Along with most everyone else on the planet I watched the recent popular demonstrations in Egypt and their aftermath—most notably the subsequent downfall of Mr. Mubarak, the dictator who ruled that country for 30 years. And I must admit a certain titillation from observing the revolutionary fervor that has been sweeping across the Middle East in their wake.
The most fascinating thing about these spontaneous uprisings is the relatively peaceful nature of those demonstrating against their oppressive regimes. Granted, there have been armed confrontations; and sadly, people have died; but for the most part the resistance has remained firmly passive.
How pleased I was to learn that some of the basis for this resistance stemmed from the writings of a rather obscure, shy American now in his eighth decade. Prior to reading the New York Times article about Gene Sharp, I had never encountered the man’s name before.
As much as I am for insisting that credit be given where credit is due, I was somewhat bemused that the Times made no mention of former advocates of civil disobedience: Henry David Thoreau, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King among them.
It was Thoreau who penned an obscure essay in 1848 arguing for public refusal to support an amoral or unethical government—in his day a government that condoned the buying and selling of human beings as chattel. Thoreau registered his protest by refusing to pay his poll tax and was subsequently thrown in jail by the local constable, Sam Staples. He was released the following day when an unknown admirer paid the tax on his behalf. Indirectly, Thoreau’s essay helped to spur on the abolitionist movement, the Civil War and ultimately Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.
Gandhi adopted Thoreau’s idea of passive resistance and used it to bring about effective political change in South Africa and India. “Civil Disobedience” was used as a manual for the Danish resistance against the Nazi invasion during World War II. Martin Luther King built upon the same set of ideas as he led the American Civil Rights movement in the 1960s.
Despite initial fears that the demonstrations in Cairo would lead to the establishment of an Islamic fundamentalist state, it has become apparent that the uprising was spawned by a secular civil base.
The Egyptian people have chosen to embrace their own political destiny, even though the ideas that inspired them have their roots in the writings of an American thinker.