Dictatorship to Democracy: A Fresh Perspective on the Middle East
According to the Febraury 23 broadcast of the CBC radio program ’As It Happens’, online copies of Gene Sharp’s online book, From Dictatorship to Democracy: A Conceptual Framework for Liberation ( in Arabic translation ), has been floating around the Middle East for the past few years.
Some people would say that the tactics used by demonstrators across the region bear similar resemblances to similar uprisings in Eastern Europe: they occupy symbolic locations of their respective cities; they establish tent villages; and they refuse to leave until they achieved their principal goal — toppling the dictator. And, perhaps most importantly, they avoid violence, even when provoked.
This idea that these demonstrations are, in fact, the result of an organized plan following a concrete and proven strategy is a perspective that has not been front and center in the news media. Perhaps this is a case of the image being taken as truth. Chaos is taken to be spontaneous disorganization when what we are seeing is, in fact, it is the intentioned result of a specific strategy planned over the space of years.
From Dictatorship to Democracy: a Conceptual Framework for Liberation was initally published in 1993 in the Khit Pyaning (The New Age Journal) the request of exiled Burmese dissient U Ting Maung Win, but because Sharp didn’t have a background on the political situaton in Burma, he wrote a general prescription that identified weaknesses of dictatorships in general. Since that time, that essay has been revised and simplified into a final work that is less than 100 pages. It condenses the collective experiences of 40 years of struggle against dictatorship into a practical manual of action. The brevity and simplicity of this book has enabled it to be translated into over 25 languages and distributed widely via the Internet.
The thesis of this book itself is quite simple: how does one overthrow a dictatorship?
After exploring and rejecting the options of armed opposition, guerilla warfare and intervention by foreign powers, Sharp goes on to explain a dictatorship in terms of the Chinese parable of the Monkey Master:
In the feudal state of Chu an old man survived by keeping monkeys in his service. The people of Chu called him “ju gong” (monkey master). Each morning, the old man would assemble the monkeys in his courtyard, and order the eldest one to lead the others to the mountains to gather fruits from bushes and trees. It was the rule that each monkey had to give one-tenth of his collection to the old man. Those who failed to do so would be ruthlessly flogged. All the monkeys suffered bitterly, but dared not complain.
One day, a small monkey asked the other monkeys: “Did the old man plant all the fruit trees and bushes?” The others said: “No, they grew naturally.” The small monkey further asked: “Can’t we take the fruits without the old man’s permission?” The others replied: “Yes, we all can.” The small monkey continued: “Then, why should we depend on the old man; why must we all serve him?”
Before the small monkey was able to finish his statement, all the monkeys suddenly became enlightened and awakened.
On the same night, watching that the old man had fallen asleep, the monkeys tore down all the barricades of the stockade in which they were confined, and destroyed the stockade entirely. They also took the fruits the old man had in storage, brought all with them to the woods, and never returned.
The old man finally died of starvation.
This story contains within the essential truth about dictatorship: it can only exist with the acceptance and compliance of the majority of its citizens. If one can destroy the legitimacy of a regime and convince a majority of its citizens to not comply with its dictates, that regime will fall. It will not fall willingly nor without cost in terms of human life and property, but its fall will be inevitable nonetheless.
Building on this very simple idea, Sharp argues that the sucessful defeat of dictatorships relies upon the creation and execution of a grand strategy, the knowledge of and application of non-violent tactics and methods aimed at the economic, military and political structures within the dictatorship. He details 198 methods of non-violent action, broken down into subsections of Protest and Persuasion, Social Non-Cooperation, Economic Non-Cooperation, Political Non-Cooperation and Non-Violent Intervention. Many of these ideas are repetitive (i.e. there is very little real difference between a stand-in and a sit-in, for example) but serve to hammer home the very simple point that attacking the source of legitimacy of a dictatorship is eminently preferable to attacking its military forces: you’re attacking where it is weak, instead of where it is strong.
There is very little direct evidence for whether or not this book has influenced the ideas of the protest movement. However, there have been a few connections made between what has happened and the advice in the book:
Beware of negotiating with ‘agreeable dictators’ (p. 13) parallels the protestors refusal to accept Hosni Mubarak’s offer of resigning at the end of the year.
‘Mass noncooperation’ (p. 36) … [can lead to ] opponents’ military forces may become so unreliable that they no longer simply obey orders to repress resisters. The refusal of large segments of the military to attack its own population in Egypt and Tunisia illustrate this point admirably.
- Contrary to Sharp’s advice, however, democracy forces in Libya have taken up arms against Colonel Gaddafi. Sharp argues that when you use military force against a dictatorship, you are attacking him where he is strong and is likely to have the advantage in men, material and training.
Making Predictions about the Middle East
The interesting thing about prediction is that it is sometimes difficult to separate what one thinks will happen from what one wants to happen. And given that we are predicting the actions of individuals, it’s a challenge to do it right.
Some people I’ve talked with have been pretty safe with their predictions, saying things like, “there will be a lot of chaos and social dislocation in some of these Arab countries. Egypt, Tunisia, probably Yemen as well.” Wow, it’s kind of like predicting sand in the desert.
Others venture further, stating that there will be instability, followed by iron-fisted rule by a somewhat military type government. Since rule by a ‘strong man’ or by a charismatic leader has been endemic to the area, it may be argued that this is the only pattern these societies know, so that we can be reasonably guaranteed that we will just see ‘more of the same.’
However, if the possibility exists that the protests are guided by a strategy based on this book, perhaps we are seeing what Sharp would call inevitable: the fall of dictatorships across the Middle East and the blossoming of democracy.