An interesting New York Times article claims that much of the protest in the Middle East has drawn inspiration from a little known American political strategist. Eighty-three year old, Gene Sharp spent the last 50 years writing and promoting his ideas for overthrowing tyrannical rulers.
The Times article, “Shy U.S. Intellectual Created Playbook Used in a Revolution,” argues that Sharp’s ideas on the strategic use of non-violent protest, and in particular his “From Dictatorship to Democracy,” has been translated into 23 languages and has taught dissidents how to topple tyrants in places like Burma, Zimbabwe, and now Tunisia and Egypt. What Senor Sharp teaches potential revolutionaries is fascinating for a number of reasons.
The Times explains that Sharp’s successful strategy relies less on moral lessons and more on a keen insistence that protesters not deviate from non-violence. Any dissent resort to violence is likely to invite violent repression by the tyrant. Tyrants can’t afford to lose whatever little moral authority they may have. Tyrants can offer social order. Sharp advises that dissidents not give tyrants a chance to resort to what they do best. Dissident “violence provokes autocrats to crack down.” Later, Sharp explains that “If you fight with violence…you are fighting with your enemy’s best weapon, and you may be a brave but dead hero.” This reminds me of the argument I made in my book Boricua Power.
I argue that violence is a ubiquitous presence in our society, from domestic to international relations. Violence is the easiest power to get because a ruler or tyrant’s “power is secured by establishing control of what the ruled cherish above everything else – their lives” (19). Legitimate and utilitarian powers require more work and are less stable. What Sharp has done is to remind dissidents not to trigger violent repression because that simply puts power back into the hands of the tyrant. No matter how determined and ideologically motivated the dissidents may be, protest usually fails when dissident disorganization and violence gives a tyrant an open path to use violence. Excellent advice and excellent theory. I should know.