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In a small office somewhere in Boston, Massachusetts sits an old man and his books. Despite the man’s fragile presence, his ideas are feared among the Mullahs of Iran and the current president of Venezuela; bookstores have been burned down for selling his work in Russia and there is a great possibility that ex-dictators Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak have nothing but distain for the 83-year-old scholar. Jorgen Ullerup from the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten reported from the home of the American professor who is said to the author of the ABC to non-violent revolution.
Doctor Sharp is known as the world’s most outstanding expert on non-violent action and his words have guided many populist revolutions from the Balkans to Eastern Europe and the Middle East. His most popular work ‘From Dictatorship to Democracy’ has been translated into 34 languages and is available for free on his website. It was written for the dissidents of Burma in 1993 after the imprisonment of Aung San Suu Kyi but soon spread to the rest of the world.
The professor believes that non-violence is the most important ‘weapon’ against tyranny. He acknowledges that it takes sacrifices to oust a dictator but that a smart and deliberate campaign can free a people. “After Egypt and Tunisia, the assumption that it takes an invasion to free a country has proven invalid,” says Doctor Sharp and explains that the secret to freedom is to “free yourself.”
The advices given for non-violent resistance includes everything from hunger strikes to naked protest to parody. According to Mr Sharp, the key is to identify the pillars that support the dictator and direct a campaign towards undermining this foundation. It is always important to only make use of non-violent means but at the same time, the protesters should be careful in negotiating with the dictatorship. “It is a matter of hard realpolitik. Dictators will always aim to negotiate to strengthen their own position.”
On the question of US and NATO involvement, the professor advises foreign powers not to intervene. His worry is that if American airplanes would bomb Gadaffi’s headquarters, the pride and accomplishment of bringing down a tyrant will not be that of the Libyan people. “It is possible to transfer knowledge and ideas on how to revolt but you cannot export democracy the way President Bush attempted to through invasion and use of force. Revolt needs to come from the grassroots themselves.” His own fear is that the dissidents in Libya, by engaging in armed resistance, are stepping into the violent realm of Colonel Gadaffi and provide him with an excuse to engage in a bloodbath.
Doctor Sharp’s own interest in liberation without violence began with a study on Nazi-resistance in Germany and of public resistance in Norway against the introduction of Nazism to the country. In spite of his age, the professor is still active – albeit not having fully embraced the age of digital media. He still writes his work by hand and is not convinced by the credit given to Facebook and Twitter during the recent revolts. “These are ways of communication just like a telephone, a letter or a smuggled message. Importance should not be given to the medium but what you are trying to communicate.”
Finally, Doctor Sharp makes clear that it is important for a non-violent revolution not to have a single leader but many. The reason is that one leader can be mistaken, get killed or imprisoned. Or one man can turn a revolution in a wrong direction such as Lenin after the revolution in 1905. “All those people in a revolution which we never hear about are often more important than those we recognize the name of.”
Despite his work, Gene Sharp is not a household name. He was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009 but was beaten to it by President Barack Obama.