LONDON (Reuters) – Gene Sharp’s writings on how to use non-violent techniques to bring down autocratic regimes are often cited as a major influence on the activists who led the campaign against Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak.
The 83-year-old American academic had never met or spoken to those behind the successful uprising. But he has strong views on what happened in Egypt and what is happening elsewhere in the Middle East. First and foremost, he stresses the importance of preparation and discipline. The Egyptian protesters were prepared while the Libyans were not, Sharp said in an hour-long telephone interview from Boston, where he runs the Albert Einstein Institution, a non-profit organization that advances the study and use of nonviolent action in conflicts around the world.
Discipline means remaining non-violent despite brutality and provocation. “Sometimes the people using non-violent techniques don’t fully understand the methods,” says Sharp, who has written numerous books on the history of non-violent struggles, including two books on India’s Mahatma Gandhi. “They think that if they refrain from violence, their opponents will too.”
Quite the opposite, Sharp argues. The more authoritarian a regime, the more you have to expect it to resort to violence. That’s partly because it’s in its DNA; but also because it deliberately uses violence to provoke a response, knowing that this will solidify its own power base.
On the other hand, if protesters can maintain a disciplined non-violent approach, the regime’s brutality will boomerang on itself. Sharp calls this “political jujitsu.” Massacres undermine the support of all but the most hardened members of an autocrat’s entourage. Soldiers and policemen find it hard to mow down peaceful civilians. The turning point in the Egyptian revolution was when the army said it would not fire on the crowd in Tahrir Square.