Gene Sharp


I have not yet heard of Professor Gene Sharp. That may be my mistake. Brooks Spector, the retired US diplomat and now Daily Maverick commentator, notes some protests we are currently seeing in North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, owe their inspiration to him and Saul Alinsky (1909-1972).

The New York Times’ Sheryl Gay Stolberg has written that although few “have heard of Mr. Sharp…. his practical writings on non-violent 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 Burma, Bosnia, Estonia and Zimbabwe, and now Tunisia and Egypt.
“When Egypt’s April 6 Youth Movement was struggling to recover from a failed effort in 2005, its leaders tossed around ‘crazy ideas’ about bringing down the government… they stumbled on Mr. Sharp while examining the Serbian movement Otpor (Resistance) [on the Internet], which he had influenced.”

Perhaps even more interestingly, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, the religiously based opposition group, has posted Sharp’s book on its website, Spector notes in an analysis of the last month’s events in the Maghreb and Middle East. Sharp may well be of interest to us who pontificate about insurgency and counterinsurgency.

The wikipedia entry on Sharp describes his sources of inspiration as Mohandas K. Gandhi and Henry David Thoreau. “Sharp’s key theme is that power is not monolithic; that is, it does not derive from some intrinsic quality of those who are in power. For Sharp, political power, the power of any state – regardless of its particular structural organisation – ultimately derives from the subjects of the state. His fundamental belief is that any power structure relies upon the subjects’ obedience to the orders of the ruler(s). If subjects do not obey, leaders have no power.
“In Sharp’s view all effective power structures have systems by which they encourage or extract obedience from their subjects. States have particularly complex systems for keeping subjects obedient. These systems include specific institutions (police, courts, regulatory bodies) but may also involve cultural dimensions that inspire obedience by implying that power is monolithic (the god cult of the Egyptian pharaohs, the dignity of the office of the President, moral or ethical norms and taboos). Through these systems, subjects are presented with a system of sanctions (imprisonment, fines, ostracism) and rewards (titles, wealth, fame) which influence the extent of their obedience.
“Sharp identifies this hidden structure as providing a window of opportunity for a population to cause significant change in a state. Sharp cites the insight of Étienne de la Boétie, that if the subjects of a particular state recognize that they are the source of the state’s power they can refuse their obedience and their leader(s) will be left without power.” Or as Evita Bezuidenhout said: “Big brother is only big when surrounded by little people.”