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In November, I invited the eighty year old political theorist, Gene Sharp, to my seminar, “Gandhi: Then and Now.” We had reached the “now” part of our study, looking at the ways in which Gandhi’s strategic non-violent resistance had moved beyond India. Sharp spoke about why some movements, like Polish Solidarity, succeeded in achieving political change and why others, like the 2007 Burmese monks’ movement, faltered.
That day, none of us was thinking of Tunisia or Egypt. But when the revolutions of January began to take hold, I am sure everyone in the seminar recalled our encounter with Gene Sharp and his book, From Dictatorship to Democracy, a manual of non-violent strategies and tactics to bring down a dictator. In the last weeks of January, we saw some of those techniques in action in the astonishing events that captured the attention of the world.
On Feb. 9, when Google executive Wael Ghonim was released from twelve days blindfolded in detention, he told CNN that his heroes were Gandhi and Mark Zuckerberg. It was a potent combination: the strategic thinking of Gandhi’s non-violent resistance joined with the vast networking made possible by Facebook.
Gandhi would have loved the Internet; He understood the power of the press and the community it both forms and informs. The Internet has escalated this power and given it lightning speed.
Wael Ghonim was the anonymous manager of a Facebook page that played a critical role in the massive protests at Tahrir Square brought down the Mubarak government in 18 days. On his release, Ghonim stressed that this was not about him, but about the brave, ordinary, people in the streets. The power of ordinary people, resistant and mobilized around “what touches peoples’ daily lives,” as Ghonim put it, is indeed what Gandhi was about.
While the movements in Tunisia and Egypt were swift, we know they were not completely spontaneous. Young thinkers in both countries knew something of the strategy of non-violent resistance through, not surprisingly, the Internet. One source was that book by Gene Sharp, From Dictatorship to Democracy, downloadable in 24 languages, including Arabic. Banned in Russia and Iran and used widely from Burma to Serbia, the book serves as a generic guide for protesters, recognizing that every context is different and has to be shaped by the people on the ground.
Sharp, once a researcher at Harvard’s Center for International Affairs, has long been a scholar of Gandhi. Sharp believes, however, that non-violent resistance, non-cooperation, and collective action have strategic importance, even if one does not share Gandhi’s religious convictions about the ethics of non-violence.
In his twenty years in South Africa, Gandhi developed the form of non-violent resistance that strategically contravened racist, unjust laws. He called it satyagraha, "holding fast to truth." It was the active non-violence of the brave. Gandhi’s South African campaigns experimented with tactics of civil disobedience that he would later use in India. His declaration at the Empire Theater mass meeting in Johannesburg in 1906 has traveled the internet: “They may torture my body, break my bones, even kill me. Then they will have my dead body. Not my obedience!”
This echoes more than a century later in Wael Ghonim’s stirring declaration in the CNN interview, addressing himself directly to Vice-President Omar Suleiman: “I am telling you, I am ready to die. . . Kidnap me, kidnap all my colleagues. Put us in jail. Kill us. Do whatever you want to do. We are getting back our country. You guys have been ruining this country for 30 years. Enough! Enough! Enough!” Compliance was gone, and so was fear. As Gandhi put it, “A satyagrahi bids goodbye to fear.”
The Gandhian principles at work here are straightforward and, as Sharp insists, not dependent on Gandhi’s spirituality. When people withdraw their support from an oppressive regime and overcome their fear, the power of the oppressor is broken. But, it is impossible to challenge an authoritarian regime where it is strongest, that is, with force of arms. The strategic use of non-violent tactics is the strongest alternative arsenal. We have seen these tactics work for the people of Egypt.
Sharp cautions that nonviolent protest takes discipline and strategic planning. In the assault on the protesters in Tahrir Square, a New York Times reporter wrote, “A row of men stood silent as rocks rained down on them. An older man told a younger one to put down his stick.” In fact, the very brutality of the oppressor can fuel the movement. The largest Facebook group that enabled communication and support for the Egyptian demonstrators is “We are All Khalid Said,” which created a wide sense of identity with the young man brutally murdered by the police in Alexandria on June 6, 2010. This mutual identity forms the strong bonds among protesters necessary for a movement of this magnitude to succeed.
This is not Gandhi’s moment, nor is it Gene Sharp’s, though their influence is considerable here. This moment belongs to the people of Tunisia and the people of Egypt, who have conquered fear and said, “Enough.” We are witnessing the enormously powerful fusion of the Internet and strategic non-violent resistance. It is not at all clear where this will take us, but the energy of the movements we now see emerging has begun to shake authoritarian regimes the world over.
Diana L. Eck is a Professor of Comparative Religion and Indian Studies and the Frederic Wertham Professor of Law & Psychiatry in Society.
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