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Exporting Nonviolent Revolution, From Eastern Europe To The Middle East

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.
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By Courtney Brooks
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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Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: Jack DuVall from: Washington, D.C.
February 21, 2011 19:09
A correction to this article: I did not personally hold a seminar in Cairo in 2007. It was held by the Ibn Khaldun Centre, headed by Dr. Saad Eddin Ibrahim (a distinguished scholar and former imprisoned dissident), who invited our organization, the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, to bring leading scholars and veterans of nonviolent struggles to speak about the history, ideas and strategies of civil resistance. A broad cross-section of Egyptians -- students, labor organizers, Bedouins, and many others -- attended.

by: Turgai
February 22, 2011 10:01
Western-inspired 'democratic' youth movements are indeed sexy for the international media but a) only represent a small westernized-cosmopolitan segment of society (students, neoliberal yuppies, intelligentsia, ... ) that is widely perceived by wider society to be arrogant and sold-out (which they mostly are), and b) their Western connections (CIA, NDI-NRI, Soros, the European LGBT movement, ... ), fundings and donor-driven agendas undermine their overall credibility.
In Response

by: Khaled from: Egytp
February 22, 2011 14:28
I agree with Turgai. I am Egyptian and I have been thrilled during the days of the revilution up to the day when Mubarak stepped down. But now, it is kind of obscure what these "kids" want. You feel that, as Webster Tarpley would like to pu it, and I agree with him, there is a sense of anarchy in what they're doing. they keep asking for one thing after the other and you feel the list of demands is endless and then you wonder what agenda do they have, what tangible plans do they put forward; really nothing. I guess all the big NGOs are there for a reason. I take Gene Sharp out of the equation, though. But I am almost sure NED, IRI, CrisisGroup etc serve a bigger cause, I mean a cause beyond the good of one nation in particular or even beyond the cause of "democracy".
In Response

by: American Troll from: Wisconsin
February 23, 2011 21:26
"...westernized-cosmopolitan...neoliberal...intelligentsia...arrogant and sold-out ...CIA, NDI-NRI, Soros, the European LGBT movement..."

Pretty good. You forgot the Illuminati, the Jews, the Zionists (different entities, I'm lead to believe), Halliburton, the Billderberg Group, the Swiss, the Skeksis, the Sith Lords, the Juggalos, the Legion of Doom, and Oprah. Enjoy the thirteenth century.
In Response

by: James from: Oregon
February 24, 2011 11:10
NED, IRI, Crisis Group, Freedom House, are all on record backing these revolutions.

It is something you can easily look up. It is because of ignorant or nefarious individuals like yourself that the world is in such a miserable state.
In Response

by: American Troll from: Wisconsin
February 25, 2011 06:53
Is that "backing" in the sense of applause and high-fives, or do you mean that Freedom House, for example, is organizing and bankrolling anything more nefarious and expensive than its annual reports? Muammar probably spends more on clothes and Lukashenka on mustache wax than FH's entire operating budget. Unless FH, Crisis Group, etc. are all just that good. Or evil. Whichever.

by: Sergey from: Chicago, USA
February 22, 2011 18:00
OK, so we can see how "exporting non-violent revolution from Eastern Europe to The Middle East really work in practice. Now in the Middle East we have wave after wave of bloodshed, death and the possibility of Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, Al-Qaida, Hamas, Hezbollah, Iranian regime and other Islamic terror groups and Islamic terror supporting states taking over huge parts of the Middle East exploiting the power vacuum and turmoil in the Middle East.

The Europe now has to cope with additional wave of refugees escaping "non-violent Revolution" exported from the E. Europe. Israel now has to expect attack from all sides as new ME regimes seek to reassess all the peace agreements and arrangements with Israel.

In other words, we are on the BRINK OF NEW WORLD WAR BECAUSE OF THESE EXPORTERS OF "NON-VIOLENT" REVOLUTIONS. HAPPY NOW ? !
In Response

by: Seidkazi
February 23, 2011 09:39
Well those who push for war is your kind.

by: Bill Webb from: Phoenix AZ
February 23, 2011 03:11
Congratulations to the Egyptian people for waging a non-violent revolution. You have captured the imagination of the world. Move quickly to consolidate your chance for democracy. Don't let the revolution get hijacked by outside forces They are waiting for the opportunity.

by: Gorazd Cvetic from: Valparaiso
February 23, 2011 15:08
"What I see Serbs doing in Bosnia is committing an act of aggression against a state that has been recognized by United Nations, and I see them committing genocide.I think that both of these things should be stopped." (Srdja Popovic, Peace Magazin, March-April 1994, page 8). This statement alone should be more than enough to remove any doubts about the integrity of Mr. Srdja Popovic, the Otpor (Resistance) movement, and the Canvas movement.
In Response

by: Ivan from: Belgrade
February 26, 2011 21:03
@Gorazd Cvetic

Srdja Popovic you quote is different Srdja Popovic, a lawyer, older guy. Srdja Popovic from CANVAS was in high school at the time this quote was taken.

by: James from: Oregon
February 24, 2011 11:07
Yes obviously this is all 100% backed by the US State Department and the Fortune 500. So congratulations to the people of Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, you are paving the way for corporate serfdom and global government under the Anglo-Americans.

The guy leading the Libyan protests gives interviews while standing in front of the White House. Its so ridiculous you'd almost swear it was black propaganda .

by: Jack DuVall from: Washington, D.C.
February 26, 2011 20:45
One additional comment for readers of this thread to consider: Those who claim that nonviolent "revolution" is being "exported" have the burden of proof to show how that is supposedly being done. The center that I represent limits its work to disseminating knowledge about how civil resistance has been used to bring change in past nonviolent transitions, as with civilian-based movements in the Philippines, Poland, South Africa and about 50 other countries. Anyone who is so inclined can obtain a vast amount of practical knowledge about this on their own. It's all open source. All that our center does is to organize this knowledge into more easily learnable form. I don't know what other organizations attempt to do, but I do know this: It's not possible to "export" a revolution, because only the people and activists within a particular country will know their society, their grievances and the weaknesses of their oppressive system well enough to be able to organize and direct a movement to reduce the system's legitimacy and raise its cost of maintaining power. Outsiders simply do not know enough. "Exporting revolutions" is a contradiction in terms. One final point: Civil resistance works in democracies too, to hold corrupt and unaccountable leaders responsible for their actions. For more: http://www.nonviolent-conflict.org

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