From the Middle East to Moscow, ordinary citizens are organizing for democratic change.
Mira Zeehandelaar | September/October Issue 2012
In 2007, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez announced on television that a certain man was a danger to national security. In that same year, the Burmese government accused that same man of trying to overthrow the regime and of inciting protests led by thousands of Buddhist monks. In Russia, the two bookstores that sold his works burned mysteriously to the ground.
Who generates so much rage and terror in oppressive regimes?
A quiet, modest 84-year-old professor with a cane who tends orchids in his Boston garden when he isn’t inspiring peaceful revolutions.
Gene Sharp, a professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, has devoted his entire life to the study of nonviolent resistance and why it’s the most effective way to overturn corrupt, oppressive regimes. Peaceful revolution has been popular in recent years. Inspired in part by the Arab Spring, the Occupy movement has filled squares the world over, from New York City to London and from Amsterdam to Vancouver, to protest the power held by banks and financial institutions and to demand greater social equality. Since late last year, tens of thousands of people in Russia have taken to the streets to express their dissatisfaction with President Vladimir Putin and to call for honest elections. At the end of 2011, the Greeks protested their country’s poor economic conditions, first peacefully, later with occasional violence.
What can we learn about building a strong democracy from Sharp and his methods? And, just as importantly, if a peaceful revolution succeeds, then what?
Sharp was a researcher at Harvard University for more than 30 years and founded the Albert Einstein Institution in 1983, where he now studies nonviolent resistance. His most famous book, From Dictatorship to Democracy, has been translated by activists into more than 30 languages. People smuggle it, download it, copy it and pass it on in countries with oppressive regimes. Revolutionaries in Russia and Burma, in Zimbabwe and the Philippines, and more recently in Tunisia and Egypt have been influenced by his ideas. The Muslim Brotherhood, whose candidate Mohamed Morsi won the recent elections in Egypt, listed the Arabic translation of From Dictatorship to Democracy as required reading even before the Arab Spring.
Sharp’s work influenced one of the most famous nonviolent protests, Serbia’s 1999 Otpor! (“resistance!”), the student movement that took on Slobodan Milošević’s rule. The group had a strong following among students before the protest, in part due to its powerful symbol, a balled black fist, and the slogan Gotov je (“he’s finished”).
Sharp has spent the greater part of his life in relative obscurity, but now revolutionaries regularly consult him for advice on how to conduct their revolutions. Sharp remains modest. “You know the situation in your own country best,” he says. “We can’t give you perfect advice, but here’s a kind of guide, a framework. I hope people learn something from it. But I’m not a missionary.”
Sharp’s “guide” contains 198 methods of nonviolent resistance, and it turns up among protesting citizens in the most diverse revolutions. That moment in February 2011 when hundreds of thousands of people kneeled in Tahrir Square to pray together: method 167, the pray-in. The green flags Iranian demonstrators waved in the streets of Tehran in 2009: method 18, the display of flags and symbolic colors. During the Orange Revolution in Ukraine in 2004, when women and senior citizens stood at the front of the protesting crowds handing flowers to the military: method 21, delivering symbolic objects. (For more on Sharp’s methods, see “Small acts of resistance.”)
Sharp became interested in nonviolent resistance in the 1940s. The world was a giant mess: the Nazi regime, World War II, the deployment of the atomic bomb. During that time, Sharp became increasingly convinced that we must find an alternative to war. Mahatma Gandhi’s nonviolent resistance was Sharp’s greatest inspiration.
During the weeks he spent in the library pouring over newspaper clippings about Gandhi in the 1930s in India, he had a “Eureka!” moment. “Until then, I’d always had the idea that nonviolent resistance was tied to some kind of ethical or religious belief in the principle. But at that moment, I realized that Gandhi had used nonviolence for pragmatic reasons, too: It simply had a greater effect. That gave me hope that citizens can resist the mass violence present in the world.”
Since then, Sharp has dedicated his entire academic career to nonviolent resistance, primarily through research and writing. But he’s also seen action. In 1953, he spent nine months in jail because he refused to fight with the U.S. Army during the Korean War. In 1989, he participated in the Tiananmen Square demonstrations in China. In 1990, he was smuggled into a rebel camp in Burma to discuss peaceful means of resistance.
The heart of Sharp’s theory is simple: Every dictator’s power depends on the support of the people. If the people decide to no longer obey the dictator, the regime will crumble. “If you stop throwing wood on the fire, it will go out,” Sharp says.
If you try to remove a dictator by force, however, you’re attacking him with his own strongest weapon, the professor cautions. A good and effective alternative is nonviolent resistance. “It demands extremely careful planning,” Sharp says in a thoughtful near whisper. “And it definitely isn’t without danger. But ultimately, the people are stronger than they think, precisely without violence.”
Some revolutionaries have ultimately failed to remove a dictator without violence. Consider Syria, where fighting still rages, or Iran, where protesters were unsuccessful in changing the regime. Other countries have succeeded in chasing out oppressive governments, such as Ukraine, where the Orange Revolution led to free elections, and, of course, Egypt, where the protests resulted in President Hosni Mubarak’s resignation.
But after the glorious revolution that inspired many other countries in the Middle East, Egypt found itself in a confusing situation. Morsi ultimately received the most votes and was democratically elected, yet he has barely any democratic support: no parliament, no constitution and a powerful army that makes the laws. The current situation in Egypt raises the question: Once you overthrow a dictator, then what?
Jack Snyder, a professor of international relations at Columbia University, has written several books on transitions to democracy, including From Voting to Violence (2000) and Why Emerging Democracies Go to War (2005). His work critically examines the naive view many Westerners have that democracy is by definition good and ensures greater peace and freedom.
Democratization itself is no basis for peace and freedom at all, Snyder says. In fact, the path to democracy can produce violence. Old structures and pillars of power are abandoned, creating a power vacuum that other well-organized groups can step into.
“It’s a rocky road,” Snyder says. He’s just returned from a few weeks in Cairo, where he interviewed a number of Egyptians about the aftermath of the uprisings. “I’ve spoken with several revolutionaries who are very frustrated,” he says. “The elections were a travesty to many progressives who were with the revolution from the beginning. Each candidate seemed worse to them than the previous one.”
But why didn’t those same progressive revolutionaries stand a chance in the elections? The key element, says Snyder, is time—enough time to organize themselves.
According to Snyder, the people who sparked the revolution—the progressives and the young—lacked the capacity to engage in dialogue after the elections. They stayed in their comfort zone, debating in teahouses and demonstrating on Tahrir Square, when, Snyder says, they should have struck out into the countryside to speak with their fellow Egyptians. “It’s a false start,” Snyder says. “The Muslim Brotherhood and the old regime already had strong roots in the community, and they’re well organized. The progressives aren’t organized yet.”
According to Sharp, the Occupy movement made the same mistake. “They wanted to make the financial institutions responsible and democratic; they wanted to change pretty much the entire world order. By just camping out in a particular spot? That doesn’t have the slightest chance of succeeding. A lot of people are angry and dissatisfied, but they don’t have a clear plan for how to do things differently. A good plan is essential.”
That’s common in young democracies, Snyder says. Ironically, it’s easier to organize people along military, conservative, ethnic and religious lines and through old bureaucratic systems. That confers an advantage on established orders such as the army and religious groups. Liberal, democratic and progressive groups, which lie in the vanguard of change, have a much more difficult time. They are often less unified.
Time is an element that plays an important role in many of the democratizing countries Snyder studies. “The more rapidly elections are organized, the greater the chance that violence will occur,” he says.
Another strong indicator of whether a revolution can grow into a successful democracy is a country’s level of affluence. It turns out that prosperity goes hand in hand with education and political understanding. Tunisia, for example, is more affluent than Egypt, which in turn is more affluent than Burundi, where extreme ethnic violence broke out during the transition to democracy. “In that sense, Egypt’s glass is half full,” Snyder says.
Despite Egypt’s low education level and high illiteracy rate, Snyder says the progressive revolutionaries should be able to win over the unskilled, rural population. “But first they have to learn to speak their language, and to converse with the grassroots,” he says. In the absence of that dialogue, unskilled laborers often prefer what they already know (such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt), or a power that will maintain order (such as Mubarak’s old regime). A solid progressive party will be a good alternative to the established order, Snyder says. “First, however, they need the chance to manifest themselves in Egypt.”
Complex though the road to democracy is, revolutions without violence are twice as likely to succeed as violent revolutions, according to the 2011 study Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict by Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan.
That means revolutions such as those in Tunisia and Egypt are hardly an exception; many other past dictators have been peacefully ousted—with twice as much success, it would seem. This is because there are simply more people who can physically and morally engage in nonviolent resistance. Loyalty develops more quickly in both the population and the international community. Because more people are actively participating, there is more support for the resistance and demonstrations have a greater impact. The outside world is also quicker to support a nonviolent demonstration.
Sharp points out that there are methods that require protesters to do things they would normally never do, such as hunger strikes and mass sit-ins in the street. People who prefer less extreme methods can also participate, for example, by performing their jobs as usual but doing so extremely slowly and en masse. And because the new leaders come into power without violence and with broader public support, there is “a greater chance, but no guarantee, of democracy,” says Sharp. “A new leader who has come to power through violence will more quickly resort to violence to maintain that power.”
In Russia, too, the group of citizens peacefully protesting the Putin government is growing. Since late 2011, tens of thousands of people have taken to the streets. Just as in Egypt and Tunisia, the Internet plays a large role in Russia’s opposition. In a country where freedom of expression is limited, the Internet provides a solution: Bloggers criticize the regime, people of differing backgrounds discuss politics and demonstrations are announced to thousands using social media. But things go a step further in Russia, where a kind of online democratization is taking place. There are websites that hold online elections, and an “online mayor of Moscow” has even been elected.
Oleg Kashin, a blogger and journalist in Russia, doesn’t believe demonstrations alone will oust Putin. “We have to go further, and make those with the power understand that there’s a solid democratic alternative to Putin’s stranglehold,” he says. “Street protests alone won’t accomplish that.” According to Kashin, too many Russians still believe that Putin is a dictator who holds all the power. “But that’s not true, of course. Putin relies heavily on the oligarchs, and we have to show them there’s a good alternative. We have to get them on our side”—words that could have been taken from Sharp’s work.
“Sharp’s book has had a big influence on the Russian opposition,” Kashin says. “It’s a classic. Seven years ago, Sharp was the idol for every protester. His book is less popular among today’s young revolutionaries, but I’ve definitely read it.”
While the Russians take to the streets and the Egyptians try to grow a democracy, Sharp continues his study of peaceful revolutions from his Boston office. He hopes to do so for many years to come. Of the fact that he’s 84, Sharp says, “That’s what the calendar says, yes. I’ll keep going as long as I can.” When he isn’t working he enjoys his orchids. “They calm me and bring me peace, and the sense that I’ve accomplished something small: that I can do something more peaceful than all the problems in the world.”
From the Middle East to Moscow, ordinary citizens are organizing for democratic change.