This article is excerpted from William J. Dobson’s book, The Dictator’s Learning Curve: Inside the Global Battle for Democracy.
The workshop takes place at a rundown seaside hotel five minutes from the airport. Outside, vacationers relax on plastic lounge chairs lining the beach. Faux thatch umbrellas shield them from the summer sun as they drink dark bottles of beer and stare out at the Mediterranean. The beach is close enough to the airport to be on the flight path for incoming planes. Every 20 minutes children yell and wave their hands toward the sky as another jet makes its approach. Besides a few palm trees, the landscape is dreary. A string of fish restaurants and tired hotels, generously described as two stars, dot a sun-baked road that hugs the water’s edge, leading to the city center. Many of the lots are abandoned or unkempt. The salmon-colored building next door advertises “Beachside Apartments,” but the only residents appear to be feral cats and the hundreds of pigeons that roost on the balconies with closed doors. The island boasts posh resorts and fine beaches. But they are not here. This stretch is a vacationland for locals and a handful of European budget travelers. It gets no mention in Fodor’s.
We meet on the hotel’s second-floor. Twenty people—13 men and seven women—make their way into a conference room and take their seats around tables that have been arranged in a horseshoe. They are from their mid-20s to early-40s in age, although they all dress like students. A lecturer addresses the group, occasionally pointing to the Power Point presentation projected on the wall behind him.
The hotel has designated its second floor for meetings and events, and with the help of partitions and dividers, it can host a couple of functions at the same time. On this particular afternoon, a local weight-loss group akin to Weight Watchers is in the room next door. We must pass through their meeting, nodding to a group of 30 or 40 heavy-set older women to attend our workshop.
Every few minutes, we hear the sound of shouts and clapping as one of the participants reports how much weight she has lost since their last get-together. At one point, it gets loud enough that the lecturer in our room has to repeat himself, raising his voice over the din outside. “If your movement grows too rapidly, it’s very dangerous. You won’t have the necessary structures in place. You won’t have the discipline. You risk a Libya,” he says, referring to Col. Muammar Gaddafi’s massacre of demonstrators several months earlier. The slide behind him lists the “pillars of support” for an authoritarian regime.
Faintly, a woman is heard saying, “9 kilos!” The words are met by a round of applause.
In this shabby hotel, in a nondescript corner of a Mediterranean island, 20 activists had come to attend a clandestine meeting on revolution: specifically, how to start one. Their instructors in this weeklong course were two former members of the Serbian youth group Otpor, which ousted the dictator Slobodan Milošević in 2000. Today, they work as trainers for an organization called the Centre for Applied NonViolent Action and Strategies, otherwise known as CANVAS. The Belgrade-based organization, staffed with veterans from nonviolent democratic struggles in Serbia, Georgia, Lebanon, the Philippines, and South Africa, is one of the leading groups training democratic political movements around the world. In the past nine years, this outfit has advised movements in more than 50 countries. The list reads like a global field manual for the battle between dictators and democrats: Belarus, Bolivia, Burma, Egypt, Georgia, Guatemala, Iran, the Maldives, Tibet, Venezuela, Vietnam, West Sahara, and Zimbabwe. The trainers running this seminar are two of CANVAS’s most experienced instructors; they have run more than 70 workshops between them, in dozens of countries.
The workshop’s 20 students are all members of a democratic movement from a country in the Middle East. (In order to attend this weeklong seminar, I had to agree to ground rules to preserve the security of those involved. Namely, I could not reveal the location of the meeting, the country the activists call home, or the identity of any of the participants.) They came with many questions: How could they build support for their cause? How could they counter a regime that was becoming more draconian? What protest actions might shake people from their apathy? They wanted to be more effective as an organization, to make the leap from a protest group to a resistance movement. But, after 18 months, they had hit a wall. They feared that they had become reactive, predictable. “We always feel in a state of emergency. It blocks our thinking,” says one of the activists. “We continue doing what we already know how to do.”
For the group’s leadership, the workshop is more than a lesson in tactics and methods; it’s a crossroads. The movement, which can reliably call out several hundred people to the streets, grew faster than anyone anticipated. Much of this growth came from activists who engaged in direct actions, and then joined forces to make common cause. But the leadership, a core of roughly five or six people, want to take the movement in a more professional, calculated, and strategic direction. The trouble is they know that some of the group’s lieutenants, a second-tier leadership of say 20 to 30 people, are split on their objectives. Some fully share their more professionalized goals. Others, they fear, almost enjoy protesting for protesting’s sake. These members would be quick to call a more pragmatic campaign a sellout of the movement’s purest revolutionary goals. The group’s top leaders are prepared for this division or disagreement to come out into the open, and they almost seek it. Because, although it may thin their ranks temporarily, they suspect they will require a unity of purpose if they are to be successful and become a more sophisticated and potent political force. So they have come to CANVAS, in part, to provoke this discussion, win over some of their colleagues, and perhaps leave some realizing they are on the fringe. “We are not thinking through what we gain from our actions. We need to agree on clear objectives,” one of the leaders told me. “If that means we are fewer, at least for a little while, then so be it.”
The CANVAS trainers have seen this dynamic within a movement countless times. They are happy if the seminar proves to be a provocation for the group, if it gives them “the critical distance to view their own struggle,” as one of the trainers explains to me. What they will not do is draft them a plan or blueprint to oust a dictator. They follow two simple and strict rules: They will only work with groups with no history of violence, and they refuse to tell them what to do. “I don’t want that responsibility,” says one of the Serbian trainers. “I wasn’t born and raised there, so I can’t decide for them.”
What they will do is teach them how to think strategically. They will offer them tips. The will point out common mistakes and pitfalls that have tripped up others. They will draw on their own experience to discuss real-life examples of how to shift the loyalties of the police, how to diminish a dictator’s authority and ultimately make a regime turn against itself. “We are not here with a bag full of magic tricks to say do this, this, and this,” one of the Serbs says at the beginning of the workshop. “It’s a struggle using nonviolent methods. It’s like a form of warfare, only you won’t be using guns.”
The beginning of a workshop can always be a little rocky. As anxious as activists may be to learn new ideas on how to counter a regime, they are reluctant to believe that they have been approaching the job the wrong way. That is the mood on the second floor of the hotel.
The 20 Middle Eastern activists are asked to break up into small groups to draw up what the CANVAS trainers call their “vision for tomorrow”—their vision for the change they want their movement to create. It’s a simple enough idea: Lay out your movement’s ostensible mission. But the Serbian instructors have put a twist on it. They have asked the activists to outline it in terms that five very different segments of society will find appealing. They need to express their goals for the future of their country in a way that will resonate with businessmen, religious scholars, teachers, students, and members of the media. “When Otpor became an organization credible in the eyes of the public, then our numbers grew,” says Aleksandar*, one of the trainers, a heavyset Serb with an expertise in political organization. “And numbers are what we are always seeking.”
It proves a tough assignment for everyone. When they report back to the main group, most haven’t been able to find common denominators across five different strata of society. Instead, they want to explain why making common cause among so many disparate people in their country is next to impossible. One of the older activists says, “Well, it’s complicated. We are unique.” Another chimes in, “We are a bit different.” A chorus of the activists starts explaining how there are many competing interests, divided opinions, different groups, and so on. The trainers look on and listen, as if are they expecting these excuses. Finally, one of the female activists, clearly frustrated by the whole exercise, blurts out, “It’s impossible.”
Dragana, the other trainer, a striking blonde with a wry smile, says flatly, “You cannot change anything if you remain a minority. It’s as simple as that.”
“I don’t think you understand,” says one of the activists, a young man with tattoos up and down his forearms. “How willing should we be to degrade our politics to widen our struggle?”
“Why do you see it as degradation?” replies Aleksandar. “It’s a beginning. They cannot rule the country without the people. But you need the people.”
The activists’ reaction to the exercise is a common one. The trainers anticipated it. Every movement thinks that its situation is wholly unique. People attending CANVAS’s workshops are always quick to point out why the Serbian example wouldn’t translate to their own political environment, or why the regime they are up against is unusually brutal, clever, or insidious. The Ukrainians said they had to worry about Russian interference, since Moscow was backing the regime. In Egypt, activists pointed to the fact that Mubarak could count on American support. They are usually quick to mention how large the regime’s domestic security budget has become or how many police or informants walk the streets. And, of course, no two situations are identical. If they were precisely the same, then the Serbs would have no problem telling people what to do. But the Serbs insist that the fundamentals are the same. Understand those building blocks, and you can build your own plan of attack.
*The names of the trainers have been changed. (Return.)
It takes time for it to sink in. The activists admitted at the beginning of the workshop that one of their biggest problems is that the majority in their country does not view them sympathetically. They know they have a message problem. The Serbs acknowledge that it can be difficult to craft a vision that encompasses enough key groups. In the case of Otpor, they sent members out to various parts of the country to interview people about what they wanted. They spent time identifying who some of the most respected people in the country were. In some rural areas, it was the doctors. In other places, it was the teachers. Either way, the thinking was that if these people could be won over it would add even more numbers to their movement. Eventually, one of the Middle Eastern activists, one of the youngest in the room, says what is painfully obvious, “Well, we probably haven’t thought enough about how we could build supporters.”
“Finally,” whispers Dragana. It’s a start.
The Serbs now turn the discussion to what the activists are up against. They ask the group to identify the regime’s pillars of support—for example, the military, police, bureaucracy, educational system, organized religion—the main institutions from which it draws it strength. The next step is for the activists to make what they call a “power graph.” It’s an analytical tool developed by Slobodan Djinovic, one of CANVAS’s founders. “This makes us focus on who is with us and who is against us, and how we can influence them,” says Aleksandar.
Again in small groups, the activists chart each institution’s reaction—along a spectrum of varying degrees of positive, neutral, and negative—to significant political events, protests, actions, or moments in a chronology going back roughly 10 years. Popovic told me that producing the power graph was always a key moment in the workshop. And so it was for this group of activists. What they found when they isolated the different pillars of the state was that their loyalty or attitude toward the regime had fluctuated over time. For example, parts of the educational establishment had been somewhat sympathetic to some of their actions, if only because students had participated. In other instances, the media had taken a slightly critical opinion of the government, if only slightly. By looking at the regime this way, the activists immediately understand two things: The regime is not a monolith, and its loyalties are malleable. “Loyalty is not carved in stone. It can be changed,” says Dragana. “Loyalties can be shifted.”
The Serbs stress that if you attack a part of the regime, the natural reaction is for the rest of the regime to rally around that portion that has been targeted. They perceive their own interests to be more aligned with the regime under attack than with your movement. “The goal will be to pull the pillars of the regime, with persuasion, not to push them through attacks,” says Aleksandar.
Some pillars are obviously more susceptible to persuasion than others. The military and the police are usually the last to come around. But, then again, movements do not require the support of security services; they just require their ambivalence. And, as the Serbs explained, even the most thuggish cops can be neutralized.
During their struggle, the Serbs encountered one particularly brutal police chief. He operated with the impunity of a king in the small city where he was stationed. “He enjoyed beating people up, torturing them,” says Dragana, pursing her lips in disgust. “He got off on it.” So they figured they could not sway him, at least not directly.
Instead, they took photographs of him beating up young members of the movement. They had those photographs made into posters, and put his name and cellphone number on them. Then, they plastered them everywhere his wife shopped. They put the posters up on her route to the kindergarten where his child went to school. The posters asked people to call and ask him why he was torturing our children. His wife was appalled. The family would quickly become pariahs. “We didn’t attack him in uniform,” says Dragana. “We attacked him in his home through his wife. We weren’t going to let this bastard hide behind the system or the badge.”
The example resonated with the group. “There are these monstrous people, and they hide behind the seal of the regime,” one activist responded. “This gives the regime a face.” People nodded in agreement.
After each day’s session, the activists would meet in their own groups to digest that day’s lessons and analysis, debating what it meant for them. Clearly, the discussion was raising fundamental questions for some members of the group, very much the types of questions that the movement’s leadership wanted discussed. “It’s a shock for some of them,” one of the leaders says to me. “Like, whoa, you mean we weren’t doing everything right?” But the majority of the activists are engaged, and eager to learn more.
One of the key sources of power for any regime is authority. The perception of authority alone—and the fear of defying it—is the cause of most people’s obedience. So, if a movement wants to encourage people to withdraw their consent, to interrupt their obedience to the regime, then undermining the regime’s authority is a key objective. For Otpor, the answer was laughter. “Humor undermines the authority of the opponent. Humor is also the best cure against fear. Use it as much as you can,” says Aleksandar. “Try to surprise the enemy. Use as many combinations of actions as possible. That is our strong recommendation.”
Humor may, in fact, have been Otpor’s signature weapon. Members of Otpor came up with countless ways to reduce the authority of the regime through humor and ridicule. One example involved turkeys. Milošević’s wife, Mirjana, often liked to wear a white flower in her hair. Members of Otpor saw it as an opportunity. They got their hands on several turkeys and put white carnations on their head. Then, they released them in downtown Belgrade. The turkeys walked down the city streets. Anyone who saw a turkey with a white carnation would immediately know it was a reference to Milošević’s wife. (As Dragana points out, laughing, “In Serbia, calling a woman a turkey is one of the worst things you can do.”) Police were dispatched to apprehend the turkeys. Members of Otpor were at the ready to snap photographs of police officers desperately trying to corral the bird. When they eventually did, the turkeys were taken down to a local police station. Anticipating this, Otpor immediately issued a call for the turkeys’ release, saying that they had been unlawfully arrested and they had reason to fear for the birds’ safety.
CANVAS’s trainers call this and similar stunts dilemma actions. When done correctly, they are low-risk, and put the focus on what your opponent will or will not do. “The purpose of these actions is to create a dilemma for the adversary,” Aleksandar explains to the group. “The actions create a dilemma for the police, who are forced to choose between two unfavorable choices. They can’t let a turkey mocking the president’s wife walk around. But they know they look like fools chasing a turkey.” Anyone who is asked to chase turkeys in a city’s downtown is going to lose respect for the regime. And the regime itself hardly looks intimidating when its police are left herding birds. “At that point, we didn’t have a way to listen to their communications,” says Aleksandar, still laughing, “but I would have loved to have heard them call this one in to headquarters.”
The Middle Eastern activists left the room to try to design some of their own dilemma actions. Meanwhile, I talked with Dragana about her time as a CANVAS trainer. Of the 40 workshops she had helped lead, she said a group of Bolivians was one of the most impressive. They learned fast, maybe too fast. “On the fourth day, we came into the room and they had put newspapers on all the chairs. The newspaper was reporting on the front page an action they had done that night, after the workshop! I came in and they said, ‘Look what we did!’ ’’ she recalled. “A lot of times [after the workshops], I find out later what they have done, and I say, ‘Oh my god, they were planning that all along.’ ”
Sometimes plans backfire, too. Dragana told me about one group of Iranians who failed to think through everything. There were shortages of gasoline in Iran at the time, and the group thought this was an issue they could exploit. “These guys planned to hold a silent protest at gas stations. The plan was to line up at gas stations holding empty containers,” she recalled. “What they failed to predict was how fast [bystanders] would join in. There were 200 people at one gas station in an hour. The number kept growing, and riots started. They burned 60 gas stations.” The problem is that the action quickly grew to include people who were not part of the movement, so there was no way for members to maintain nonviolent discipline. Later, Dragana heard from members of the Iranian diaspora who were happy with the whole episode. She was appalled. “No, no,” she said, “This is not what I taught them. Burning gas stations will not help their cause.”
Of course, there are some groups that CANVAS simply refuses to work alongside. In one instance, while in Johannesburg, CANVAS was contacted by a member of the British consulate. The official wanted to contract with CANVAS to work in the Kingdom of Swaziland, which has been ruled by the same corrupt family for decades. The problem was CANVAS wouldn’t have been working with a homegrown movement; it would have been nonviolent struggle by proxy. “He said money is no object,” recalls Dragana, laughing. “Well, that’s nice, but that is not how we operate. We are not mercenaries.”
As the seminar continued, the focus shifted to evaluating some of the movement’s own actions. The activists had achieved a number of successes. Through sheer persistence, they had won the ability to operate in certain areas and neighborhoods that would have been unthinkable 18 months earlier. They had also earned the support of several well-known and respected academics, who had lent their names and reputations to the cause. They had a strong brand, and the movement’s numbers had grown. But, after listening to the trainers, the activists realized another mistake they had made. They had operated with a siege mentality for so long, they had forgotten to declare their victories. It is not just a matter of morale boosting. Declaring victory is an important opportunity to communicate with the public and build credibility. “When we were accommodated, we never publicized it as a victory,” one of the activists said. “We never marked it with a big V. That was a mistake.”
The Serbs referred to it as “doing post-production.” “Everything you do should be capitalized,” says Aleksandar. “First of all, proclaim the victory. Second, be sure that potential members and supporters know about it. You need a victory every week, even small victories. If you are on the defensive, you lose.”
“You always need to be a step ahead. You need to answer the ‘what if?’ ” Aleksandar continued, reinforcing the need for advance planning, something that had become a mantra over the course of the week. “Do your homework, choose a target, and build a winning record.”
At the end of the seminar, the Serbs stayed for an extra couple of days for some sun and sand. They wanted to spend time relaxing on the nicer beaches, a world away on the other side of the island.
The activists had to get home. They took the short cab ride to the airport and caught one of the last flights out. A few weeks later their country had waves of marches and demonstrations. They were the largest protests in a generation.
Adapted from The Dictator’s Learning Curve by William J. Dobson Copyright © 2012 by William J. Dobson. Published by arrangement with Doubleday, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Random House.
Correction, June 9, 2012: The original caption accompanying this article described the rally as being in Moscow. It was in Belgrade.