Is Gene Sharp Superman?
By Stephen Gowans
Samuel P. Jacobs’ Valentine’s Day article in The Daily Beast has a catchy title: “Gene Sharp, the 83 year old who toppled Egypt.” Sharp is a scholar who has spent much of his life developing ideas on how to overthrow authoritarian governments using nonviolence.
While Jacobs’ title is eye-catching, it’s also nonsense. Attributing the toppling of Mubarak to Sharp is like attributing the toppling of the Tsar to Karl Marx. Sure, their ideas may have inspired some of the people who sought the downfall of tyrants, but the connection stops there.
A more realistic description of the nonviolence advocate is provided in the headline of a September 13, 2008 Wall Street Journal article: “Quiet Boston Scholar Inspires Rebels Around the World.” But even this goes too far. Sharp’s techniques of nonviolent direct action may inspire rebels to choose nonviolence, but not to rebel.
The confusion around Sharp is a confusion of means and ends. Sharp and the scholars who work to develop and disseminate his ideas are concerned with means: How to challenge and seize state power. True, the Boston scholar and many other nonviolence advocates appear to embrace liberal democracy as their ideal system, but their work isn’t about singing the praises of regular multi-party elections, the rule of law, and civil and political liberties. Instead, it’s about how to move challenges to the state off a playing field the state has an enormous advantage on: the use of violence.
True, too, the advocates of Sharp’s ideas—and Sharp himself–are often involved in imparting the scholar’s techniques to rebels who are working to bring down governments Washington opposes. And the same rebels often receive generous aid from the US government to facilitate the application of Sharp’s techniques. Still, his ideas are as accessible to Marxists and anarchists looking to overthrow capitalist governments as they are to US-backed street rebels.
Whether Sharp’s ideas played a decisive role in the Tahrir Square uprising, however, is an open question. These days it’s practically impossible for anyone who is seriously interested in challenging the state not to have at least a passing acquaintance with Sharp’s work. It’s just out there. If some people who were active in trying to organize the uprising were Sharp-literate, we shouldn’t be greatly surprised. But what role did they play in shaping the uprising’s actions?
Protestors did not hew strictly to the nonviolent line (they battled violently with police and Mubarak’s thugs when attacked) and the otherwise peaceful nature of the uprising may have had little to do with any conscious commitment to model tactics on Sharp’s advice and more with self-survival. After all, who’s going to storm parliament or the president’s office with the army deployed nearby?
What about the US government? Did it play any role in the uprising?
The short answer is yes. But this shouldn’t be a surprise. It’s almost axiomatic that the United States tries to influence events on the ground in key countries. But that doesn’t mean that it pulled a trigger that set the Egyptian uprising in motion.
States try to influence the affairs of other countries in all sorts of ways: through trade policy; foreign aid; military aid; espionage; media; and so on. If they can gain leverage over an opposition movement, they’ll do that too – either to strengthen it, if they want to destabilize the country in question, or to guide it away from unpalatable alternatives, if the country is an ally. Of course, there is never any guarantee that their investment will pay off.
You can adopt a purist democratic position that says interference in the affairs of other countries is always undemocratic and therefore deplorable, but that’s a moral, not an empirical, position, which involves questions about what type of influence is illegitimate. (Is it illegitimate to use trade policy to influence another country? What about media? Russia Today, the Russian government’s medium for influencing foreign opinion abroad, is every bit as much part of Moscow’s apparatus for influencing affairs in other countries as its diplomatic policy is.) Rather than asking these questions we might be better served by asking which class’s interests are predominant in the efforts of the state to exert its influence overseas.
The United States exerts enormous influence over Egypt in multiple ways, not least of which is through the training, aid, and equipment it provides the Egyptian military. It’s likely that any government in Cairo which pursued measures inimical to the investment and export interests of US corporations and investors would soon be toppled in a coup d’etat engineered by its own US-influenced military. US efforts to influence events abroad typically have the economic interests of US investors, banks and corporations in mind, if not directly, then indirectly.
A favored government that has allowed its rule to become destabilized might also be toppled by its own military to prevent a radical movement from taking advantage of instability to come to power. This may be a fair description of what has happened in Egypt in the last few days. True, the passing of power from Mubarak to the military hasn’t been widely described as a military coup d’etat, but it fits the bill.
One other way in which the United States has tried to influence Egypt’s internal affairs is by providing funding to some sectors of the anti-Mubarak opposition (i.e., the secular, pro-capitalist, pro-foreign investment ones.) Indeed, the Obama administration has provided millions of dollars to pro-democracy groups in Egypt (while showering billions of dollars in military aid upon the Mubarak government, showing where its priorities lie.)
An answer to why Washington has funded the opposition to an autocrat it supported for three decades (and who in turn supported US trade and investment interests) can be found in US policy during the Cold War. It was CIA practice after World War II to covertly fund social democratic groups, parties, newspapers and journals, in order to draw people who were disgruntled with capitalism away from communism—which posed a serious threat to US corporate and banking interests–and to divert their energies into, or cement them in place within, a leftist movement pledged to work within the capitalist system. That’s not to say the US establishment had any particular fondness for social democracy. Quite the contrary is true. But social democracy was preferable to communism, and its role in weakening radical opposition was prized.
Indeed, the Kefaya, or Enough movement in Egypt, which appears to have emerged as a leading player in the anti-Mubarak opposition, embraces a program which is in no way uncongenial with the interests of US banks and corporations. It favors the kind of system Sharp, many nonviolence advocates, and, perhaps the majority of Egyptians, favor. It would not be unreasonable to suggest that if Mubarak’s stable rule was no longer tenable, that Washington would work toward having alternatives in place, one of them being Kafaya and what it appears to aspire to.
Where does that leave Gene Sharp? Well, he would truly be a man of exceptional talents were he able, in his dotage no less, to remotely mobilize a mass uprising to topple an autocrat on the other side of the globe. Equally superhuman must be the former Egyptian police officer who has pulled the strings of the uprising from his command center in a low-rent Virginia apartment using nothing but homemade YouTube videos, as another story goes. And what of Google executive Wael Ghonim? To hear The New York Times tell it, he’s the uprising’s Lenin. So who’s pulling the strings: Sharp, the ex-cop, or Ghonim?
To be sure, the practice of reducing complex social phenomena to the actions of a single individual is commonplace. Reagan brought down the Soviet Union, and Stalin singlehandedly built it and is responsible for all the bad things that ever happened in it. The extermination of six million Jews was authored by a single person, Adolph Hitler, and the Vietnam War is mostly due to Richard Nixon. Great man theories of history may have long been dismissed by scholars for sound reasons, but they continue to thrive in popular discourse in place of explanations based on anonymous social and economic forces.
Unquestionably, Sharp, the ex-cop, Ghonim, and the US government too, played a role in the Tahrir Square uprising, some remotely and indirectly, others more directly. But they alone weren’t the only ones who played a part. So too did Mubarak and his policies and the corruption of his son Gamal, as did Egypt’s military, the Muslim Brotherhood, food prices, the privatization of Egypt’s publically owned enterprises, bloggers, Israel, unemployment, Saudi Arabia, the police, millions of ordinary Egyptians, the media and a vast array of other events, people, relations and systems.
I have no fondness for Sharp. His politics skew far to the right of what I’m comfortable with, though he’s by no means what people in the United States would understand to be right-wing, or Republican. All the same, the depiction of him as a mastermind who mobilizes uprisings around the world is insupportable. He may inspire some rebels to embrace nonviolence, but he no more inspires rebellion than the manufacturers of Grecian Formula inspire the hair of it customers to turn grey.