Gene Sharp: freedom is out of the bottle

Dictators will sleep better now that Gene Sharp has left. But as long as people are not afraid of dictatorships, dictators will be in big trouble. In memoriam.

Manuel Nunes Ramires Serrano
5 February 2018

Protest at Tahrir square in Cairo, Egypt, on December 2, 2011. Burak Akbulut/ABACA/PA Images. All rights reserved.

Liberation from dictatorships ultimately depends on the people's ability to liberate themselves.”

- Gene Sharp, From Dictatorship to Democracy

Hardly a revolutionary, Gene Sharp will be remembered as an inspiration for countless revolutions. A lifelong advocate of non-violent resistance, Sharp believed that the road towards freedom cannot be paved with violence. His strategy, outlined in “From Dictatorship to Democracy”, has been adopted by insurgents everywhere. From the resistance in the Burmese jungles to protestors in Ukraine; from dissidents in Cairo to activists in the outskirts of Luanda. All of them have benefited from Gene´s Sharp ability to explore dictators’ worst nightmares.

Sharp reasoned that autocracies are vulnerable because dictators are never as strong as they think. And people are never as weak as they think they are. Standing on the shoulders of Henry David Thoreau, Gandhi and Martin Luther King, he suggested that non-violent action is a viable alternative to violent conflict. Not for any moral reasons, but because when we choose violence we fight with our enemy´s best weapons; violence generates violence. Far from being a pacifist, he recognized that limited violence against dictatorial forces may sometimes be unavoidable. However, we should never rely on it deliberately.  

Hardly a revolutionary, Gene Sharp will be remembered as an inspiration for countless revolutions. 

The central point of his philosophy is that non-violent resistance draws its strength from human nature. From our capacity to fight for what we believe in and be stubborn. But he was quick to point out that there´s no such thing as a universal formula to challenge oppression. Strategies vary from region to region and from case to case.

The tactics adopted in the Burmese jungles differed substantially from the ones used during the pro-democracy uprising in Egypt. The Orange Revolution in Ukraine had little in common with the Occupy Movement in the United States, which was established to fight a different kind of injustice. Aware of the differences, Sharp identified 198 methods of non-violent action, clustered according to the level of risk and preparation associated with them.

No external forces will fight their struggle for freedom; it´s up to societies to defend themselves. 

These so-called non-violent ‘weapons’ depart from the assumption that dictators are empowered by the willing obedience of their subjects. Every oppressed people should use them because no external forces will fight their struggle for freedom; it´s up to societies to defend themselves. This point was made several times. But no case was more emblematic for me than Angola. A kleptocratic and corrupt regime, where elections are hardly free and freedom of expression should never be taken for granted, reminded us that the best way to defeat dictatorships is to empower people. Not give them weapons.


Tents in front of St Paul’s, London Sunday 16th October 2011. Neil Cummings/Flickr. Some rights reserved.

It all started when fifteen Angolan activists were arrested in Luanda. They were accused of attempting to disrupt public order and security. However, their real crime was reading an abridged translation of Sharp´s “From Dictatorship to Democracy”. The activists logically disputed the accusations: they were meeting to discuss politics and address the inexistent protection of human rights in Angola. For that, they were placed in preventive detention for more than ninety days, beyond the legal limit.

I was amongst those who followed the case closely. And I was one of the thousands who bought a book that apparently gives dictators nightmares. Luaty Beirão, one of the activists and a child of the regime, had by then read it. To protest the lack of a trial date, he started a hunger strike. Making good use of one of the techniques enumerated by Gene Sharp in his book, he soon attracted the attention of international media and international NGOs.

Dictators are never as strong as they think. And people are never as weak as they think they are. 

For once, people took a closer look at the real Angola. They looked beyond Luanda´s gated communities. Beyond the oil and the diamonds. They looked beyond a respectable autocracy and found a corrupt regime willing to imprison activists for reading a book.

The mask fell, as Luaty Beirão wrote when he ended his hunger strike. Rather than frightening Angolans, the decision to imprison the activists and harass human rights defenders had the opposite effect. People lost their fear and showed their support for the jailed activists. And in Portugal, where politicians traditionally look the other way when Angola and human rights are used in the same sentence, public figures read fragments of Gene Sharp´s book in theatres and bookshops. Suddenly, everyone cared about Angola. A book deemed subversive sent shockwaves around the world; and did more for Angolans than decades of civil war and violence.


Detained activists at the court, in the middle (behind) you can see Luaty Beirão. Coque Mukuta/Voice of America. Public Domain.

Their peaceful protest demonstrated that ideas and non-violent action can pierce the curtain of respectability and expose the dictators’ true nature. Angolans are yet to become free to decide what they want for their future. However, things have changed since Luaty decided to start his hunger strike. The man who ruled the country for almost forty years is no longer President. And a door for meaningful change is opening.

Gene Sharp contributed to the change we are witnessing in Angola. And changed the lives of millions of people by revolutionizing the way we think and what we do in pursuit of freedom. However, his most important teaching was not that non-violent struggle always works; but that it is when people learn how to struggle that freedom eventually appears on the horizon. As he said during his interview at openDemocracy, once the genie is out of the bottle, it cannot be put back inside.

It is the tacit or explicit agreement of people that keeps dictators in power. Not military strength. Dictators everywhere will sleep better now that Gene Sharp has left. But as long as people are not afraid of dictatorships, we can remain confident that they will still be in big trouble.

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