Image: Gene Sharp
Elise Amendola  /  AP
Gene Sharp, seen at his office in Boston, Mass., wrote a guide on how to topple dictatorships peacefully.
updated 6/26/2009 6:43:16 PM ET 2009-06-26T22:43:16

Iranian protesters wondering what to do next are being encouraged to consult a source that helped drive a decade of nonviolent revolutions in Eastern Europe: a how-to guide to toppling dictatorships written by a retired American scholar who is little known outside of activist circles.

But the Iranian regime definitely knows about 81-year-old Gene Sharp.

His name and references to his 1993 book have buzzed around opposition Web sites and social networks. Last year, Iran released a fictionalized video warning that he and others, including Sen. John McCain and billionaire George Soros, were planning a "velvet revolution" in the country, alluding to the 1989 ouster of the Communist government of then-Czechoslovakia.

Iranian officials have leveled the same charges against supporters of Mir Hossein Mousavi, who claims the June 12 election was stolen by vote rigging and fraud to re-elect President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Sharp denies playing any role in driving Iran's worst internal turmoil since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. But he said he would be pleased if his work helped Iranians wage peaceful resistance.

"The more they learn that there is a nonviolent alternative to both violence and passive submission, the more chances they are to take a wise course of action rather than a stupid one," Sharp said in a telephone interview from Boston.

Translated into Farsi
There are multiple references to Sharp's seminal text, "From Dictatorship to Democracy," on Twitter and Internet chat rooms, which have become the Iranian protest movement's lifelines as the government clamps down on media coverage, pro-Mousavi Web sites and other outlets.

"Seems the protesters have no way of organizing themselves. Any ideas?" said one anonymous posting this week on, a Web site bathed in green — the color that Mousavi and his supporters have adopted for their pro-reform movement.

"These books have freed millions," said an anonymous response, pointing to Farsi translations of Sharp's guide and a similar manual written by Serbian activists who claim they used the American's ideas to help topple Slobodan Milosevic in 2000.

Sharp said the Farsi translation of his guide has been downloaded thousands of times from the Web site of the Boston-based center he founded in 1983 to study nonviolent resistance, The Albert Einstein Institution. A shorter introduction to peaceful struggle, written by Sharp, was legally published in Farsi in Iran in recent years, he said.

Sharp, who held a research position at Harvard University for almost 30 years, originally wrote his guide for Burmese dissidents waging an anti-government struggle from the jungle. It eventually made its way to activists in Eastern Europe, where it was cited during the Rose Revolution in Georgia and the Orange Revolution in Ukraine earlier this decade.

Sharp has said his group receives no U.S. government funding, but it could become part of Iranian accusations that the United States and other countries are behind the protests.

The roughly 80-page book lists 198 different nonviolent methods that protesters can use to pressure authoritarian regimes, ranging from adopting symbolic colors to staging mass strikes. Less conventional methods include skywriting and "protest disrobings." A portrait of Indian independence leader Mahatma Gandhi sits prominently in Sharp's Boston office.

"The use of a considerable number of these methods — carefully chosen, applied persistently and on a large scale ... is likely to cause any illegitimate regime severe problems," advises the guide.

Diversifying methods
Sharp and other experts on nonviolent resistance say Iranian protesters need to diversify their methods away from just street marches, which attracted hundreds of thousands shortly after the election but have whittled down to hundreds as security forces tighten their grip.

Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has rejected Mousavi's demand for a new election, and the country's feared Revolutionary Guard force has vowed to crush any further protests. At least 17 people have been killed in the unrest, in addition to eight members of the regime-backed militia force, the Basij, according to state media.

"If this movement is defined as street demonstrations against the police that may or may not turn violent, then the opposition will lose," said Peter Ackerman, the founder of the Washington-based International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, which held two confidential workshops in Dubai in 2005 for Iranian activists, some of whom were arrested when they returned home.

Srdja Popovic, one of the founders of Serbia's student resistance, said Iranian protesters have to be prepared for the long haul and come up with "low-risk" tactics. He pointed to calls on Twitter for protesters to turn on car headlights and stand across from security services holding the Quran as a good start, but said they need to do more.

He lauded some of Iranian protest tactics: wearing green — the symbolic color of Islam — and chanting slogans from the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

"You can't export nonviolent struggles against non-democratic regimes. Cultural and situational environments are too different," said Popovic, who now runs the Belgrade-based Center for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies, or Canvas. "But the principles are the same."

The refusal of security forces to crack down on protesters was critical to the success of the revolutions in Ukraine and Georgia, but the cohesion and harsh tactics of Iran's security forces raise doubts about the future of Mousavi's "green movement."

"Ukraine's ruling elite was split apart and opposition activists faced no danger," said Ukrainian political analyst Mikhail Pogrebinsky. "Violence and repression, lack of access to mass media and unity of the ruling elite leave little chance for Iranian protesters."

Thousands of Ukrainians protested for days in 2004 to force the government to hold a new presidential vote after the incumbent's victory was marred by fraud allegations. The pro-Western challenger, Viktor Yushchenko, eventually prevailed.

Analyst Soso Tsintadze in Georgia, where protesters forced President Eduard Shevardnadze to resign in 2003 and brought a pro-Western opposition leader to power, also equally pessimistic.

"Iranian leaders are no Shevardnadze, whose power was really weak," Tsintadze said. "They are strong people who control the situation, and the military did not rebel, while in Shevardnadze's case the mutiny in the military was a crucial step."

Mousavi has refused to give up, however, and has urged his backers to maintain protests but avoid violence.

"The seed of change is obviously growing among the Iranian youth," said Popovic, the Serbian activist. "It will be impossible for conservatives to cancel this process, even if they can suppress actual protests and install Ahmadinejad as president for another term."

Lech Walesa, the famed leader of Poland's Solidarity movement and the country's first democratically elected president following Communist rule, counseled perseverance.

"Lead your struggle in a wise way but do not hit your heads against the wall," said Walesa. "If not this time, you will win next time."

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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