The Serbian movement Otpor was active for two years before, in 2000, it succeeded in bringing about the ouster of the “tyrant from the Balkans,” Slobodan Milosevic. The organization, whose name means “resistance,” had a symbol – the famous clenched fist – and easily recognizable bold colors: black and white. Otpor staged frequent marches, and when its leaders sensed that the public was tiring of them, they switched to a pots-and-pans protest. A deafening racket emanated from houses every evening during the government-controlled television newscast. Anyone could initiate an activity under the title of the movement Otpor, as long as they upheld two principles: They had to convey a message of protest against the government and use nonviolent means to show their opposition.
The movement’s young activists drew these ideas from the work of Gene Sharp, an American philosopher, scholar and extremely influential advocate of nonviolent resistance in the 20th and 21st centuries. Even if you’ve never heard his name, you’ve probably heard of activities based on his thinking. Sharp died on January 28 at his home in Boston, a week after his 90th birthday.
Of Sharp’s dozens of books, the one that made perhaps the greatest impact was “From Dictatorship to Democracy: A Conceptual Framework for Liberation” (1994). The work was translated into more than 30 languages, sometimes in pirate editions, which Sharp welcomed. It lists 198 practical tools for fomenting a nonviolent revolution, taken from the second volume of a three-volume 1973 book by Sharp called “The Politics of Nonviolent Action.” For example: display flags and symbols that represent the revolution; hold mass marches and parades; do not see the police and soldiers as enemies, but rather as victims just like the protesters, and, accordingly, try to persuade them to take part in opposition activities – for example, by giving them flowers; boycott national sporting events; organize strikes at work; demonstrate in front of the homes of powerful figures; taunt elected officials; hold mock elections, and so on.
Among the most creative and memorable of the nonviolent actions inspired by Sharp was the human chain organized by the Baltic peoples in 1989: More than two million Estonians, Lithuanians and Latvians joined hands and physically linked their countries’ three capitals. Sharp considered the Baltic struggle for independence from the Soviet Union to be the greatest achievement of his ideology because, as he noted, despite these nations’ history of violence, they opted for nonviolent tactics which eventually succeeded.
In 2004, a similar human chain was created in Israel, in which 130,000 people held hands and linked Gush Katif – the Jewish settlement bloc in the Gaza Strip – and the Western Wall, to protest the plan to evacuate Jewish residents from the Strip the following year. The settlers adopted several othernonviolent actions inspired by Sharp, such as choosing a distinctive color for the protest: glaring orange. In an interview with Haaretz Magazine (Hebrew) in 2011, Sharp said, “I welcome their choice of this [nonviolent protest]. The Israel Defense Forces proved during the evacuation of settlements in the disengagement that self-control – in the way its troops responded to a nonviolent struggle with a nonviolent approach – can be tremendously successful. The way the disengagement was handled, by the army and by the settlers, without the use of weapons, is an exemplary model.”
Participants in the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011 also owe many of their achievements to Sharp’s ideas. In Egypt it’s known that at least four groups of activists were influenced by them. Even the Muslim Brotherhood, whose tradition of violence struck fear into the hearts of many, viewed Sharp’s book as a manual and posted it in Arabic translation on its website.
Sharp’s name even came up in an Iranian courtroom in 2009, where 140 people were on trial for protesting the results of that year’s presidential election. “A few of them admitted that the protest was the fruit of a prior plan, which copied the Velvet Revolution [the nonviolent revolution in Czechoslovakia in 1989] and has already applied 100 of Gene Sharp’s 198 ideas,” the prosecutor stated. In fact, the Iranian government should still be worried: The Farsi translation of “From Dictatorship to Democracy” tops the list of downloads on Sharp’s website, where it’s available for free, along with many other works in numerous languages, including Hebrew.
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Einstein’s pen pal
Gene Sharp was born in North Baltimore, Ohio, in 1928 to a Protestant minister father, although he described himself as absolutely secular. At 25, he served a nine-month prison term for refusing to be drafted to fight in the Korean War. He explained his reasons for this in a letter to Albert Einstein, who was well known for his pacifism and apparently felt an immediate appreciation for and closeness to the young man. The two became pen pals: Einstein wrote a foreword to Sharp’s first book, about Mahatma Gandhi, and Sharp named the organization he founded in 1983 – which was devoted to research and to promoting nonviolent protests – the Albert Einstein Institution.
The philosophical underpinnings of Sharp’s doctrine were straightforward. In contrast to what some might think, he suggested, power does not derive from a leader’s traits or skills, but from the obedience of his subjects: It is they who vest the government with its power. Every leader, no matter how despotic, is dependent on obedience. If the subjects cease to obey, the regime loses its power. There are various systems that enhance the ruler’s authority, some of them institutional, such as the police, the courts and other regulatory bodies, while others are cultural in nature. The cultural systems create the illusion that the ruler’s power derives from his singularity, not from the people’s obedience: They are the pillars of the government and once they are weakened, it will collapse and be replaced. A revolution, according to Sharp, needs to focus on weakening these pillars by nonviolent means.
The weaknesses in Sharp’s philosophy are self-evident: The civil war in Syria, to take one example of many, demonstrates the disastrous results of an initially nonviolent protest. But one needn’t cite a horrific situation like that to grasp that often, where people have succeeded in nonviolently overthrowing a tyrannical regime – the ensuing vacuum is then filled by a different tyrannical regime. To such arguments, Sharp replied that violence would have achieved far less and that nonviolent protest teaches the citizenry that they actually possess more power than they may have originally thought. “The transition to nonviolent struggle is an achievement in itself,” he said in the Haaretz interview.
With regard to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he observed at the time that, although the Palestinians had adopted many of the methods he’d suggested, in their nonviolent marches they often resorted to stone throwing, as a kind of “semi-violent” act. In the end, he noted, this becomes “an excuse for the Israeli army to employ far more severe means of oppression. And that has caused the conflict to deteriorate.”
Nonviolent action, Sharp declared, must be pursued by people to the very end – and with determination, confidence and intensity – in order to achieve a revolution that will emancipate them. We can only hope that he’s right.