From Dictatorship to Democracy

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Gene Sharp

This is a book with a reputation far greater than it deserves. It was originally written as a handbook for tackling the difficulties posed for activists by the Burmese military junta. Having successfully delivered democracy to Burma (hmm), it has been held responsible by the Iranian government for the Green Movement and by the New York Times as contributing to the Arab Spring.

Posted on the website of the Muslim Brotherhood, this guide to non-violent organising is a must for everyone who wants to take the heart out of the struggle and leave the masses confused and defenceless.

I began quite excited, as Sharp takes some time to go through all the reasons why negotiations with a dictator are a bad idea. He also rightly talks about how the population can't be saved by coups, fake elections or foreign intervention. I even got a tingle when I read that "liberation from dictatorships ultimately depends on the people's ability to liberate themselves". Sound familiar?

One hundred and ninety eight methods of non-violent action are identified. A lot of these are uncontroversial and are simply things that activists do all the time, whether ruled by the military or a bourgeois parliament. They include the smallest acts of resistance from public speeches to slogans to banners. It is no wonder that the Iranian government accused activists of using 100 of Sharp's 198 methods. He has simply noted down the most obvious methods that activists use in struggle.

I suspect this is where his problem lies. Generalising from afar without any real attempt to get involved, to organise or to lead means Sharp gives greater credit to factors that were not central. It also leads to the patronising tone that runs throughout.

The general strike makes an appearance at number 117. Yet central to the movement that brought down Mubarak were the strikes from 8 February that forced the regime to choose between sacrificing their leader or losing control completely. The response of the masses was to chase their thugs off the streets. Rather than lighting the way forward, Sharp's strategy condemns them for defending themselves.

In contrast, it's reassuring to read Hossam el-Hamalawy of the Egyptian Revolutionary Socialists: "Not only was Mubarak's foreign policy hated and despised by the Egyptian people, but parallels were always drawn between the situation of the Egyptian people and their Palestinian brothers and sisters. The latter have been the major source of inspiration, not Gene Sharp, whose name I first heard in my life only in February after we toppled Mubarak already and whom the clueless New York Times moronically gives credit for our uprising."