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Quiet scholar who inspired uprisings

Seattle Times

Gene Sharp in his East Boston office, which doubles as the headquarters of the Albert Einstein Institution.

Few Americans have heard of Gene Sharp. But for decades, his practical writings on nonviolent revolution — most notably "From Dictatorship to Democracy," an easy-to-read 88-page guide to toppling autocrats, available for download in 24 languages — have inspired dissidents around the globe, from Myanmar to Bosnia to Tunisia and Egypt.


Gene Sharp in his East Boston office, which doubles as the headquarters of the Albert Einstein Institution.

BOSTON — Halfway around the world from Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt, a U.S. intellectual shuffles about his cluttered brick row house in a working-class Boston neighborhood. His name is Gene Sharp. Stoop-shouldered and white-haired at 83, he grows orchids, has yet to master the Internet and hardly seems like a dangerous man.

But for the world's despots, his ideas can be fatal.

Few Americans have heard of Sharp. But for decades, his practical writings on nonviolent revolution — most notably "From Dictatorship to Democracy," a 93-page guide to toppling autocrats, available for download in 24 languages — have inspired dissidents around the world, including in Myanmar, Bosnia, Estonia and Zimbabwe, and now Tunisia and Egypt.

When Egypt's April 6 Youth Movement was struggling to recover from a failed dissident effort in 2005, its leaders tossed around "crazy ideas" about bringing down government, said Ahmed Maher, a leading strategist. They stumbled on Sharp while examining the Serbian movement Otpor, which he had influenced.

When the nonpartisan International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, which trains democracy activists, slipped into Cairo several years ago to conduct a workshop, among the papers it distributed was Sharp's "198 Methods of Nonviolent Action," a list of tactics that includes hunger strikes, "protest disrobing" and "disclosing identities of secret agents."

Dalia Ziada, an Egyptian blogger and activist who attended the workshop and later organized similar sessions, said trainees were active in the Tunisia and Egypt revolts. She said some activists translated excerpts of Sharp's work into Arabic and his message of "attacking weaknesses of dictators" stuck with them.

Peter Ackerman, a one-time student of Sharp's who founded the nonviolence center and ran the Cairo workshop, cites his former mentor as proof that "ideas have power."

Sit-ins, anti-war past
Sharp takes no credit. He is more thinker than revolutionary, though as a young man he participated in lunch-counter sit-ins and spent nine months in a federal prison in Danbury, Conn., as a conscientious objector during the Korean War. He has had no contact with the Egypt protesters, he said, although he recently learned the Muslim Brotherhood had "From Dictatorship to Democracy" posted on its website.

While seeing the revolution that ousted Hosni Mubarak as a sign of "encouragement," Sharp said: "The people of Egypt did that — not me."

He has been watching events in Cairo unfold on CNN from his modest house in East Boston, which he bought in 1968 for $150 plus back taxes.

It doubles as the headquarters of the Albert Einstein Institution, an organization Sharp founded in 1983 while running seminars at Harvard University and teaching political science at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth. It consists of him; his assistant, Jamila Raquib, whose family fled Soviet oppression in Afghanistan when she was 5; a part-time office manager and a golden retriever mix named Sally.

In this era of Twitter revolutionaries, the Internet holds little allure for Sharp. He is not on Facebook and does not venture onto the Einstein website. ("I should," he said apologetically.)

Some people suspect Sharp of being a closet peacenik and a lefty, but he insists that he outgrew his own early pacifism and describes himself as "trans-partisan."

Based on studies of revolutionaries such as Mohandas Gandhi, nonviolent uprisings, civil-rights struggles, economic boycotts and the like, he has concluded that advancing freedom takes meticulous planning, advice that Ziada said resonated among youth leaders in Egypt. Peaceful protest is best, he says, not for any moral reason, but because violence provokes autocrats to crack down.

"If you fight with violence," Sharp said, "you are fighting with your enemy's best weapon, and you may be a brave but dead hero."

Autocrats abhor Sharp. In 2007, President Hugo Chávez, of Venezuela, denounced him, and officials in Myanmar, also known as Burma, according to diplomatic cables obtained by the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks, accused him of being part of a conspiracy to spark demonstrations intended "to bring down the government."

"He is generally considered the father of the whole field of the study of strategic nonviolent action," said Stephen Zunes, an expert in that field at the University of San Francisco. "Some of these exaggerated stories of him going around the world and starting revolutions and leading mobs, what a joke. He's much more into doing the research and the theoretical work than he is in disseminating it."

That is not to say Sharp has not seen any action. In 1989, he jetted off to China to witness the uprising in Tiananmen Square. In the early 1990s, he sneaked into a Myanmar rebel camp at the invitation of Robert Helvey, a retired Army colonel who advised the opposition there. They met when Helvey was on a fellowship at Harvard; the military man thought the professor had ideas that could avoid war.

"Here we were in this jungle, reading Gene Sharp's work by candlelight," Helvey recalled. "This guy has tremendous insight into society and the dynamics of social power."

Role downplayed
Not everyone is so impressed. Asad AbuKhalil, a Lebanese political scientist and founder of the Angry Arab News Service blog, was outraged by a passing mention of Sharp in The New York Times on Monday. He complained that Western journalists were looking for a "Lawrence of Arabia" character to explain Egyptians' success, in a colonialist attempt to deny credit to Egyptians.

Sharp says his work is far from done. He has just submitted a manuscript for a new book, "Sharp's Dictionary of Power and Struggle: Terminology of Civil Resistance in Conflicts," to be published this fall by Oxford University Press. He would like readers to know he did not pick the title.

"It's a little immodest," he said.

In the meantime, he is keeping a close eye on the Middle East. He was struck by the Egyptian protesters' discipline in remaining peaceful, and especially by their lack of fear.

"That is straight out of Gandhi," Sharp said. "If people are not afraid of the dictatorship, that dictatorship is in big trouble."

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