly, but after a series of campaigns that gradually built up the strengths of the allies. In non-violent campaigns, if you face a very harsh and strong oppressive regime, and your plans are not so powerful yet, you need to focus on a small objective to start with. Win on that issue, force the opponent back, empower the people to achieve something. Then you pick another piece of the regime, and focus on that. That’s the way you bring down a powerful regime non-violently, complementary to what the military do when they pick military objectives.

If people can learn how to effectively struggle for greater rights and justice with non-violent means, there is no supply of weapons or ammunition that can be cut off by the enemy. They can’t cut off this knowledge once it’s there. The knowledge about how to conduct struggles skilfully and effectively therefore has great power potential for freedom and justice. Once the genie is out of the bottle, it cannot be put back inside.

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