Middle East uprisings take cue from Gene Sharp's guide to non-violent revolution

The remarkable discipline, slogans and tactics of the young leaders of the Middle East uprisings are all torn from the same handbook - a guide to non-violent revolution by Gene Sharp, writes Carol Off.

For anyone who witnessed the Orange Revolution in Ukraine six years ago, the recent scene on the Arab streets might provoke a twinge of déjà vu. The similarities are uncanny, but they are also very real.

The People Power uprisings in the Middle East and corresponding movements that erupted in Eastern Europe in the past decade appeared as spontaneous outcries. And for hundreds of thousands of citizens who joined the young people on the streets, that is the case. But the mass protests were stirred — and steered — by groups of youth who planned, consulted and even trained for the events. 

Indeed, the remarkable discipline of the young leaders, their tactics and strategies, their slogans and posters are all torn from the same handbook - a guide to non-violent revolution called From Dictatorship to Democracy. And they've all been inspired by the same guru: An 83-year-old American activist named Gene Sharp.

Professor Sharp lives in a modest little house in Boston from which he publishes and distributes his guide in dozens of languages. His Albert Einstein Institution attracts revolutionaries from around the world, though he guffaws when I refer to his followers as "disciples." In an interview on As It Happens, the retired professor says his role is simply to provide devices to help depose dictators.

Anatomy of a revolution

I first heard of the professor and his "198 Methods of Non-violent Action" in late 1999 when a movement in Serbia known as Otpor managed to oust the bad man of the Balkans — Slobodan Milosevic.

In a CBC documentary called Anatomy of a Revolution, Belgrade student Srdjan Popovic explained that he and his young friends went into training a year in advance and spent many weeks honing the skills outlined in Gene Sharp's handbook before they took to the streets.

Author and professor Gene Sharp. ((Courtesy The Albert Einstein Institution))
In the CBC documentary, we show how Popovic and his friends then turned up in many other parts of former East Bloc countries brandishing copies of From Dictatorship to Democracy translated into every language. When hordes of young people suddenly stormed the parliament in Georgia in 2003, Serbs — and Gene Sharp's manual — were there. The students refused to leave the streets of Tblisi until the Kremlin-backed president, Eduard Shvardnadze, departed.

The Georgian student movement appeared to be improvised and messy. But the opposite was true. They had planned almost every step of their campaign. The young people managed to overthrow the regime, allowing Mikheil Saakashvili to take his place.

A year later, Serbs and Georgians turned up in Maidan Square in central Kiev, where they trained and helped to conduct the Orange Revolution, toppling the Ukrainian leader Viktor Yanukovych.

Telltale tactics

Whether in central Europe or the Middle East, demonstrators shared the same tactics: they occupied symbolic locations of their respective cities; they established tent villages; and they refused to leave until they achieved their principal goal — toppling the dictator. They eschewed violence, even when provoked.

The leaders who ultimately fled had no idea what the movement was or how it had come to be full blown so suddenly.

'If you're not afraid, the power of the regime to threaten you and to kill you is not power anymore. It's dissolved.'—Gene Sharp

Over the years, Professor Sharp's tried and true tactics have turned up in many places where they were less effective: Burma, Byelorussia and Iran, for example. But Wikileaks documents show that the regimes of those and many other countries have studied From Dictatorship to Democracy and regard Gene Sharp as public enemy No. 1. Venezuela's Hugo Chavez declared that Sharp was part of a CIA conspiracy to overthrow governments. Which, in the AIH interview, Sharp says is amusing, if they ever saw the modest family home from which he operates.

Egyptian youth who launched the protest in Tahrir Square first downloaded the Arabic version of Sharp's handbook. Known as the April 6 Movement, they learned from the Otpor Serbs — still regarded as the seminal youth revolution — and adopted many of their tactics. When I first saw the Otpor symbol, a black banner with an emblazoned white fist, on the streets of Cairo I knew the Otpor students were there. And sure enough, they helped to train Egyptian youth.

A decade ago, the Serbs used graffiti to disseminate the message: the Arabs had twitters and facebook. But when that technology was jammed, the youth of Tunisia and Egypt turned to the same methodology as worked in Belgrade and Kiev: occupation, sloganeering, tent cities, music, noise makers, constant surprises, boycotts and, above all else, an unflagging sense of humour and mission.

Read Gene Sharp's 198 methods and you'll quickly recognize the similarities. In all the movements, they called for a million people to come out to the central square. And in Sharpian textbook style, once they reached critical mass, the regime knew it had lost control, whether it was Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain or even Libya.

Gene Sharp maintains the key strategy is to demonstrate there are options. Fear and apathy can be defeated as soon as people believe they have the power to throw off the yoke. "If you're not afraid, the power of the regime to threaten you and to kill you is not power anymore. It's dissolved," Sharp told AIH.

What Gene Sharp isn't able to tell the jubilant revolutionaries is what to do when the dictators are gone ....