Global Crisis/Innovation Blog

Gene Sharp: Father of the Arab Revolutions?  How Ideas Change the World 

By Shlomo Maital

      Prof. (emer.) Gene Sharp

  There are many examples of how obscure books change the world.  Marx’s Capital is unreadable – and look what it did.  F.A. Hayek’s slim The Road to Serfdom was read by two leaders called Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher – and each dragged their countries toward free-market capitalism. 

   But few have heard of Gene Sharp, a retired American political scientist professor, Univ. of Mass.,  whose 93-page 1993 book on how to topple autocrats, From Dictatorship to Democracy, has become the Bible for revolutionaries from Bosnia to the Ukraine to Egypt’s Tahrir Square. Sharp offers 198 practical ways for ordinary citizens to use non-violence to bring down dictators.   Available in 30 languages, Sharp’s slim book has a simple proposition.  

“I have tried to think carefully about the most effective ways in which dictatorships could be successfully disintegrated with the least possible cost in suffering and lives. In this I have drawn on my studies over many years of dictatorships, resistance movements, revolutions, political thought, governmental systems, and especially realistic nonviolent struggle. “

     According to Ruaridh Arrow, who has prepared a documentary film on Sharp soon to be released (speaking on the BBC):  “Gene Sharp is the world’s foremost expert on non-violent revolution. His work has been translated into more than 30 languages, his books slipped across borders and hidden from secret policemen all over the world.   As Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia and Viktor Yanukovych in Ukraine fell to the colour revolutions which swept across Eastern Europe, each of the democratic movements paid tribute to Sharp’s contribution, yet he remained largely unknown to the public. The Serbs who had used his books as a theoretical base for their activities founded their own organisation called the Centre for Applied Non Violence (CANVAS), and alongside their own materials have carried out workshops using Sharp’s work in dozens of other countries.    When I met Srdja Popovic the director of CANVAS in Belgrade in November he confirmed that they had been working with Egyptians. ‘That’s the power of Sharp’s work and this non-violent struggle,” he says. “It doesn’t matter who you are – black, white, Muslim, Christian, gay, straight or oppressed minority – it’s useable. If they study it, anybody can do this’ .”

     In Iran, the Ahmedinajad regime officially accused demonstrators of applying 100 of the 198 Sharp dictums.  

   Arab revolutionaries are of course reluctant to admit that an American professor has guided their revolutionary organizations.  But his 198 step plan is remarkably practical, for a professorial scholar.  Sharp’s passion, to remove autocrats without bloodshed, has changed the world.  His 199th recommendation, however, is missing – how to deal with bloody tyrants like Syria’s myopic ophthalmologist Bashir Assad, who simply shoot demonstrators in cold blood, and then murder them again when they assemble to bury their dead. 

   It is worth reading his little book, available for download at: