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Exporting Nonviolent Revolution, From Eastern Europe To The Middle East

  • Courtney Brooks

One of Otpor's main methods in overthrowing Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic was to win public support through humor by mocking the regime.

One of Otpor's main methods in overthrowing Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic was to win public support through humor by mocking the regime.

Srdja Popovic has a dream: a world where political change comes through nonviolent struggle.

He started out as a pro-democracy activist in his native Serbia by founding the group "Otpor" (Resistance), which led the protests that drove authoritarian President Slobodan Milosevic from power more than a decade ago.

Popovic then exported his nonviolent methods, helping train the activists who spearheaded Georgia's Rose Revolution in 2003 and Ukraine's Orange Revolution in 2004.

And now, Popovic is deploying his new organization, called Canvas, even farther afield -- assisting the pro-democracy activists who recently brought down despotic regimes in Egypt and Tunisia.

"We are simply trying to convince the world that the only right way to make a change is to fight strategically and in a nonviolent way," Popovic says.

"I think that those young, secular people that we see these days in the demonstrations all around the Middle East are one new face of that region. I want to believe that they are strong enough and smart enough to beat any extremism, including the Islamic one."

The work of groups like Canvas, combined with the proliferation of social-networking websites like Facebook and Twitter, and the coming of age of a wired -- and increasingly disaffected -- young generation have combined to create a perfect storm threatening authoritarian regimes from Europe to North Africa, to the Middle East.

Teaching Nonviolence

Canvas was founded in 2003 and has trained dissidents in 37 countries, including Zimbabwe, North Korea, Belarus, and Iran, Popovic says. He declines to reveal whether the organization had trained activists in countries that are now protesting against their authoritarian governments, such as Algeria and Yemen, unless the activists do so themselves.

Popovic's philosophy, and that of Canvas, is influenced by the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Gene Sharp, the American author of several books on nonviolent struggle including "From Dictatorship to Democracy."

In the late summer of 2009 the group collaborated with other NGOs to bring approximately 20 Egyptian activists -- including some of those who later founded the April 6 movement that spearheaded the recent antigovernment protests -- to Belgrade for a week of training on tactics they could use to promote change in Egypt.

Petar Milicevic, the founder of the Europe Has No Alternative NGO, helped with the training. He says he talked to the Egyptians about organizing campaigns, the importance of galvanizing youth support, and how to use social media to reach both of these goals.

"During the protests, I was also in everyday contact with some friends in Egypt, so the whole thing that they asked [for] during their own protest was a cry for international attention," Milicevic says.

"Everything else that we could offer, some sort of help, and organizing some relief funds, they said no. [They said] we need just to raise the voice that this is our citizens' revolution, not some sort of Islamic or other sort of coup d'etat."

Laughing All The Way To Jail

One of Otpor's main methods in overthrowing Milosevic was to win public support through humor by mocking the regime. They once famously rolled an oil barrel with Milosevic's face on it down a street while people took turns whacking it with a bat. Activists were often arrested and roughed up, but reportedly rarely held overnight in prison.

Protesting is not all fun and games.
But while training dissidents from regimes such as Egypt, Iran, and Belarus, Canvas has had to recognize that it is teaching activists who could spend years in jail for their activities.

Nini Gogoberidze, a Georgian citizen who participated in Georgia's Rose Revolution in 2003, is a Canvas trainer who has worked primarily with Iranian dissidents. She says that while each struggle is different, the level of violence the regime is likely to use on dissidents is what separates them the most.

"In Georgia and in Ukraine, I doubt the security forces or even armed forces actually initiate bloodshed on the streets. Whereas I'm pretty sure that's not going to be true in Iran or in any other country where the regime is violent," Gogoberidze says. "It's the level of violence that differentiates the struggles from each other."

She describes the trainings as "brainstorming sessions," where activists use their own creativity in developing methods to fight oppression in their countries.

"Nobody knows better than the community members how to get mobilized, you know what I mean. That's the whole idea of the nonviolent struggle," she says. You cannot export fights, [sending] 10, I don’t now, Serbs, or Georgians, or Ukrainians, from their countries and make a revolution in another country. It's a totally home-driven and homegrown thing."

'Struggle Must Be Homegrown'

Jack DuVall, president of the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, also held a weeklong educational seminar on nonviolent resistance in Egypt in 2007. He emphasizes that foreign organizations could not conduct "training" in how to fight repression in specific regimes -- but could offer up a template for nonviolent resistance.

Otpor members stand in a cage made of newspapers to protest against the suppression of independent media in Serbia in March 2000.
"Outsiders are utterly incapable of advising individuals in a country who want to engage in civil resistance about how to do so," DuVall says. "The conceptual and generic nature of this form of struggle can be taught; but then it's up to people on the ground to do that on their own. They're the ones taking the risks."

Gene Sharp, 83, who has become known as the Karl Von Clausewitz of nonviolent resistance strategy, has called the Egyptian revolutionaries "very brave." He says that while he is glad his writing was useful to them, all the credit goes to the Egyptian people.

"If people are no longer afraid, then that dictatorship is in big trouble. But they also managed to maintain to a remarkable degree -- not perfectly but to a remarkable degree -- they managed to maintain their nonviolent discipline even when they were being attacked," Sharp says (read full interview).

"They often were saying, people were interested in maybe using some violence, and people were saying peaceful, peaceful, peaceful. And that was even in demonstrations of over a million people. That's an amazing achievement, and it was key to their success."

Each Unhappy In Its Own Way

Canvas's teachings are now spreading around North Africa and the Middle East through word of mouth and social media.

Zeynep Tufekci, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Maryland in Baltimore County, says that messages of solidarity as well as practical knowledge -- ranging from how to deal with tear gas to how to circumvent Internet censorship -- have been exchanged between Tunisia, Egypt, and other countries in political turmoil.

"It's really just a very integrated movement, even though the uprisings are very national and very organic," Tufekci says. "They're not just inspired by outside; they're inspired by their own grievances, but the technical considerations are inspired by what's going on elsewhere."

Gogoberidze, the Georgian activist, says that none of the Iranians she trained were part of any formal activist organization, such as the Green Movement. She says she has trained housewives, students, and journalists how to engage in nonviolent struggle.

Asked how Canvas connects with these people, she says simply, "They find us."

Slobodan Kostic and Ena Stevanovic of RFE/RL's Balkan Service contributed to this report, as did RFE/RL's Georgian Service

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