The current developments in the Arab world can be difficult to follow. When I stumbled across an article claiming that “Egyptians and Tunisians collaborated to shake Arab history” (New York Times, 13 Feb 2011), I wanted to know more. My research quickly lead me to Gene Sharp’s From Dictatorship to Democracy (1993) – an essential tome for those that want to engage in nonviolent regime change.
What follows is a transcript of the five-minute version that I presented to the Belgian Championship of Public Speaking this weekend:
Getting rid of a dictator? What kind of question is that? Here in Belgium we certainly have other problems than to get rid of a government.
Think again. If you look at the latest Freedom in the World Report, you’ll find that there are 47 countries on this planet that score so low on political liberties and civil rights that they are considered as not free. The people in these countries would certainly like to find ways to strengthen these political liberties and civil rights, build a democratic society and, yes, to get rid of that unjust government, that dictatorship.
How do you get rid of a dictator? The obvious solution would be a violent uprising. Gather all your friends, buy as many weapons as you can afford and, when the time is right, strike against the dictatorship. The problem with this approach is that you attack the regime at its strongest point. A dictatorship will always outcompete you on military might. The result is thus a massive counter-attack and brutal repression not only against yourself, but also against your family, your friends and thousands of innocent civilians.
The second option would be a coup. It helps if you have friends in the military or, possibly, a foreign secret service. In a covert operation you conspire to take out the old guard and install a new government in its place. It’s quick and comparatively painless. Unfortunately, it doesn’t really solve the problem. You’ve done nothing to change the institutions and the mindset that gave rise to so much injustice. And so, more often than not, the new guard turns out to be just as bad as the one you set out to replace.
So what can you do? Think about it: No dictator works in a vacuum. They need soldiers, policemen, civil servants, bankers, farmers and doctors. In the end, all those people have power over the dictatorship. Their main problem is often that the dictatorship keeps them isolated. But you will see that even in the most repressive society, you’ll find little pockets of democracy where people meet and self-organize. In Eastern Germany, it was the churches. In Poland, the trade unions. In Tunisia, the youth movement. And who knows – maybe next time, it’ll be the gardeners.
Your first step needs to be to find these pockets of democracy and strengthen them. Get people together and get them to talk. And then, slowly, you start withdrawing your support from the regime. Focus on obvious, non-controversial issues at first and start with symbolic acts: Collectively call in sick, don a certain piece of clothing, meet somewhere to sing a song. And as your movement grows, the power of the dictatorship to stop you diminishes. There’s this great story where they met to eat ice-cream in the central square of Minsk. Everybody knew it was a protest, the participants, the regime, the police – but they couldn’t do anything about it. How could they beat up a group of ice-cream eating teenagers?
In the end, that is we’ve seen in Egypt. Only that we haven’t seen it. The protests started years earlier. They were small at first, some fell flat, some people were arrested. And then this year, tens of thousands came to the protests on 25 January. Eighteen days later, Hosni Mubarak resigned.
Egypt is just one example of what Gandhi predicted would happen when you engage in nonviolent protest against an unjust regime:
First they ignore you
Then they laugh at you
Then they fight you
Then you win