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A guru’s view of what to look for in democratic uprisings

ASK THIS | February 18, 2011

Gene Sharp's exhortations to nonviolence helped inspire the Egyptian protests that brought down a president. So what does he think reporters should be watching for going forward?

By Dan Froomkin

The  New York Times reported a few days ago that the young Egyptian activists at the heart of the protests that toppled President Hosni Mubarak’s authoritarian regime last week were at least partially inspired by the writings of Gene Sharp.
An article in yesterday’s Times (Shy U.S. Intellectual Created Playbook Used in a Revolution) profiles Sharp, a little-known octogenarian scholar and founder of the Boston-based Albert Einstein Institution, which advocates “the worldwide study and strategic use of nonviolent action in conflict.”
Nieman Watchdog asked Sharp what things in particular he thinks journalists should be keeping an eye out for as they cover the other pro-democracy movements that seem to be popping up everywhere.
In addition to the obvious questions – “What are your grievances? Why are you doing this? Why are you doing this in this way?” – Sharp said the most important question is: “How much do you understand that it’s really important to do it nonviolently?”
Determining how committed they are to nonviolence is key, because the more committed they are, the more likely they’ll succeed, Sharp said.
“I think much hinges on how these current attempts to do an imitation of Egypt in a couple of other Arab states turn out,” he said. “And that’s a bit dicey because we don’t know how disciplined they’re going to be.”
Sharp emphasized that protesters don't have to believe in nonviolence for moral, religious or ethical grounds -- they simply have to understand that for the success of this particular kind of  struggle, “they need to avoid all violence and maintain their nonviolent discipline.”
Remaining nonviolent can be a real challenge, especially when provoked. “I normally somewhat distrust activities which are solely in imitation of others,” he said. “I generally advise that people do a lot of thinking and planning and study ahead of time.”
What authoritarian regimes want, of course, is for anti-government protests to turn violent. Then they have a public excuse for brutal repression – on the grounds that they needed to maintain security and restore order.
They want that so badly, in fact, that they often attempt to infiltrate protest movements with agitators who will commit acts of violence, intentionally bringing down the fury of the government.
That said, some governments don’t feel the need to wait for an excuse for brutal repression. (Case in point, what seems to be happening in Bahrain.)
And while an unprovoked attack on nonviolent protesters is more like than a provoked one to backfire against the regime that ordered it,  the 1989 massacre in Tiananmen Square is the ultimate example of how it can work exactly as intended.
“Sometimes it frightens people back into submission,” Sharp said. “But brutality does not always bring victory to the people who are brutal.”
Sharp said he doesn't know what the future holds. “I have no inside track as to what’s going to happen next,” he said. “I was actually very surprised by the events in both Egypt and Tunisia.”
Sharp said he gives enormous credit to the Egyptians. “It’s been quite amazing and quite remarkable. They for the most part kept it quite nonviolent,” he said.
And though he didn’t see them coming, he sensed within a few days that the Egyptian protesters had what it takes to bring down a government.
Very early on, I heard reporters talking about how the people had lost their fear. And that’s where it becomes big trouble for the regime,” he said. “If you can keep the people too terrified and frightened to do anything, then you’re safe. If they lose their fear, then they can do what needs to be done.”
Sharp is also adamant that the United States has no role to play in citizen protest movements.
"I think the U.S. ought to stay out of it," he said. "It can mess things up. Leave it to the people who have been suffering and have the courage to act. Leave it to them."
Is he optimistic that other countries will follow Egypt’s path?
“I’m hopeful, he said, “but watching to see what happens.”

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