Gene Sharp, 1928–2018
The American academic who helped inspire the Arab Spring
Gene Sharp was a guiding light for pro-democracy campaigners around the world. Known as the Machiavelli of nonviolence, the obscure Boston-based political scientist spent decades writing practical works about peaceful revolutions. Arguing that violent resistance was usually counterproductive, Sharp urged protesters to mock their autocratic leaders, organize mass sit-ins and other acts of civil disobedience, and give their movements recognizable symbols and colors. His writings inspired the activists who ousted Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, and helped steer Ukraine’s Orange Revolution and the Arab Spring demonstrations in Egypt. His philosophy was simple: “Dictators are never as strong as they tell you they are, and people are never as weak as they think they are.”
Born in North Baltimore, Ohio, Sharp had firsthand experience in civil disobedience, said The Boston Globe. He joined lunch counter sit-ins at Ohio State University and spent nine months in prison after refusing to be drafted during the Korean War. While awaiting trial, Sharp struck up a correspondence with Albert Einstein; the physicist—“a pacifist himself”—would write the foreword for Sharp’s first book, on Gandhi. Sharp continued his research in Europe before returning to the U.S. and teaching at colleges such as Harvard and Dartmouth.
Sharp’s “seminal work,” 1993’s From Dictatorship to Democracy, was “translated, often by activists themselves, into dozens of languages,” said TheGuardian.com. Autocrats despised him: Regimes in Venezuela, Iran, and Syria claimed he worked for the CIA. He shrugged off the accusations, noting in 2009 that if you write about how “dictatorships have weaknesses, the dictators aren’t going to be happy.”