Gene Sharp’s Strategic Non-Violent Conflict and the Egyptian Revolution

This is an item that I wrote a couple of months ago and for some reason never posted.  I’ve dredged it up and offer it for what it may be worth, recognizing that it is rather less than timely at this point.

NPR recently interviewed Gene Sharp, whom they call the “Clausewitz of Nonviolent Warfare,” about the revolution in Egypt.*  The excuse for the story was that apparently some of the Egyptians in Tahrir Square had read Sharp’s books From Dictatorship to Democracy and the three volume Politics of Nonviolent Action.

The story is interesting in itself but the comments are also worth reading.  They touch on the difficult question of how one knows that a text has actually had an effect in the real world.  Another comment, apparently from an Egyptian, downplays the influence of Sharp’s work.  He writes “Yes, the organizers are sophisticated and educated, but not in the theory of nonviolent movement.”  Then he gets into more difficult territory:

It really is important to give credit where it is due. It is the habit of the West to want to own the origins of good ideas. Unfortunately this habit ends up being the ugliness of Orientalism. That is not what NPR is saying, I know. But, the Egyptian people own this victory. Let us have it.

I have trouble agreeing that enunciating the proposition that some of the Egyptian revolutionaries may have among their influences an American is tantamount to stealing the credit for the revolution.  It seems to me that if one is to believe that one must believe at least one of the following propositions:

  1. The Egyptian revolution is unusual in that it was invented from whole cloth, conceived completely without influence from “the other.”
  2. All struggles, including this one, are invented from whole cloth, conceived from first principles and indigenous work without influence from any “other.”
  3. Some of the Egyptians may plausibly have been influenced by Gene Sharp but that fact should be suppressed so as to avoid hurting anyone’s ego.

I find all of these insupportable.  The third proposition is condescending, the second is demonstrably false; and the first is highly improbable on its face.  In addition, of course, the first proposition is, I would argue, precisely the sort of thinking that constitutes Orientalism: the idea that Egyptians (in this case) are special and exotic, set aside from all the rest of us, and with limited capability for learning or evolving.

I think, rather, that the possibility that some Egyptians read and took to heart the work of Gene Sharp is a profoundly un-Orientalist idea.  It means that Egyptians, like the rest of us, are global citizens, not merely captives of their own exotic, retrograde world.  Like the rest of us, they do learn and they do evolve.

Now, whether Egyptians were, in fact, meaningfully influenced by Gene Sharp isn’t clear yet, the NPR story notwithstanding.  However, as someone interested in strategic thought, I’d like to think that we will learn more about this over time.


* I think calling Gene Sharp “Clausewitz” is ill-advised, though he is a man of great abilities who has made tremendous contributions.  To that extent, I think that NPR’s title for the story is poorly chosen.  However, I do tend to think that “warfare” is the right word for it.  I will admit that my thinking on this is not fully formed, but I’m not convinced  think that warfare needs to be predominantly violent and I’m willing to seriously entertain the possibility that it need not be violent at all in its actual manifestation.  Clausewitz, it seems to me, opens the door to this line of inquiry, though I admit he probably wouldn’t agree with me.  I refer, in particular to his section in Book 3, Chapter 1 entitled “Possible Engagements Are To Be Regarded As Real Ones Because of Their Consequences.”  (p. 181 in the Paret-Howard translation)

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  1. Hi Mark

    I’m glad you decided to post this. And I’m with you on your main points, that the Egyptians deserve credit for their victory and a little Gene Sharp in the mix won’t take it from them, and that the issue of how much influence a writer has on others is as you say often a vexed one…

    You suggest, however, that NPR’s “excuse for the story was that apparently some of the Egyptians in Tahrir Square had read Sharp’s books From Dictatorship to Democracy and the three volume Politics of Nonviolent Action.” I have to say the term “excuse” sounds a tad dismissive to my ear. I’d gathered that some leaders of the Egyptian youth movement did a bit more than “read Sharp’s books”.

    From the NYT:

    For their part, Mr. Maher and his colleagues began reading about nonviolent struggles. They were especially drawn to a Serbian youth movement called Otpor, which had helped topple the dictator Slobodan Milosevic by drawing on the ideas of an American political thinker, Gene Sharp. The hallmark of Mr. Sharp’s work is well-tailored to Mr. Mubark’s Egypt: He argues that nonviolence is a singularly effective way to undermine police states that might cite violent resistance to justify repression in the name of stability.

    The April 6 Youth Movement modeled its logo — a vaguely Soviet looking red and white clenched fist—after Otpor’s, and some of its members traveled to Serbia to meet with Otpor activists.

    Another influence, several said, was a group of Egyptian expatriates in their 30s who set up an organization in Qatar called the Academy of Change, which promotes ideas drawn in part on Mr. Sharp’s work.

    and, from another NYT piece:

    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 Mr. Sharp’s “198 Methods of Nonviolent Action,” a list of tactics that range from hunger strikes to “protest disrobing” to “disclosing identities of secret agents.”

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

    Add these to Sahar Taman’s equally informed comment at NPR to which you refer:

    I know people who were in Tahrir which is 5 blocks from my family’s home (I live in the U.S. now.) I know people who are conflict resolution scholars and nonviolence experts to talked with the protestors and the “organizers” of the protests. I also know some of the April 6th and Kefiya organizers and Dr. Sharp’s theories are not on their minds. Yes, the organizers are sophisticated and educated, but not in the theory of nonviolent movement.

    and I’d say you have evidence that the movement was diverse, and had “distributed leadership” — some of whose members were at least somewhat influenced by Gene Sharp.


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