Non-violent revolution: an interview
Source Dave Anderson
Date 12/02/28/15:57
Genie out of the bottle: an interview with Dr Gene Sharp, author of
'From Dictatorship to Democracy'
by Even Nord Rydningen

Last week openSecurity caught up with one of the chief proponents of
political defiance, whose writings have been translated by activists
the world over, to ask if non-violent tactics really yield concrete
political victories in the face of violence.

Dr. Gene Sharp (84) founded the Albert Einstein Institution in 1983 to
promote research, policy studies, and education on the strategic uses
of nonviolent struggle in face of dictatorship, war, genocide, and

He is the author of numerous books on nonviolent struggle, power,
political conflict, dictatorships and defence policy. His book From
Dictatorship to Democracy was published in the UK for the first time
in 2011, but has been circulated clandestinely and widely since its
first publication in Burma in 1993. The text has been translated into
27 languages, and is available for download from the Albert Einstein
Institution From Dictatorship to Democracy is an example of the major
efforts made by Dr Sharp to prepare simplified presentations on the
nature of nonviolent struggle and its application against
dictatorships. To this end he has conducted workshops and consulted on
strategic nonviolent struggle in several crisis situations.

I meet Gene in Oslo. He is here for a screening of the documentary
ďHow to Start a RevolutionĒ, another forceful argument for Ė and
timely reminder of Ė the power-potential of non-violent struggle.

A year has passed since the unrests in Tunisia and Egypt marked the
beginning of the Arab Spring. I ask Dr. Sharp what he has witnessed in
the Arab world during the past year.

GS: The revolutions came as much as a surprise to me as to others. Iím
impressed with how the masses have applied non-violent resistance.
This is an absolute requirement for success in the struggle against
dictatorships. The masses have also demonstrated that they have lost

The mistake that was made in Egypt, however, was that the rebels
negotiated with Mubarak to resign. The condition for his resignation
was that power should be handed over from the people to the military.
With the handing over of power to the military, the social power of
the revolution collapsed. The people could have chosen not to hand
over power to the military, and still face great challenges. These
challenges would nevertheless be less than the challenges they face

We now know that this second phase of the revolution is a dangerous
time. This phase needs to be planned for carefully, in advance. There
will be groups coming in wanting to seize control, as the Ayatollahs
did in 1979 in Iran, after the Shah was brought down with non-violent
means. Or the Bolsheviks in 1917 after the Tsar-system, and their
experimentation with democratic structures.

EN: In Egypt, the top level of leaders have been replaced, but the
regime is largely intact. Has the Arab Spring yielded real regime
change, like in Libya?

GS: I donít think we have a real regime change in Libya. It wasnít a
victory of the masses. It was a victory of the weapons that were used.
The French supplied an air force, USA and NATO contributed with their
means. We didnít see the victory of people power.

EN: Is there an inherent conflict between external intervention, such
as we saw in Libya, and people power, that is, a successful

GS: Yes, I think there is. The governments that supplied the military
power will now have a major say in what happens in Libya. Their
objectives and their interests become very strong.

EN: Still, looking back at the imminent threat that Gaddafi posed to
the citizens of Bengazi and beyond, were there any real alternatives
to foreign intervention?

GS: Once you had the events that occurred, you sort of canít wipe that
off. The actions that were taken have consequences.

EN: In your theories on non-violent resistance, careful, strategic
planning is much emphasized. I think of Mohammed Bouazizi (1984-2011),
the Tunisian vegetable seller that set fire to himself. Were the Arab
revolutions triggered more by pools of anger that finally flooded,
rather than careful, strategic planning?

GS: I donít know the details on how the revolutions were planned. We
did however have several Syrian delegations coming over to the Albert
Einstein Institute the last couple of years. They studied our
material, did major research on their own situations, learned about
non-violent operations, and how to conduct strategic thinking. They
asked us ďwhat should we do?Ē I donít tell them what to do. I donít
know their country or situation in detail. If I gave advice, Iíd be
wrong. I teach them to plan their own strategy, teach them strategic
thinking. They did a lot of studying.

EN: In the face of heavy restrictions against political activity,
restrictions that are enforced by an all-encompassing security
apparatus, the Syrian political opposition has nevertheless remained
weak. The lack of an effective platform for protest, combined with
decades of intimidation and humiliation, and, more recently, months of
peaceful protests which have continually been slashed down by brute
force, have for long encapsulated anger. Speaking to a friend of mine
in Damascus in early January, just before the resistance turned more
violent, and listening to his frustrations and shattered voice, it was
hard to see that the masses could refrain from channelling their
frustrations in violent ways.

GS: It is difficult, that is true. The alternative for violence is to
have strategies to express the anger that you anticipate and to apply
your anger in non-violent ways. One needs to be very careful about the
objective of the uprising. Is the objective to express anger,
regardless of results, or do you want to get rid of the oppression? If
you want to get rid of oppression, then mere expression of anger and
the use of violence does not get rid of the regime by itself. You can
in fact do things that guarantee the regime victory, by merely using

The Syrians must not be tricked into civil war. The Syrian government
obviously has massive capacity for violent suppression. If there is a
civil war, soldiers will obey orders. Violence will therefore help the
regime to maintain its control. The trick will be to take the army
away from government by mass disobedience, as has happened in other
revolutions before.

The oppressors always have great powers for violence. If you choose
violence, you choose to fight your enemyís best weapons. This makes it
very difficult to win a victory. By violence, you choose the
torture-chambers, the army, all the guns, all the ammunition. It is
more difficult to suppress an unarmed and disciplined resistance
movement that has lost its fear, and more importantly has a good
strategy - planned in advance - and has implemented it skilfully, than
to crush a violent uprising. Sometimes spontaneous actions are
effective, but they are risky.

EN: Protests following the 2009 Iranian presidential election ↑
occurred in major cities in Iran and around the world, starting June
13, 2009. The protests were given several titles by their proponents
including Green Revolution. The Iranian regime however, like many of
its Arab counterparts, proves to be durable, not to mention complex
and with a great amount of support. Why didnít the Green Revolution
yield a regime change? People turned out in great numbers, seemed
defiant, and were successful in implementing non-violent means of

GS: It was insufficient. Take a military perspective. The war against
the Nazis didnít happen in a month or a week. Victory didnít come
quickly, but after a series of campaigns that gradually built up the
strengths of the allies. In non-violent campaigns, if you face a very
harsh and strong oppressive regime, and your plans are not so powerful
yet, you need to focus on a small objective to start with. Win on that
issue, force the opponent back, empower the people to achieve
something. Then you pick another piece of the regime, and focus on
that. Thatís the way you bring down a powerful regime non-violently,
complementary to what the military do when they pick military

If people can learn how to effectively struggle for greater rights and
justice with non-violent means, there is no supply of weapons or
ammunition that can be cut off by the enemy. They canít cut off this
knowledge once itís there. The knowledge about how to conduct
struggles skilfully and effectively therefore has great power
potential for freedom and justice. Once the genie is out of the
bottle, it cannot be put back inside.

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