Gene Sharp, master tactician of non-violent resistance

I’m hopefully going to see a documentary tonight about Gene Sharp, the American academic who invented the techniques of non-violent resistance used in the revolutions of Serbia (2001), Georgia (2003), Ukraine (2004), Lebanon (2005), Egypt (2011), Occupy Wall Street (2011), Russia (2011-2012) and, presumably, other places in the future. His ideas have exerted an incredible influence on recent global politics – really incredible.

Nonetheless, it’s also become apparent that there are some limits to the technologies Sharp invented. First, they work best in countries that care what the west thinks of them, and which are dependent on western aid. It hasn’t worked in Syria or Libya – where the revolutions descended into violent conflict – because the pariah governments didn’t care what the west thinks of them, and were more than willing to use violence on their own people.
Secondly, it works best in countries with a decent-sized middle class who are socially networked. This is one reason why the protests in Russia have caught on, to my surprise: Russians were able to share with each other the evidence for widespread electoral fraud, giving the lie to the regime’s claims of total popularity. But in other countries, like say Kyrgyzstan, internet use is not so high and the middle class is smaller, so such protests often descend into street fights.
Thirdly, it helps if you have clear aims, such as toppling a dictator. Occupy doesn’t have that clear aim or goal, which potentially is a problem for it…although Occupy protestors might say they have successfully given voice to public indignation over inequality and injustice, moving the terms of the public debate.
Fourthly, building a new democratic government has proved harder than bringing down a dictatorship. Not all these revolutions worked. In Georgia, the corrupt dictatorship of Shevardnadze was replaced by the rather more vigorous but nonetheless authoritarian and reckless government of Saakashvili – and the street protests against him have never stopped. In Ukraine, the Orange revolution led to a coalition government that never stopped arguing with itself, and that has since lost power. In Egypt, the revolution has had serious teething problems.
Not to criticise the incredible bravery of the protestors – but the aftermath of democratic revolutions needs to be considered, studied and improved. And amid all the emotion of successful revolution, we also need to remember that those who replace the old tyrants are humans to, imperfect and prone to abuse their position.
Anyway, once again, what a remarkable achievement by this man.

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