The Revolutionist

The secret architect of the Arab Spring casts an eye on Occupy Wall Street.

late last year, while visiting the United States to accept his nomination as one of Foreign Policy magazine’s top 100 global thinkers, Srdja Popovic took time to talk with a number of Occupy Wall Street activists in New York. He left those conversations with a mixed impression.

“The good news,” Popovic, a wiry Serb, told me, “is that for the first time in many years, something has awakened the enthusiasm and the activism in this country, which is not typically an activist society.” Yet he added that Occupy had to make sure it got three things exactly right: a clear vision of tomorrow, a clear plan for pursuing that vision, and a clear understanding that whatever happens in New York or Boston or Denver is connected to a larger global movement that stretches from the alleyways of Cairo to the beaches of the Maldives. “Talking about the 99 percent and the 1 percent can be applied in so many ways,” Popovic said. “But this is not just a story about capitalism. It’s a story about unjust societies around the world.”

Popovic is something of an expert on unjust societies, and in particular their rectification and reconstruction by nonviolent means. Just over a decade ago, Popovic was a student activist in Belgrade working to oust Slobodan Milošević. After that odds-defying campaign ended with the Yugoslav president’s one-way trip to The Hague, Popovic spent a few years in electoral politics before founding the Centre for Applied NonViolent Action and Strategies, or CANVAS, and began training activists interested in copying the Serbian model of bottom-up regime change. CANVAS has worked with people from 46 countries, and graduates of Popovic’s program include organizers of the successful movements in Georgia, Lebanon, Egypt, and the Maldives. The young Iranians rioting against Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2009 downloaded 17,000 copies of Popovic’s guide to nonviolent action. The Syrians currently standing up to Bashar al-Assad are the latest in the long line of advice-seekers. With little fanfare, Popovic, who is 39, has become an architect of global political change. And no one is more surprised about this than Popovic himself.

“It all started as a hobby,” he told me. A freshwater-biology student with a yen for politics, he organized march after march to protest Milošević’s increasingly authoritarian rule. But the marches had no effect: the president stifled criticism, defanged the press, and repeatedly waged war on Serbia’s neighbors, converting the inevitable surges in nationalism and anxiety into greater political power for himself. It was then that Popovic and a group of close friends had the idea of making regime change fun.

They painted Milošević’s face on a barrel and invited people on the street to bash it as hard as they could with a bat. The gimmick presented a quandary for police: Go after the angry citizens and their bats, and you risk provoking rage. But try to haul the offending object away, and you guarantee a front-page newspaper photo of an officer placing a barrel under arrest—which is exactly what happened, enhancing the mystique of Popovic and his friends. Marching under a banner featuring a tightly clenched fist, they gradually accumulated more than 70,000 supporters, and in September of 2000 they helped drive 72 percent of all eligible Serbian voters to the polls. A few weeks later, Milošević was out.

Popovic was elected to parliament as an ally of the reformist Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic. But when Djindjic was killed by a police officer working for the Serbian mob, Popovic lost his passion for electoral politics. He missed the freedom of the grass roots, the marches in the streets, the theatrics. So in 2003, he quit politics and started CANVAS.

Almost immediately, aspiring activists from all over the world came calling. “It was amazing for me to see that people from Zimbabwe or Belarus are getting inspired by the Serbian political revolution,” he told me. Putting together a curriculum for a five-day seminar, Popovic began teaching everything he knew. “We cover 20 different issues,” he said, “from understanding nonviolent struggle to the nature of political power, pillars of support, how power is expressed in society, and then moving on to how you build your vision of tomorrow.” The training is far from abstract, focusing on matters such as fund-raising, resource management, and campaign tactics. CANVAS offers its training to activists for free, and sends easily reproducible materials—DVDs, PDFs—to those who can’t make the trip to Belgrade.

A few months after its founding, CANVAS registered its first success, when a number of its Georgian trainees helped lead the protest movement that elected the young Mikheil Saakashvili president. A year later, the group played a similar role in Ukraine’s Orange Revolution. In each case, analysts in the East and the West alike had predicted that efforts to democratize the former Soviet regimes would prove futile, and that what had worked in Belgrade was doomed to fail in Tbilisi and Kiev.

Imran Zahir, a Popovic trainee, heard a comparable warning when he joined the struggle to end the oppressive rule of Maldivian President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. “We were told these ideas wouldn’t work in such a small place,” Zahir said, or that the island’s Islamic culture would not be receptive to Popovic’s tactics. But heeding his tutor’s mantra that fun can overcome fear, Zahir linked his cause with musicians and other cultural mainstays, and in 2008 watched the regime topple. “We became the only 100 percent Muslim democracy to elect a conservative democratic party over the Islamist party coalition in the first free and fair elections,” he told me.

Popovic was now being called “the professor of revolution.” To many, this wasn’t a compliment; a number of disgruntled regimes even accused him of being a tool of the CIA.

In 2009, a delegation of young Egyptians who called themselves the April6 Youth Movement—a reference to a renowned local labor strike—attended a Canvas training session. In homage to their mentor, the Egyptians had adopted the clenched-fist emblem; when the uprising began in Cairo, the fist was flying everywhere as Popovic’s trainees stunned the world and helped usher in the Arab Spring.

Still, for all his method’s success, Popovic feels that those who should be paying the most attention—academics, politicians, journalists—instead continue to view politics largely as a game played by governments and decided by war. “Nobody, from very prominent political analysts to the world’s intelligence services, could find their own nose when the Arab Spring started. It is always this same old narrative: ‘It happened in Serbia by accident. It happened in Georgia by accident. It happened in Tunisia by accident. But it will never happen in Egypt.’ And this is the mantra we keep hearing—until it happens.”

His method, Popovic is quick to concede, is far from foolproof. Like everyone else, he admitted to watching Egypt with trepidation, uncertain how to advise his former students once their revolution had succeeded. CANVAS is about effecting change, not about converting movements into parties and policies or guaranteeing long-term stability. But even if Egypt falls into theocracy, he argued, the lesson from Tahrir Square will remain the same: that the next time a dictator is brought down somewhere, it’s likely to be by a ragtag bunch of nobodies with some organizational skills, not by established movements with clear hierarchies and agendas and foreign military support.