Gene Sharp has labored in obscurity for much of his life. In the past few weeks, however, he has been propelled into the media spotlight—hailed in news reports as the world’s top theorist of nonviolent strategy and cited as an inspiration by leaders of the campaign that brought the Mubarak regime down. He has been called a “nonviolent Clausewitz,” in reference to the grand military strategist of the early nineteenth century. And in some ways he could also be seen as a nonviolent equivalent of Leon Trotsky—another brilliant strategist, with a penchant for pithy aphorisms, whose ideas (albeit framed in dramatically different ways) offered up the possibility of rolling, and transformational, global revolutions.
Sharp admits that bold claims about his impact on events in the Middle East make him slightly uneasy; he doesn’t think he can substantiate them. It is true, though, that his early works—including, most notably, his three-volume treatise The Politics of Nonviolent Action—established his reputation as a leader in the small field of nonviolence studies. And in recent years, From Dictatorship to Democracy, an enormously influential handbook published in 1993 that synthesized and condensed his major findings, has been translated into more than thirty languages. For nonviolent protest organizers, the book has become something akin to Saul Alinsky’s famed Rules for Radicals.
Sharp is also the founder and head of the Albert Einstein Institution, a bare-bones, privately funded operation that has been spreading the word about nonviolence for nearly three decades. The organization argues that it reacts to events rather than pushing people in specific countries to embark on specific actions. But despite the modesty of the institution and the man at its helm, there’s no doubt that Sharp’s ideas have greatly influenced opposition groups from Burma to the Balkans and, most recently, the Middle East.
Robert Helvey, who met Sharp while completing an Army fellowship at Harvard and who subsequently joined the Albert Einstein Institution’s board, describes his friend as “obsessed with the need to share his insights into power to stop or reduce the killing of people, especially civilians, in war.”
The force of Sharp’s emancipatory thinking was on full view in Egypt last month, as a population long thought to be too passive to throw off the yoke of tyranny finally found its voice. “I was surprised by the Tunisian and Egyptian developments,” Sharp says. “It was never thought that Arabs could do this, that Muslims could do this. Now the Muslims are doing it. In some cases it’s not very disciplined, but in other cases it’s very disciplined. In Egypt, it’s unbelievable. The stereotypes are all gone.”
From now on, he adds, no American president can claim that US intervention is necessary to free an oppressed Muslim population from dictatorship. “These people are capable of freeing themselves,” he says. “No outside messiah was needed. It’s a great realization.”
Despite the fever for democracy that seems to be spreading across the region, though, Sharp does not assume that Egypt’s neighbors will necessarily enjoy the same success. “Egypt is bound to inspire people,” he explains, “but inspiration alone doesn’t do much.” Nor does Sharp put much stock in historical determinism. “I don’t think it’s inevitable, or that there’s a force sweeping the world that’s sort of mystical. I don’t think on those terms,” he says.
Nonviolent uprisings are, at their essence, political campaigns. According to the complex analysis of power that Sharp has painstakingly developed over the years, the success or failure of any peaceful revolt largely depends on the campaign’s ability to weaken the allegiance of civil servants, police and soldiers to the regime; to persuade fence-sitters to join the opposition; and to prevent tyrannical and violent responses to civilian protest from being implemented—or, if implemented, from undermining the nonviolent movement’s strategic game plan. “As that know-how becomes available,” he explains, “it’s more likely that people will use it skillfully and not just in terms of inspiration and a surprise victory here and there. And that will contribute to profound change—not because of a sense of inevitability but because people have made new possibilities possible.”