For Some Arab Revolutionaries, A Serbian Tutor

Dec 13, 2011
Originally published on December 13, 2011 7:21 pm

Srdja Popovic, a lanky biologist from Belgrade, helped overthrow a dictator in Serbia a decade ago. Since then, he's been teaching others what he learned, and his proteges include a host of Arab activists who have played key roles in ousting Arab autocrats over the past year.

"This is a bad year for bad guys," Popovic says with a broad grin in a New York cafe.

The Arab uprisings, which began when a frustrated Tunisian fruit seller, Mohamed Bouazizi, set himself on fire last December, caught the world by surprise. Yet young would-be Arab revolutionaries had been beating a path to Belgrade since 2005, learning Popovic's tactics of peaceful revolt and waiting for the moment when they could apply them.

"One hundred percent of the credit goes to those people. We equipped them with the tools for their struggle," he says.

He insists that he didn't lead but rather taught pro-democracy activists tactics he developed as the founder of Otpor (Resistance), a nonviolent movement that helped drive out Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic in 2000.

Now, he heads the Center for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies (CANVAS) in Belgrade. He is listed as one of the "100 Most Important Global Thinkers" by Foreign Policy magazine, and seen as an international troublemaker by autocrats in the Middle East.

"History proves there is a fair chance that most of the Arab world will end up in some kind of democracy," he says, while acknowledging the challenges posed by the turmoil in Egypt, where the military still holds power, and the violence in Syria, where many peaceful protesters have been killed.

Training Egyptian Activists

Egyptian activists first came to Belgrade in 2009. They had tremendous talent, says Popovic. Even then, he says, they planned for a democratic transition in Egypt.

But once President Hosni Mubarak was gone, the movement lost its unity, a key tenet of nonviolent struggle, he says. He questions the wisdom of trusting the Egyptian military leaders with the transition to democracy after the generals ushered Mubarak off the national stage.

"This is the last authority you would ever give a transition; it's like giving the goat your cabbage to keep," he says. "There is a lesson learned." Another lesson Popovic cites applies to the next phase of any successful revolution. Once the dictator goes, the next stage is building institutions. "The [fewer] institutions you have, the more turbulent it will be."

As he's watched the Arab Spring turn into a more violent and uncertain season, Popovic places his hopes in the millions of Arabs who took part in successful nonviolent actions.

"This changes the way people see themselves," he says. "They shift from passive to a very active person" and become "shareholders in the victory," he adds.

Prospects For Tunisia

To date, the best outcome is in Tunisia, where the regional revolt began. With an 86 percent turnout in the first free elections on Oct. 25, Tunisia appears to be on course for a successful transition to democracy.

"The number of women in parliament is bigger than in Serbia and in the U.S. Senate," says Popovic.

But Tunisia is a small, relatively prosperous country, with a homogeneous population, and had the best chance for a soft landing. In other parts of the region, the challenges are mounting. Ethnic, tribal and sectarian divisions complicate transitions to democracy. Long years of autocratic rule corrupted institutions and have divided, undermined or wiped out civil society.

"My biggest depression came when I saw what happened in Libya," says Popovic. The combination of a violent uprising and an international intervention, tribal conflicts and the slaughter of Moammar Gadhafi in front of cellphone cameras was "the worst-case scenario" for a believer in the transformative power of a nonviolent struggle.

Success With Nonviolence

His own experience in Serbia, his involvement in successful pro-democracy movements in Georgia, Ukraine and the Maldives, plus academic studies have convinced him that nonviolent struggles have better outcomes than the violent kind.

In a study of 130 conflicts over the past 100 years, nonviolent struggles are three times more likely to succeed in a democratic transition, he says.

"It's all about the numbers," he explains, saying it's crucial to engage from 2 to 5 percent of the population in an active, daily, nonviolent struggle. Violent struggle has a dismal outcome, according to research, with only a 5 percent chance of creating a democracy.

This is why the developments in the Syrian uprising have alarmed him.

The Syrian uprising was particularly inventive, he says. It's been a little bit of Egypt, a little bit of Serbia, as well as tactics that are purely Syrian. Organizers have employed songs and humor, developed unity and discipline, and crafted a message that delivered the numbers on the street.

But as government forces continue to use force, with thousands of people killed, there is a growing part of the movement that favors using arms. "My response to this is that it will destroy the movement," Popovic says.

In Syria, a new force of army deserters has joined the rebellion, targeting army installations and intelligence centers. A protest movement that was largely peaceful in the early months of the rebellion is sliding toward a more violent conflict.

For Popovic, violence changes the outcome and drives those "stakeholders of the victory" off the streets. "When the bullets start whistling, everybody stays home, and I hope that Syrians understand this," he cautions.

The anniversary of the Arab uprisings will be marked on Dec. 17, the day that Bouazizi, the young Tunisian fruit seller, doused himself with gasoline. He later died of his wounds, but is credited with setting off the regional revolt. However, the recent revolutions can also trace their roots to groups of young Arab dreamers who met with a successful revolutionary in Belgrade.

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The Arab world delivered a surprising message this year. Revolts across the region revealed a generation willing to use non-violent protests to oust unpopular leaders. But that did not surprise Srdja Popovic, a campaigner for non-violent strategies. He was the student leader of a movement that toppled Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic in 2000. He also helped train Arab revolutionaries.

NPR's Deborah Amos caught up with Popovic in New York, nearly a year after the Arab revolts began.

SRDJA POPOVIC: Okay, no problem. It's nice meeting you.


DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: He seems an unlikely international trouble maker, a lanky biologist from Belgrade, Srdja Popovic preaches the gospel of non-violent struggle to a class at Columbia University in New York.

POPOVIC: I spent about seven years of my life working with activists throughout the world, and there is this big thing called Arab Spring. And everybody...

AMOS: He is passionate about the success of young Arab revolutionaries who came to learn from him in Belgrade.

POPOVIC: The history really proves that there are fair chances that most of the Arab world will end up in some kind of democracy.

AMOS: How do you see your role in what happened in the Middle East?

POPOVIC: We equip these people with the tools to plan their struggle. We never tell them do this or do that. Because we, as Serbs, don't know what will work in Egypt. This is the trick. They need to discover for themselves.

AMOS: Egyptians arrived in Belgrade in 2009. Even then, they were planning for a democratic transition. But Popovic says they lost their unity after Hosni Mubarak was toppled and the Egyptian generals took charge.

POPOVIC: Which is the last authority you would ever give the transition - I mean, this is like giving the goat your cabbage to keep. The military is not designed to do the transitions, but definitely there is a lesson learned.

AMOS: Another lesson he repeats in every speech: Social media, Facebook and Twitter, play only a limited role in a successful non-violent revolt.

POPOVIC: And it is about people in the street who need to win the struggle. The struggle is won on the street.


AMOS: As the Arab Spring becom1es a more violent and uncertain season, Popovic pins his hopes in the millions of Arabs who went to those streets. It changes people from passive to active citizens, he says.

POPOVIC: Once this spirit has been released from the bottle, it changes the way that people see themselves. When you get a million people engaged in the struggle, they become the shareholders of the victory.

AMOS: The best outcome so far is in Tunisia, with an 86 percent turnout for the first free election in October. But in other parts of the region, challenges are mounting because of tribal and sectarian divisions. Long years of autocratic rule have corrupted institutions and divided civil society.

POPOVIC: My biggest depression came when I saw what happened in Libya. The combination of violent uprising with tribal conflicts, a bunch of civil victims absolutely unnecessary foreign military intervention, and the slaughtery(ph) of Gadhafi in front of the camera was the worst case scenario.

AMOS: It's the eventual outcome that concerns him most. Based on his experience in Serbia as well as academic studies, research shows non-violent movements are three times more likely to become democracies than violent struggles, which have a five percent chance. This is why Popovic is alarmed by events in Syria. After months of peaceful protest, a brutal government crackdown has provoked some activists to call for armed rebellion.

POPOVIC: When bullets start whistling, everybody stays home and this is very huge dangers and I hope the Syrians understand this.

AMOS: He understands these movements have launched a long process. In Serbia, his struggle took more than a decade. Arabs are just getting started in a transition that he helped to promote. His role has been recognized. He lectures all over the world. He's opened a peace university in the Maldives. And he's one Foreign Policy magazine's top 100 global thinkers.

POPOVIC: We don't consider ourselves the thinkers. We are young people. We are still learning a lot about the struggle. Working with those who are ready to take risk and maybe lose life for freedom, there is absolutely nothing to match. That's the most rewarding job in the world.

AMOS: Deborah Amos, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.