Expect the debate about the importance of new media in the nonviolent revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt to continue for years, although I’m satisfied that facebook, twitter and cell phones were highly significant tactical tools in both countries.
In terms of strategy, however, give due credit to a central idea in the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions — the unique power of organized nonviolence to topple entrenched totalitarian regimes. For a good read on the topic, see “A Tunisian-Egyptian Link That Shook Arab History” by New York Times reporters David D. Kirkpatrick and David E. Sanger. As part of their investigation, the authors note the influence on both uprisings of a new England scholar who has dedicated his life to the study and advocacy of nonviolence as a potent political strategy:
Breaking free from older veterans of the Arab political opposition, they…were especially drawn to a Serbian youth movement called Otpor, which had helped topple the dictator Slobodan Milosevic by drawing on the ideas of an American political thinker, Gene Sharp. The hallmark of Mr. Sharp’s work is well-tailored to Mr. Mubark’s Egypt: He argues that nonviolence is a singularly effective way to undermine police states that might cite violent resistance to justify repression in the name of stability.
The April 6 Youth Movement modeled its logo — a vaguely Soviet looking red and white clenched fist–after Otpor’s, and some of its members traveled to Serbia to meet with Otpor activists.
Another influence, several said, was a group of Egyptian expatriates in their 30s who set up an organization in Qatar called the Academy of Change, which promotes ideas drawn in part on Mr. Sharp’s work. One of the group’s organizers, Hisham Morsy, was arrested during the Cairo protests and remained in detention.
Sharp is the founder of the Albert Einstein Institution, an important, though underfunded organization dedicated to the study and promotion of nonviolent action. The author of ground-breaking scholarly works, including “Making Europe Unconquerable” and “Civilian-Based Defense: A Post-Military Weapons System,” Sharp has long insisted that his key writings, available on the Einstein Institution’s web pages be translated into Arabic and numerous other languages. He is undoubtedly the foremost expert on nonviolence, in both theory and application, and has been called the “Machiavelli of nonviolence” and the “Clausewitz of nonviolent warfare” — although neither designation does justice to his progressive outlook.
One shudders to consider the countless billions of dollars Sharp could have saved taxpayers, had a long line of U.S. presidents consulted with him before launching expensive nation-building schemes and other military initiatives. In a saner world, he would be a top national security advisor to the President.
Sharp isn’t the only nonviolence advocate being consulted by the young revolutionaries of Egypt. The American Islamic Congress re-published (in Arabic) and distributed in Egypt a 50-year old comic book about Martin Luther King, Jr.’s leadership of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. You and anyone else in the world with internet access can read the entire comic book in English, Arabic and Farsi right here.
Comforting, that along with all of the blundering disasters of U.S. foreign policy over the years, two humble but dedicated Americans could have such a constructive influence on the freedom struggles of oppressed people in the Middle East.