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Journal of Middle Eastern Politics & Policy

Topic / International Relations and Security

Contextualizing the Arab Awakenings: An Exclusive Interview with Srjda Popovic

Srdja Popovic was a founder of the Serbian nonviolent resistance group Otpor! that led the successful campaign to unseat Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic in October 2000. Popovic later served a term as a member of the Serbian National Assembly 2000-2003. In 2003, Popovic and other ex-Otpor! activists started the Centre for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies, CANVAS (, a non-profit educational institution that has worked with people from over 50 different countries spreading knowledge on nonviolent strategies and tactics. In 2012 Popovic was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.


JMEPP editor Nada Zohdy interviewed Srdja Popovic on January 15, 2014.

JMEPP: What do you think are the greatest misconceptions around the Arab awakenings? 

POPOVIC: I think there are several misconceptions generally about the situation in the Middle East prior to the Arab Spring. The first is what I like to call the “burger or French fry dilemma.” It’s the idea that the region is somehow stuck in a refrigerator – frozen in time – and that the only two political options you can have in the Middle East is a strict religious theocracy (in the style of Iran or Saudi Arabia) with religious people on top using different coercive pillars to control population, or a military type of enforced secular dictatorship like what we saw in Egypt, Tunisia, and Syria.

My first big revelation came when I considered the demographic issue. You have very young societies in countries like Egypt and Iran. There are a lot of people born after the Mubaraks and Khomeinis of this world ever came to power. For these people, the revolutionary narratives built around these leaders never made any sense. Social networks and traveling and talking to people outside these countries also made a real difference. And being exposed to world through technology and with curiosity and youth presents new opportunities. Arab youth are far more aware with what’s happening in the world and more eager to change their country than what foreign spectators might say. When you sit and work with these people you see they have a tremendous desire to be free.

The second misconception is assuming that masses of people filled the streets in these countries spontaneously. Many observers were taken aback by the mass protests in Iran in 2009, Tunisia in 2010, and Egypt in 2011 because so many people assumed the refrigerator paradigm. But these revolutions didn’t come out of thin air.

We met many of these young activists prior to these events, and you could see they had great intelligence and planning skills. They were exploring Gandhi, adopting the clenched fist symbol from Serbia, translating comics of Martin Luther King, Jr., and more.

They were planning and thinking about how Mubarak’s removal Mubarak could be a broad-based rallying point. They understood that three major social pillars – the military, the international community, and the business sector – would all be very sensitive to Mubarak’s attempt to install his own son to power. When you talk to people who have this type of thoughtful strategy, even without training, then you understand the huge potential. So we weren’t surprised when the uprisings broke out because we knew young people had already been thinking and acting strategically for a long time. And of course timing is everything so when Tunisia erupted this was the spark that catalyzed others.

JMEPP: Your organization CANVAS helped train the April 6th Movement years before the Egyptian revolution. Since Morsi was taken out of power last summer there has been an unprecedented level of polarization, and some have been quick to call Egypt’s democratic experiment a failure. What is your reaction to this and what do you think the role of nonviolent activists like April 6th is now?

POPOVIC: I’m not an academic but I know that building democracy takes time. Even looking at U.S. history you know that over a decade passed between the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. Why wouldn’t you give at least same amount of time as a window of opportunity for people in the Arab world, not just in Egypt? We are now witnessing the process in Tunisia which is seen as successful and in Egypt which is seen as struggling but in both cases we need to be patient.

We know from research by Maria Stephan and Erica Chenoweth that the average nonviolence struggle takes two and a half years. I’m coming from a country that had successful nonviolent movement in 2000 and peaceful transition after, but before that we had eight or nine years of trying. Rather than dismiss any of these cases as a success or failure the only thing I can do is compare where I come from. People were fast to tell us in 1991 that we can’t do anything to challenge Milosevic; in 1992 that we lost; and in 1997 when the opposition split that we lost our last hope. For so many outsiders we were labeled the hopeless black hole in the Balkans ruled by the butcher. So I would avoid being that outsider when it comes to Egypt and I strongly advise everyone to avoid that. Nonviolence struggle takes time.

In my view, there are three parallel processes happening in Egypt. One is very encouraging. One is very discouraging. And one is hard for me to judge.

Let’s start with the bad news. The military has been in charge for so many years and is willing to be in charge for much longer. The military cleverly shifted sides when they knew Mubarak was going down, then used the popular discontent and Tamarod movement to set the stage for them to step back in. Now they are prosecuting the Muslim Brotherhood very harshly, gravely violating human rights and even starting to prosecute the secular activists they are supposedly on the same side with. This is an even more discouraging process for me because it has deep roots in the history of Egypt. Military people love to be in charge in Egypt. It’s very unlikely they will just step down by understanding that the world needs democracy and then immediately somehow they will magically concede power and chocolates will start falling from the sky.

A very encouraging process is the process of people awakening. Too often people focus on short term results, but this is one result we got from the Serbian struggle, the results Georgian got from their nonviolent struggle, the results Ukrainians got from their struggle, etc. Once people decide they want to be free and exercise nonviolent struggle, people become the shareholders of their future because these movements bring common people, as opposed to elites, into the struggle. Once people risk their energy and time and achieve something collectively (and not just in struggles for democracy, but any nonviolent struggle), they change their understanding of the world and their role in it and they become shareholders of this change.

We can change as many governments as we want in Serbia, but no politician would be foolish enough to rig the elections. This is not because politicians become better, but because people have put a huge price tag on this action. So if free and fair elections are the only outcome of the Serbian or Ukrainian or Egyptian struggle, this should not be underestimated. There is now a culture of people ready to take to the street. People should often be more strategic and tactful in considering when and how often they take to the street and for what causes, but ultimately, after experiencing revolutions like this, people will certainly keep their politicians and rulers accountable. I don’t think any level of oppression from Sisi’s military government can change that. And it’s a process that exists throughout the Arab world. Once you release the spirit of people power out of the bottle it is very difficult to contain.Assume Sisi never took power. When you look at the trajectory of Egyptian electoral results over this short window of time in the last few years, this shows another encouraging trend: people are looking at their leaders and expecting them to deliver. If they don’t deliver they punish them at the polls. After 30 years of rigged elections, it is very encouraging that Egyptians are taking this new power of elections so seriously. The democratic potential of the society is there, once people learn they can keep politicians accountable this can’t be reversed.

The third trend is something I don’t know if it’s good or bad news. For me, bringing groups like Muslim Brother to the political stage is a necessary part of democracy building the Arab world. I think these groups should be in the political arena, should be subject to elections, and should be subject to public scrutiny if they don’t deliver. I would rather see these groups (as well as secular youth groups) in the political arena than underground in training camps, in the mosques or in the streets, while someone else is running the political arena. These groups represent huge parts of the population and as we’ve learned large parts of the population must always be politically represented. If they are not represented, this is a recipe for a crisis in any society.tions so seriously. The democratic potential of the society is there, once people learn they can keep politicians accountable this can’t be reversed.

 JMEPP: Many people refer to Bahrain as the forgotten Arab uprising. Do you have any advice for nonviolent activists in a place like Bahrain where the repression has only increased in the last few years and seems to go unnoticed by the international community?

POPOVIC: First, I feel very strongly about the Bahrainis struggle. They are very brave and underappreciated and should get more attention and support. The Bahraini uprising played a very serious role in what happened overall with the Arab Spring.

Of course you have a quick, nonviolent uprising in Tunisia that all started with the self-immolation of a young man because he was unemployed, forced to be a street vendor, and then humiliated. So it was the combination of bread and butter issues with dignity. Every single Arab activist I have met, dignity is a big thing. Then it shifted to Egypt and Egyptians see their opportunity to remove Mubarak from power, and they had some preparation so it was easier to do quickly. Then Bahrainis take it from there.

As Will Dobson said, activists are not the only ones to learn across borders; dictators learn as well. To outside spectators Mubarak seemed soft toward his opposition, so the Bahraini rulers decided to be harsher because they have no real military capability. So they invited the Saudi military to help them crack down on the uprising. They did it in a very ugly and repressive way and wiped out largely nonviolent demonstration with inexcusable use of force. And the West turned a blind eye because of the geostrategic interests of the Naval Fifth Fleet in Bahrain, while the Saudis were also aligned with the West. And then Gaddafi takes it from there. Of course, the West intervenes in Libya, and the Syrians take it from there.

When you look at all these developments you see the Bahraini case is very important because that was where there was first large scale use of state repression in response to popular mobilization, in much larger scale than Egypt for example. And this model unfortunately helped served as the beginning of civil war in Libya and in Syria. Although the country is very tiny, its uprising had large implications in these unfortunate developments.

We need to put more light on this case and help the clear majority wishing for more representation and democracy in Bahrain to win their rights. We don’t give specific advice to activists. The only thing we can do is point them to analogous situations of conflict. The only conflict I see similar to both Bahrain and Syria is South Africa. Why? The struggle is about something else but if you look at the mechanics, what you had in South Africa is a small very powerful government controlling majority of resources and representing about 11 to 13 percent of Afrikaans or white society. In South Africa you also had two different ethnic groups – Indians and so-called Colored people. They had some rights, some jobs, decent housing. This is very much like in Syria the situation with Alawites, Christians and Kurds.

The way Alawites are keeping Christians and Kurds close to their camp is making them afraid of the Sunni majority. This is similar to the way the South African government was keeping the Indian and Colored populations close to them. And there was a bit of self-interest for them because they had more rights than black people. The South African struggle, as the Bahraini and Syrian ones, started with nonviolent resistance, but then hit a wall.

Over the years they moved the battle to the international field and successfully isolated the South African government. Eventually they couldn’t even export a nail. At one point they made the foolish mistake of moving toward armed resistance – this set the struggle back. This is picking the battle you can’t win. You don’t go into the boxing ring with Assad. You don’t wage war with the South African military – at that point they were strongest military in the whole continent.

But what you do instead is look at Gene Sharp’s hundreds of tactic and say, “ok if we can gain the large numbers for our cause then let’s use them.”  The point is your movement needs to shift to noncooperation. What are the tactics that can be imposed on government? In case of South Africa it was international isolation. I’m very happy that Bahraini activists are visiting the capitals of the countries that are turning the blind eye.

This is how South Africans won their battle outside of country when they were unable to achieving victory inside the country. If the problem is the international community’s blind eye, then open the eye.” If you watch the film A Force More Powerful, you see their shift in strategy. They asked, who is funding this repression? They understood it was them the majority black population in the country who were are buying goods sold to them by government affiliated companies. Instead of buying t-shirts they started making their own t-shirts. Instead of buying this juice they bought that one.

A consumer boycott is a great idea if you are the many and they are the few, like in Bahrain, especially because Bahraini government doesn’t have a plan B.  They’re not Libya; they can’t dig for more oil because there is no oil, that’s the point. This wouldn’t be a clever tactic to use against Chavez for example or Saudis because they have oil revenue. But in a society where the government struggles with the economy, international pressure plus a domestic consumer boycott is at least a lesson from South Africa that is very much worth considering.

JMEPP: Do you think one of the mistakes some Arab activists made was not sufficiently planning how they would play in the political game once the transitions took place?

POPOVIC: I think it’s a combination of three things. First, consider the objective environment. In Serbia, we had a transition government in place very fast, and we had a plan for the transition, but we also had well-established political parties. These were the bricks needed to build new structures.

JMEPP: And of course these parties existed before Otpor.

POPOVIC: Yes they were around before Otpor, and there was a civil society as well. To have the same outcome in a place like Egypt where you don’t have really well established political parties you need to build them. You know, building a car and driving a car at the same time is really difficult. It’s really unfair to compare Egypt with Serbian situation on this point.

The second issue is that of where you set your victory bar — or your “goose egg.” The point here is that setting your vision of tomorrow and limiting your strategy to dismantling Mubarak and expecting that once you leave the streets everything will change overnight is short-sighted. This is instead of understanding that the two most organized groups (the military and the Muslim Brotherhood) would inevitably seize power in this unstable situation. But that doesn’t necessarily mean Egypt is a failure like we discussed earlier.

People power is a marathon, not a sprint. Not matter how fast you can finish one level of the game there is yet another level to accomplish, and another. This is one thing we understood in Serbia and perhaps not all activists understood this in the Arab world. But you can always start the game over from the beginning.

The third thing is the challenge of building alternative power. When you look at a transition you need to accomplish several things. Once you build momentum you need to maintain it – somehow transform this broad political movement into a set of civil society organizations, political parties, pressure groups, watchdog groups, a constitution assembly. etc. But you need to have a plan for this. I keep hearing from people who work within the field that Arab young activists somehow tend to be very happy being outside the institutions. They see that their role is being on the street while someone else is in power.


JMEPP: But not everyone can be a watchdog, right?

POPOVIC: Yes, not everyone can be a watchdog because otherwise whom will they be watching? In Serbia some of us from Otpor moved through the established political parties into parliament and into the government to push our transition forward more or less effectively. In places like Egypt and Tunisia new parties had to be created. Why? Because establishing secular youth parties after having a successful youth movement doesn’t make a lot of sense here in Serbia where average age is 42, but it is very important when societies are much younger. Building these institutions will have a long-term effect – these parties may not immediately reach a threshold and these NGOs may initially be very small, but taking into consideration the age and direction in which these new societies are moving they will gain more importance in the future.

It’s very difficult to give specific recommendations. We can talk about best practices though. Serbia was an easy case because there were already well established parties, but still some people from the [Otpor] movement became watchdogs, while others went through the traditional political institutions and government to influence the legal process and create legislation. In this way we Serbian youth tried to strike a balance by engaging politically in a variety of different ways after our revolution.

4) What do you personally find most inspiring about the Arab activists you’ve worked with?

POPOVIC: Every time we work with people we learn. We avoid advising people specifically what to do because we know you can’t copy and paste strategies. But we try to give them tools about how to evaluate tactics, how to develop strategy, how to negotiate, how to select target audiences, etc. Through this process we learned so much about how rich, clever, enthusiastic, and powerful this world of Arab youth is. They have tremendous energy, courage, commitment, and creativity. And their commitment to teachers is very unlike Serbs (who will throw chalk at their teachers) Arab people will respect their teachers. Besides all the contextual information I tried to learn, if I learned one thing from my Arab friends it is how to respect the people who have taught me in life.