As nonviolent protest rolls across the Middle East—now in Bahrain, Libya, Yemen, Iraq, and Iran—we see governments convulsing and fighting back, violently, but in a way that shows their ultimate lack of power. Today’s New York Time’s reports on how the quiet American intellectual, Gene Sharp, took Gandhi’s ideas and compiled them into a primer on nonviolent protest. One lesson he takes is that nonviolence is a good pragmatic tactic. “If you fight with violence,” Sharp told the NYT, “you are fighting with your enemy’s best weapon, and you may be a brave but dead hero.” Alas, even with nonviolent protest, there are still many brave and dead heroes these past few weeks, 365 in Egypt alone. Still, nonviolence is probably the most effective method for it hits autocrats where they are most vulnerable, unveiling their complete and utter lack of popular support and legitimacy and ultimately deposing them.
A couple of years ago I met with some of the staff of the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, which has its roots in Gene Sharp’s work. The work they are doing is great and important, but I wonder: What happens after the revolution? If nonviolent protesters remain in the posture of beseechers rather than as actors, they will remain supplicants, begging whoever steps into power for higher wages, more freedom, and a better life.
Autocratic regimes treat “their people” as subjects not citizens. Over generations, it’s easy to take that lesson to heart, to become a supplicant rather than one who with others creates a new world. Subjects may rise up nonviolently, but sustainable change won’t happen until subjects turn themselves into citizens.