The documentary How to Start a Revolution by Ruaridh Arrow was screened at the Zionist Center for Middle East Studies at Brandeis University, among other places presumably. It comes at a time when Foreign Policy magazine has decided that Gene Sharp “has inspired Arab spring protesters.” It all started with a front page story in the New York Times, which decided—without any evidence whatsoever—that Gene Sharp has inspired a non-violent revolution throughout the Arab world.
Of course, the Arab uprisings have not been non-violent at all: the Egyptian people revolted violently in Suez and other places, and government buildings and police stations have been attacked throughout the country, as were offices of Hosni Mubarak’s party. The Libyan uprising degenerated, with NATO intervention, into multiple wars inside Libya. In Tunisia, the rebels also attacked government buildings. In Syria, the situation is now regularly labeled a “civil war.” So one can easily dismiss the theory of Gene Sharp’s so-called inspiration by underlining the non-non-violent nature of the “Arab spring” — it’s more like an Arab autumn these days. But what does the documentary How to Start A Revolution say?
It is not easy to finish the movie: there is no story, really. It is also a bit disturbing. It focuses on Gene Sharp in his old age, in his house in Massachusetts. In the basement of the house works the executive director of his Albert Einstein Institution. The movie focuses on both. But the director struggles to make his case, and the movie has the feel of a promotional movie of a cult.
Sharp disturbingly has no problem in promoting himself and praising, nay exaggerating, his influence. He starts the movie by talking about the oft-used evidence of the spread of his ideas: that his books have been translated into more than 30 languages. They keep talking about the translation of one of his books (prominently featured in the film) into Arabic. But this is dishonest. Sharp knows that his books were not translated through the initiative of Arab fans. They were translated by his own Einstein Institution and through external funding provided to his organization.
Jamila Raqib (who was featured in the film as his devotee) contacted me a few years ago when the Institution funded the translation of the books. They asked me to supervise the translation process and verify the accuracy. But the books were too uninteresting for me, and I turned down the job (although I referred them to a friend). How could Sharp convince himself that the translation of his work into multiple languages is evidence of his influence when he knows that he himself commissioned the translation of his own work?
Politically speaking, Sharp has been working largely in sync with US foreign policy goals. He promoted his non-violent agenda against the communist governments during the Cold War, and his partner (a former US army General) talked about his work under the tutelage of the Republican International Institute. But if Sharp is keen on promoting non-violence, why does he not preach non-violence to the US government which practices more violence than most countries of the world? And why has Sharp preached non-violence to Palestinians but not to Israelis? His project of non-violence seems in the interest of the most violent governments in the world today.
The movie could not provide any evidence of Sharp’s influence so it invites four men to confirm that Sharp has inspired revolution. One man is from Serbia, and another from Georgia, and one is from Egypt, and the fourth, a Syrian from London. Each of the four was tasked with providing a testimonial (clearly under prodding from the interviewer behind the camera) to the effect that, yes, Sharp inspired “his” revolution. But that was it. The film was crude in contrasting images of revolutions and protests with a close up of Gene Sharp’s face in his house. But this method would then prove that a potato inspired a revolution, if you contrast the images of that revolution with the image of a potato.
And the movie claimed falsely that governments around the world have been attacking Gene Sharp’s works due to his influence. Sharp himself, without any evidence, claimed that the Russian government set on fire two printing presses because they carried his books. The film claimed that protesters in Iran were convicted on following the instructions of Sharp — and again no evidence was presented.
The second part of the movie focuses on the Egyptian and Syrian cases. In the Egyptian case, the movie brings in a guy and introduces him to us as “a leader of the Egyptian revolution.” I personally have never heard of the guy, but you had to believe that he is the leader of the revolution. He, of course, said that, yes, Sharp inspired “his” revolution. The Syrian guy, an Ussama Munajjid, was even funnier. He lives in London but the film introduced him as a — you guessed it — “leader” of the Syrian revolution. We saw him in his office uploading footage from cameras that he “had placed” all over the country, as the film alleges. But if this guy’s testimonial was not enough, he was flown to Boston to be filmed while listening to Sharp’s advice.
It is not difficult, of course, to mock the writings of Sharp. His instructions for revolution are too basic and common-sensical to be credited to Sharp. The film even suggests that he was behind the idea of beating pots and pans in Serbia, when Latin Americans have engaged in this form of protests for decades, long before Sharp’s books were translated (at his own initiative) to Spanish. He, for example, suggests that protesters should wave flags, as if they did not think of that prior to the publication of Sharp’s books.
The film is disturbing at more than one level: the message of Sharp is condescending and patronizing, although his firm belief in his own international influence has a tinge of self-delusion. He believes that he — the White Man — alone knows what is the best course of action for people around the world. He preaches to Arabs that they were wrong in insisting on the resignation of the leader: he urges that the downfall of the government be stressed instead, as if Arab popular chants did not aim at that. Sharp (or his one Egyptian fan in the film) may have not heard of the nine bombings of the Egyptian pipeline to Israel. That was not in any of Sharp’s books.