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Q+A: Srdja Popovic on ‘User-Friendly’ Change in Syria

Srdja Popovic is something of a hero to Arab revolutions. He was a founder and leader of the Otpor student movement that brought down the regime of Yugoslavian leader Slobodan Milosevic in 2000.

Written by Katarina Montgomery Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes

From there, his political and protest strategies spread to other movements around the world; as young demonstrators led the first stirrings of the Arab Spring, they tapped his know-how along the way.

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Popovic spoke with Syria Deeply about parallels between the anti-Milosevic and anti-Assad movements. “I’ve seen videos of armed soldiers in Syria watching the documentary ‘Bringing Down a Dictator,’ featuring Otpor strategies to topple Milosevic. And they were like ‘okay, what can we learn from you?’”

He is now the executive director of the Centre for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies, where he explores the concept of making non-violent democratic movements more “user-friendly.”

Syria Deeply: What started as a peaceful protest in Deraa has become a 2-year conflict without a foreseeable end. What happened?

Srdja Popovic: The single biggest difference between violent and nonviolent struggle are your recruits. When you look at violent struggle it’s a very narrow portion of society, comprised mostly of men, 18-35 years [old], with some military training, healthy, ready to spend hours, days and months acting in the forests of Burma or deserts of Syria.

The real trick of the successful nonviolent movement is to recognize the need of the people and offer them the participation on low-risk level.

Al Jazeera has a great visual on security forces and institutional deflections in Syria, which shows that the majority of the military and civil servant defection happened in the early phases of the struggle. Why? It’s logical, because people affiliate with nonviolent movements, and you can’t convert those you’ve tried to kill. The moment the movement shifted into violent tactics, they alienated all of the potential Alawite officers who wanted to defect militarily.

SD: Arab activists called on you to coach them in the skills and techniques you developed in Serbia.

SP: Successful [movements] share three commonalities: they are capable of achieving unity, are highly and meticulously planned, and have elements of non-violent discipline. Involvement of a large part of society is also extremely important because it creates durable change, and people feel like they are the shareholders of this change.

We help activists identify most important pillars and institutions of society, and strategize how to address these pillars before they implement practical changes. We focus on the phenomenon of fear: why fear is natural and how you cope with it.

We are coming out with an Arabic version of our manual ‘Making Oppression Backfire,’ looking at the history of how movements dealt with different levels of oppression, from detaining people and sending them to court, to really mutilating them and sending their bodies back to their families.

You learn from the people on the ground. If you want to learn what is working in Aleppo, you talk to people from Aleppo.

SD: Social media has transformed activism since 2000…

SP: Struggles and movements are organized more quickly, with less money and under safer circumstances. 10 years ago you had to print posters, organize activists to distribute content, rent radio or TV time, etc. Now, Facebook groups serve that purpose. Citizen journalism has transformed mainstream media, and put a heavy price tag on state-sponsored violence.

The future of my organization will most likely be to develop a distance-learning program so we can help people in places like Damascus, while they stay at home.

But social media is a double-edged sword. It can be used by the regime to survey, monitor and check on activists. When you get arrested in Iran the first thing they extract from you is your Facebook password, because very much unlike phone conversations, or one on one conversations where you can identify the person’s voice, there is no way of knowing who is on the other side of a Facebook message. Delegating leadership to the Internet does not work. Twitter is just the storyteller of the 21st century. Not the story itself.

SD: Of the countries shaped by the Arab Spring, about which are you most hopeful?

SP: What is really interesting in Egypt is that you have a population learning how to keep their politicians accountable.

On the other hand, when you look at the sectarian/ethnic breakdown of Syria, you notice [that] the majority [Assad’s Alawite minority] controls the resources. [Assad’s regime] couldn’t export anything, but they were relying on revenues from things they sold in the country.

The movement in Syria, even in its nonviolent phase, especially now in the violent phase, didn’t have a unified strategy to create change. If you want a stable country or stable transition to democracy, it’s not about winning against one man, or one family, it’s about bringing out the change. This change can only function with large portions of society. If we can focus and find people capable of organizing elections and running a civilian society, then Syria has a future.

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