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.

Did an octagenarian nonviolence scholar remotely mobilize millions of Egyptians to bring down Mubarak? If he did we've been misled about Clark Kent. He isn't Superman. Gene Sharp is.

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.

14 thoughts on “Is Gene Sharp Superman?

  1. In our communist world view we must recognise conspiracy as being a factor,but most importantly social/historical development as being the movers of change in society,progressive or,sometimes, reactionary,that this would involve consipracy is for sure true,as to the effectiveness of conspiracy,that is another question.its not good for you to argue as it becomes personal and distracts from your valuable contributions to this article.We,the readers,will decide wich is correct.

  2. But we dont believe in concpiracies do we Todd..after all they never happen!
    If you insist on ignoring people because of associations, then you may find yourself with little to read. You idea to stephen:’Stephen, do NOT listen to Tarpley’s bullshit’
    sounds awfully like the Bishops who said to one another: dont look thru Galileos telescope!

  3. I prefer Chip’s description of at least one of Griffin’s sources:

    “A major Griffin source, Michel Chossudovsky, has departed from a history of serious left critique to making unsubstantiated claims based on right-wing conspiracists such as Jeffrey Steinberg, a well-know top aide to neofascist Lyndon LaRouche, and John Whitley, who sees world affairs shaped by secret plots. Chossudovsky’s website also cites and praises material from the American Patriot Friends Network, a site notorious for peddling unsubstantiated right-wing anti-government conspiracist theories similar to those circulated in the militia movement ( 1, 2 ). ”

    Strange how that LaRouche name keeps coming up when you’re around, brian.

    It must be . . . a conspiracy!

  4. my letter to Democracynow:

    id like to know why democracy now is backing an armed rebellion in Libya and making it seem like a citizens arrest?
    Your reporter wrote:
    ‘There’s no visible presence of the Gaddafi regime. Everywhere, there’s the flag of the pre-Gaddafi government, the Senussian flag, all over the city’
    ‘Several people we spoke to had witnessed very, very brutal street battles with mercenaries and members of Gaddafi’s battalions attacking protesters armed with just rocks and stones to defend themselves’

    Rocks and stones? Really? Is that al it takes to take over a state? Then why don’t americans do the same? Oh wait…they are no match for armed forces..

    are you aware of these facts?

    is DN actually aware that the NFSL behind the uprising is based in the US and has been funded by the US? and has a history of armed conflict?

    No…you may like to find out

  5. I didn’t botther looking at the article. The title, “Mubarak Toppled by CIA Because He Opposed US Plans for War with Iran”, told me I would be wasting my time.

  6. back in 1996, the real face of the CIA backed National Front for the Salvation of Libya

    ‘Information from CIABASE files reveals:


    Libya, 92 Most guerrillas of cia-backed national salvation front from
    Libyan students living in u.s. And europe. Washington post 4/18/92 a15


    Libya, 84 In may 84 15 gunmen attacked the residence of col. Qadhafi. A
    Sudan-based group called the national libya salvation front claimed
    Responsibility for the attack. Nair, k. (1986). Devil and his dart 98

    Libya, 84 The cia backed, trained and continues to support the exile
    Group that tried to assassinate qaddafi in 84. The plot failed and qaddafi
    Executed a number of the group. The cia-backed group is called the national
    Front for the salvation of libya (nfsl) and is led by gen youssef
    Magarieff. The saudis have provided $7 million to the nfsl. Cia agents
    Advised nfsl leaders and trained their recruits in western europe, sudan
    And morocco. Jack anderson washington post 6/12/85

    Libya, saudi arabia, 84 Despite an executive order forbidding
    Assassinations, the cia trained and supported the national front for the
    Salvation of libya before, during and after its attempt to assassinate
    Qaddafi on 5/8/84. The anti-qaddafi group was slaughtered in a day-long
    Battle less than a mile from the barracks where qaddafi was. Group’s
    Leader, youssef magarieff, went ahead with op to show his cia and saudi
    Arabian backers what they got for support. Jack anderson washington post

  7. From Aljazeera:
    Navi Pillay, the UN high commissioner for human rights, has warned that the widespread attacks against civilians “amount to crimes against humanity”, and called for an international investigation in possible human rights violations.
    Witnesses in Tripoli told Al Jazeera that fighter jets had bombed portions of the city in fresh attacks on Monday night. The bombing focused on ammunition depots and control centres around the capital.
    Helicopter gunships were also used, they said, to fire on the streets in order to scare demonstrators away.

    note whats being bombed….

  8. so whats going on in Libya?
    Libya arrests Arab ‘network’ for destabilising country
    AFP, Feb 20, 2011, 05.21am IST

    Read more: Libya arrests Arab ‘network’ for destabilising country – The Times of India

    TRIPOLI: Libyan authorities have arrested dozens of members of a “network” of Arab nationals allegedly seeking to destabilise the country, the official Jana news agency reported Saturday.

    Those detained in several Libyan cities were members of a “foreign network (and were) trained to damage Libya’s stability, the safety of its citizens and national unity.”

    Sources close to the investigation, quoted by the agency, said the group included Tunisian, Egyptian, Sudanese, Palestinian, Syrian and Turkish citizens.

    Those arrested were “charged with inciting acts of looting and sabotage, such as burning hospitals, banks, courts, prisons, police stations and offices of the military police, as well as public buildings and private properties, according to plans drawn up earlier,” Jana said.

    Noting that “certain Libyan cities have been the scene of acts of sabotage and destruction since Tuesday,” Jana said the suspects sought to “take arms from police stations and the military police and use them.”

    “Sources close to the investigation have not ruled out Israel being behind the network,” the news agency added, without providing details.

    On the fifth day of an unprecedented challenge to his four-decade regime, Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi has still made no public comment, although he reportedly appeared at a mass rally of supporters in the capital on Thursday.

    Human Rights Watch said security forces have killed more than 80 anti

  9. This is a wonderfully written article, in which you provide the lone voice it reason! I sometimes think that I am the only person who challenges accepted praise or ideas. Thank you for this article.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s