February 28th 2011

A global moment

Gene Sharpe

“This is a global moment unlike any in memory, perhaps in history” writes Tom Engelhardt, author of “The American Way of War”.

There have been global moments before – like the Kennedy assassination, news of which sped around world by radio; the fall of the Berlin Wall and 9/11.

But none of those moments have made me feel quite like I do now: that thanks to global media networks I am an eyewitness, a spectator at a momentous and historic event: the transformation by ordinary Arabs, of their human condition. An uprising, largely peaceful and dignified, that nevertheless deserves to be defined as revolutionary. One bound to impact for generations on individual, personal relationships as well as on wider social, economic and political relationships. One that will likely alter the balance of power in our world.

Watching developments from my armchair here at Advocacy International, I have been keen to find out what organisational, communication and mobilisation techniques were adopted by, in particular, Egyptian civil society, in challenging their oppressive regime.

It did not take long to discover. For, as many now know, Egyptian trade union and political activists worked closely with a Serbian group of young people based at the Centre for Non Violent Action and Strategies (CANVAS). They had successfully organised peaceful opposition to President Milosevic, and wanted to share the lessons they learned with other young people. They in turn were heavily influenced by a thoughtful and until recently obscure American academic, Emeritus Professor Gene Sharp, author of From Dictatorship to Democracy (a book originally published in 1993 in Thailand for Burmese dissidents). Sharp has been an Gandhian advocate of non-violence since the early 1960s, and back then published: Gandhi Wields the Weapon of Moral Power: Three Case Histories.

Sharp is known as the Clausewitz of nonviolence, and these are the key principles he advocates for non-violent transformation:

  • Develop a strategy for winning freedom and a vision of the society you want
  • Overcome fear by small acts of resistance
  • Use colours and symbols to demonstrate unity of resistance
  • Learn from historical examples of the successes of non-violent movements
  • Use non-violent “weapons”
  • Identify the dictatorship’s pillars of support and develop a strategy for undermining each
  • Use oppressive or brutal acts by the regime as a recruiting tool for your movement
  • Isolate or remove from the movement people who use or advocate violence

According to Foreign Policy magazine (16 February, 2011)

“Early in 2008, workers at a government-owned textile factory in the Egyptian mill town of El-Mahalla el-Kubra announced that they were going on strike on the first Sunday in April to protest high food prices and low wages. This group caught the attention of a group of tech-savvy young people an hour’s drive to the south in the capital city of Cairo, who started a Facebook group to organize protests and strikes on April 6 throughout Egypt in solidarity with the mill workers. To their shock, the page quickly acquired some 70,000 followers.

“But what worked so smoothly online proved much more difficult on the street. Police occupied the factory in Mahalla and headed off the strike. The demonstrations there turned violent: Protesters set fire to buildings, and police started shooting, killing at least two people. The solidarity protests around Egypt, meanwhile, fizzled out, in most places blocked by police. The Facebook organizers had never agreed on tactics, whether Egyptians should stay home or fill the streets in protest. People knew they wanted to do something. But no one had a clear idea of what that something was.

“The botched April 6 protests, the leaders realized in their aftermath, had been an object lesson in the limits of social networking as a tool of democratic revolution…

“In the summer of 2009, Mohamed Adel, a 20-year-old blogger and April 6 activist, went to Belgrade, Serbia….

“In Belgrade, Adel took a week-long course in the strategies of nonviolent revolution. He learned how to organize people — not on a computer, but in the streets. And most importantly, he learned how to train others. He went back to Egypt and began to teach. The April 6 Youth Movement, along with a similar group called Kefaya, became the most important organizers of the 18-day peaceful uprising that culminated in President Hosni Mubarak’s departure on Feb. 11. The tactics were straight out of CANVAS’s training curriculum. ‘We were quite amazed they did so much with so little,’ Srdja Popovic, one of CANVAS’s leaders, told Foreign Policy.”

They did so much with so little; but that ‘little’ included the carefully distilled and patient wisdom of Professor Gene Sharp.

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