Serbian Experience Helps Egypt's Revolution

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Lisa Mullins: In Egypt, the Prosecutor General announced yesterday the deposed President Hosni Mubarak and his two sons will stand trial for killing anti-government protestors, and for corruption. He'll be the first Arab Head of State to face trial after being toppled by demonstrators. The charges could carry the death penalty. Bringing Mubarak to justice was a key [Inaudible at 00:18] of the activists who forced the dictator from power last February. And as Egyptian activists plot the future course of their revolution, they're taking a page from revolutions in other countries. One of their inspirations was the movement that brought down Slobodan Milosevic in 2000. One Serb activist who actually helped to guide those in Egypt is Srdja Popovic. Popovic is the Executive Director of Canvas. That's the Center for Applied Non-Violent Action and Strategies in Belgrade. He says that activists in many countries can still learn from Serbia's example.

Srdja Popovic: What we as a group can do is really teach them how to avoid our mistakes. It took Serbs 10 years of attempts and failures. To get rid of Milosevic, it took our trainees and friends in Georgia and Ukraine toward three years. It took Tunisians a few months. It took Egyptians only 19 days. It was a non-violent blitzkrieg.

Mullins: But that makes it sound like there's a bit of a playbook and it just happens to be a matter of how well you do in the playbook. Does is not matter about how entrenched the dictatorship is?

Popovic: It is always dependent on the two things. One thing is the social environment, but the skills you bring in the conflict are more important, and you can look at the different principles of success. In concrete case for non-violent struggle, you need to first build your unity, then you need to plan really meticulously, which was very, very good-well done. In Egypt, at the end of the day, it depends whether or not the movement is maintaining non-violent discipline. This is probably the crucial difference between the successful transitions we will hopefully witness in Tunisia and Egypt, and the bloody stalemate which we are witnessing in Libya.

Mullins: Let's look at what's happening now, though. I'm not sure if you heard President Obama speaking before the British Parliament today, but he said, among other things, look, people are mobilizing to free themselves of the grip of an iron fist. And he was talking about what's happening, of course, in terms of the Arab Spring in Arab countries. And he harkened back to Eastern Europe. He said it'll be years before these revolutions reach their conclusion. So the question for you is, how in the long run, after the protestors break up their demonstrations in places like Tahir Square, how do you keep still existing divisions-for instance, between Muslims and cops in Egypt-from turning violent?

Popovic: This is the big question because it is done through a question. How do you make movement into structure? This is quite a complicated thing. And, of course, there will be threats. There will be threats. The conflicts can be very dangerous, and I think they have this non-violent power to overwhelm the especially religious conflicts because it, just to remind you, it was religious unity that brought them to the point of transition.

Mullins: Religious unity, not in all cases then. In some cases, it seems like the religions were glossed over for a different purpose-a more civil secular purpose.

Popovic: This is exactly where you look at. When you look at these conflicts, you can see whether or not the unities achieved. And Martin Luther King would start winning his Civil Rights Movement when he would start getting White people on his side. And Harvey Milk would start winning his Gay Rights Movement once he was getting straight people to his side. And the only way to build a successful non-violent movement that includes, of course, the Muslim world, is to have Shias, Sunis, and Christians on one side. So if you are capable to build this unity, then you will win.

Mullins: The group that you were part of;

Popovic: Otpor, yes.

Mullins: Otpor in 1990.

Popovic: Mmm-hmm.

Mullins: [Inaudible at 3:33] you helping in Otpor. Received millions of dollars in Washington. And I wonder what you think right now pro-democracy groups around the world should be getting, if anything, from Washington in terms of support, in terms of financial support.

Popovic: You need to be very cautious when you accept any kind of international support and cooperating with international IMGOs is one thing, and dealing with government is another thing. So don't mess with governments because governments [Laughs] don't kill friends. They have only interests. The non-violent conflicts at the end of the 20th century and at the beginning of the 21st century are the tool of changing the world. Very unlike foreign military interventions, which no how are bringing any kind of democracy or stability. And we are witnessing this in many different cases.

Mullins: So would you say then by extension of that that the United States and NATO should not be involved militarily in Libya right now?

Popovic: I personally don't think that foreign military intervention can bring democracy in any place in the world, and I think a bloody stalemate to Libyans [infiltrations] we had in Iraq and Afghanistan are the greatââ?¬ ¦examples of this.

Mullins: But we saw what was happening in Libya and how the government was pummeling rebel forces without the help of NATO, for instance. How would any kind of non-violent activity on the part of protestors in Libya have survived what the Kadafi government forces have been doing?

Popovic: See, this is why I expect the international community to find the solid ground for educational purposes. Let me give you the example. Remember this day 7. Let us look at the situation. Kadafi was under his umbrella hiding. The people were on the street of most of the Libyan cities. Yes, there was some shooting and the protestors like we are witnessing now in Syria. But protestors still stay mainly non-violent. What, at this particular situation, 100,000 Egyptians and Tunisians who bake bread in Tripoli already escaped the country. Twenty-five thousand Chinese engineers who are operating Kadafi's refineries were in a Greek ship in the Mediterranean Sea. My question is, what if there was a strategy and non-violent discipline to hit Libya with a general strike, which will stop oil from pumping. How the Kadafi would operate these refineries with his mercenary strength Chad? No.

Mullins: Does that mean that right now, for instance, it can't be reversed? Once you pick up guns you can't go back?

Popovic: You can always get back, and I must remind you that one of the reasons why Mandela was spending most of his [struggle ] in Robin Island, which is the jail across Cape Town is because there was a violent fraction of his ANC. You have black pointers in the United States, but because the non-violent struggle to avail, and because the clever people in leadership [Inaudible at 6: 18] understood that one single act of violence can destroy the credibility of your movement, and prevent people from joining, and give your opponent the biggest excuse in the world for his violent crackdown. This is why these movements are successful. They [bandied] up with their violent fractions, and it turned into political struggle. And this is one of the reasons why I think that this Arab Spring is so important. It gives the world the lessons how the non-violent change is powerful, and how the changes and transitions from dictatorship to democracy should be done. You cannot bring political change by military means, at least not in the 21st century. That's my deepest belief.

Mullins: Serbian activist, Srdja Popovic directs the Center for Applied Non-Violent Action and Strategies for Canvas in Belgrade.