How to topple a Dictatorship

It has been compared to Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto and Mao Tse-Tung’s Little Red Book in its historic importance and has been hailed for its role in guiding members of the Arab Spring. Gene Sharp’s From Dictatorship to Democracy, a small pamphlet on nonviolent resistance published in 1993, came from an unlikely source.

An American, working at the Albert Einstein Institute in the University of Massachusetts, was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009 for his inspiring work in defending freedom, democracy and peace. I do not know whether to laugh or be angry that President Obama beat him to it.

Regardless, it is said that the activists in Egypt close to the leader Mohammed El Baradei were using this text up to four months before the 2011 Egyptian Revolution and it was posted online on the website of the Muslim Brotherhood, which now has a majority in the parliament. Historically, it served as the foundations for Serbia’s Otpor, Ukraine’s Pora, Kyrgyzstan’s KelKel and Georgia’s Kmara.

The work was influenced by peaceful protest in Myanmar ©WikimediaCommons; Image credit: racoles

It is even said that some of the dissent in the Iranian 2009 elections was pre planned and “over 100 stages of the 198 steps of Gene Sharp were implemented in the foiled velvet revolution” according to Tehran Times.

But some have criticised Western news media for exaggerating the impact of this man’s text, accused of searching for a Lawrence of Arabia type figure. Certainly, as he says himself, he never envisioned being in the same sentence as Machiavelli, Clausewitz, Martin Luther King and even Gandhi.

His influence must not be doubted though. A documentary on the global influence of his work was released in September 2011 and was called the “unofficial film of the Occupy Wall Street Movement” where it was, in fact, shown to the occupants of camps in cities across the world. The film itself was shown to the Houses of Parliament as recently as 1st February 2012.

It seems astonishing that such a text, or generic manual, could even exist and remain under the radar for so long. But, in contrast to all other great texts, it is not a codification of ideology and the promoter of an alternative system and society. Rather, it is a generic analysis of situations in which a population finds itself when faced with a crippling and oppressive system of government, most commonly a dictatorship.

It has been called a “toolbox for the agitator” and an “inspiration to dissidents around the world” for good reason. It was written in response to the request of a Burmese émigré-in-exile, who continues to oppose the military junta that dominates Burma to this day. But, of course, what does it say?

It is, in fact, fairly simple and presents some of the principles that underline good governance and the basic needs and wants of a people. Its principles of negotiation with a dictator when fundamental issues are at stake, such as political freedom and redistribution of wealth are dismissed as futile and represent a basic misunderstanding of what the dictator is interested in. To give political freedom or to refrain from stifling political, social and economic institutions would be to surrender their throne.

A dictator will simply promise the world to regain control. ‘Peace’ to a dictator is not a peace with freedom and justice. It is a mere submission of will. Hitler demanded ‘peace’, but surrender to a dictatorship to end violence is not a worthy or even real peace. The solution is to topple the autocracy through the most effective method that limits human casualties and costs to an absolute minimum: non-violent resistance. Violence and confrontation will simply put resistance at a disadvantage, because the state can draw upon a deep reserve of resources and will be at a distinct advantage.

His essential theory is that even dictatorships, including the recently deceased ones in the Arab World, are completely dependent on the population as its power resource. When the majority completely rejects the minority and renders its power sources inefficient and obsolete there can only be one outcome. The people are the essential constant and no dictator can resist a collective people power.

A sad truth and pattern to these revolutions in the Middle East is that too many people had to die before the system was rejected. This bloody truth is now something to be lamented in Syria, Bahrain and even Yemen today.



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