We live in a world that is rife with conflict. Tension between individuals, organizations, and countries continue to wage on. Disagreements on issues that threaten belief systems, goals, or values are constantly stirring. While there are numerous approaches to managing and resolving conflict such as domination, inaction, withdrawal, or negotiation, far too many times aggression and violence become the action of choice. According to Sharp and Safieh (1987) “violence has played a major role over thousands of years in shaping political and demographical entities, as by conquests, empires, and colonization” (p. 39). This approach to conflict frequently occurs as a result of built up anger. Although violence may seem to help express feelings and emotions, the results may run counter to one’s actual goals. In this paper I’m going to look at Gene Sharp’s approach to conflict resolution called Nonviolent Struggle and apply it to the 2011 uprising in Egypt that resulted in the collapse of the Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak and his corrupt regime. My goal in analyzing this recent historical conflict is to gain new information, insights, and knowledge about the Egyptian conflict in order to help answer the question, “What can effective nonviolent strategies offer that other more aggressive approaches to conflict resolution cannot?”
Dr. Gene Sharp is head of the program on Nonviolent Sanctions in Conflict and Defense at Harvard University and president of the Albert Einstein Institution. Sharp has often been called the Machiavelli of nonviolent struggle because of his beliefs and stance regarding violence in conflict. Sharp argues that violence is not as effective as it is often assumed to be and “the more cruel a regime becomes, the shorter is its life” (Sharp & Safieh, 1987, p. 38). Nonviolent struggle does not mean that an individual gives in to conflict and threats but instead “chooses to fight with superior weapons, not the oppressors’ violence but psychological, moral, social-economic and political weapons with which one’s people can be strong” (Sharp & Safieh, 1987, p. 42). Nonviolent resistance strategies require tremendous courage, strategic planning, and self-control. According to Gene Sharp, nonviolent resistance approaches can be broken down into three categories of action: persuasion and protest (mildest), noncooperation, and direct intervention (strongest).
Nonviolent Persuasion and Protest
The first category, persuasion and protest, includes symbolic actions such as marches, picketing, religious processions, public speeches, and mass petitions. The intent is to change the minds of others regarding an issue by informing them and encouraging support to overturn or correct the issue at hand. In the case of the Egypt uprising of 2011, thousands of Egyptians gathered in the streets on January 25, inspired by the successful revolution from Tunisia, to protest poverty, unemployment, and the corrupt rule of Hosni Mubarak who had been in power for thirty years. Mubarak aggressively seized and threatened Wael Ghonim, the Google marketing manager responsible for creating a Facebook group in memory of Khaled Mohamed Saeed, who was believed to have been murdered by police in June 2010. The Facebook group drew over half a million followers and resulted in numerous other protests. In desperation the Egyptian government turned off the internet for several days in an attempt to stop the organization of protests. This approach not only crippled the economy it ironically brought national attention to the conflict. In response to the communication blackout, Google provided a new technology that they developed called “speak2tweet” that allowed individuals to post to Twitter from their mobile phones even without Internet access.
Traditional forms of mass media such as newspaper and radio were push mediums that transmitted in one direction with little to no interaction from the public. On the other hand, during the Egypt uprising social media mobilized people for interaction and provided shared awareness as individuals’ echoed opinions from one to another. In an online article entitled, London, Egypt and the Complex Role of Social Media, Srinivasan (2011) makes the point regarding social media’s ability to turn weak ties into strong ties by stating, “The story of Egypt presents an example of how a shared desire to end a corrupt regime can bring together peoples from all walks of life. And learning from Egypt allows us to understand how complex networks form, sustain, and present possibilities for people to collectively imagine and take hold of their political and economic futures” (para. 7). During the 2011 Egyptian uprising, social media tools such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube provided the oppressed and powerless people of Egypt with the ability to become a powerful unified force. Sharp argues that through nonviolent methods, “the people who have seemed to be powerless and helpless learn how to act together with others to wield effective power in their own right” (Sharp & Safieh, 1987, p. 39). On February 11, 2011, the last day of the protests, masses of people rallied in front of the state television building in Cairo, the presidential palace in Heliopolis, and Liberation Square. Later that evening an announcement was made by the vice-president of Egypt that Hosni Mubarak had resigned.
The second category, noncooperation, includes stronger action and involves withdrawal from something that is normally done. Noncooperation can be divided into three categories of its own: social noncooperation, economic noncooperation, and political noncooperation. Noncooperation can include such things as refusing to pay taxes because you disagree with how the money is being spent; refusing to work in order to protest working conditions; avoiding certain people or places and boycotts. In the case of the Egypt uprising of 2011, protesters refused to obey government set curfews by remaining in the streets and thousands of state workers refused to work protesting economic suffering despite warnings from the government that civil disobedience would not be tolerated. Also, due to the ongoing protests and international awareness of the uprising, President Obama announced that the United States would be reviewing the amount of aid, both military and non-military, that is provided to Egypt and considering withholding support. Sharp argues, “You take away the sources of power and the man who was formerly a tyrant becomes just an old man” (Sharp & Safieh, 1987, p. 39). Furthermore, after collecting nearly one million signatures in support of a constitutional change, leading opposition figure Mohammed ElBaradei called for a boycott of the upcoming parliamentary election. The turning point in the uprising that demonstrated direct noncooperation toward Mubarak’s regime was when the army arrived in the city and announced they would not harm the crowd of protesters but rather protect the people of Egypt. The protesters cheered for the soldiers and gave them hugs.
The third category, direct intervention, is the strongest of the three and involves nonviolent methods that disrupt the ongoing operation or activity of the opponent. Nonviolent intervention methods include the blockage of roads, train tracks, or ships; psychological interventions such as hunger strikes; physical interventions such as lying down in front of a bulldozer or tank; or “establishing a new illegal substitute government to which the population shifts loyalty and obedience” (Sharp & Safieh, 1987, pp. 42-45). In the case of the Egypt uprising of 2011, the protesters gained the support of several influential individuals of Egypt who offered to show their support by getting involved with the protests. Former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency Mohamed ElBaradei announced that he was ready to lead the protests (Parks, para. 4) and the Muslim Brotherhood, “long a fierce opponent of the Mubarak regime and officially banned in Egypt, threw their weight behind the protestors” (Parks, para. 5). Sharp argues that instead of using violence, the oppressed “have a greater chance of mobilizing their power capacity by working and acting together using psychological, social, political, and economic weapons – weapons that enable them to become stronger” (Sharp & Safieh, 1987, p. 40). Thousands of farmers’ setup barricades to block the main highway and railroad to Cairo and protesters blocked off access to parliament. Furthermore, protesters setup a tent city in Tahrir Square demonstrating that they were not leaving anytime soon and erected barricades around the perimeter.
Strategic nonviolent conflict resistance has several major advantages over violent approaches such as the tendency to gain greater support and sympathy for the oppressed and increased involvement from the public. In the case of the 2011 Egyptian uprising, strategic nonviolent conflict methods provided the oppressed people of Egypt with opportunity to gain power and ultimately overturn Hosni Mubarak and his corrupt regime. According to Sharp, “nonviolent struggle recognizes the crucial importance of power” (Sharp & Safieh, 1987, p. 41). In analyzing the 2011 Egyptian uprising, the use and importance of strategic nonviolent action to acquire power is clearly evident. Nonviolent protests helped gain public support and international awareness of the conflict, forms of noncooperation such as civil disobedience and strikes helped suppress operations of the government, and direct nonviolent interventions such as barricades to block main highway and railway routes further frustrated and hindered the governments’ operation and helped to pull away Mubarak’s power to control.
Parks, C. (2011, May 25). What’s going on in Egypt? Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/01/28/whats-going-on-in-egypt_n_815734.html
Sharp, G., & Safieh, A. (1987). Gene sharp: Nonviolent struggle. Journal of Palestine Studies, 17(1), 37-55. doi:10.2307/2536650
Srinivasan, R. (2011, August 11). London, Egypt and the complex role of social media. Retrieved from http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/on-innovations/london-egypt-and-the-complex-role-of-social-media/2011/08/11/gIQAIoud8I_story.html