A man of peace whose ideas defeat dictators
Halfway around the world from Cairo’s Tahrir Square, an American intellectual shuffles about his cluttered house in a working-class part of Boston. His name is Gene Sharp. Stoop-shouldered and white-haired at 83, he grows orchids, has yet to master the internet and hardly seems like a dangerous man.
Yet for the world’s despots, his ideas can be fatal.
Few people in the West have heard of Mr Sharp, but for decades 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 in Burma, Bosnia, Estonia and Zimbabwe, and now Tunisia and Egypt.
When Egypt’s April 6 youth movement was struggling to recover from a failed revolt in 2005, its leaders tossed around “crazy ideas” about bringing down the government, said Ahmed Maher, a leading strategist. They stumbled on Mr Sharp’s ideas while examining the Serbian movement Otpor, which he had influenced.
When the International Centre on Non-violent Conflict, which trains democracy activists, slipped into Cairo several years ago to conduct a workshop, among the papers it distributed was Mr Sharp’s 198 Methods of Non-Violent Action, a list of tactics that range from hunger strikes to “protest disrobing” to “disclosing identities of secret agents”.
Dalia Ziada, an Egyptian blogger and activist who attended the workshop and later organised similar sessions on her own, said trainees were active in both the Tunisia and Egypt revolts.
She said that activists translated excerpts of Mr Sharp’s work into Arabic, and that his message of “attacking weaknesses of dictators” stuck with them.
Peter Ackerman, a former student of Mr Sharp who founded the non-violence centre and ran the Cairo workshop, cites his former mentor as proof that “ideas have power”.
Mr Sharp, hard-nosed yet shy, is careful not to take credit.
He is more thinker than revolutionary, though as a young man he participated in sit-ins and spent nine months in a US federal prison as a conscientious objector during the Korean War.