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The Professors of Protest and the University of Revolution

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Hope is not a method. For those who face seemingly invincible dictatorships, even the most inspirational bravery on its own is rarely enough. Strategy, planning and discipline are crucial. But where can you learn the best of these disciplines from the masters of theory and practice in non-violent political liberation? The lineage is a great one from the genius of Gandhi against the British, to Jim Lawson and John Lewis in America's civil rights struggle, the seminal work of Gene Sharp, the United Democratic Front during apartheid South Africa, the Otpor movement against Milosevic in Serbia and the April 6th Youth Movement that organized a lot of the action in Egypt -- to name but a few.

A core principle taught by these professors and practitioners of political defiance is that the currency of power is obedience. Cause a run on that currency -- the widespread withdrawal of obedience -- and power collapses. The aim of a democracy movement is to remove the pillars of support that keep a regime in power. Go for the legs rather than the head. Identify its vulnerabilities and chip away at them with persistence, wit and discipline. Avoid fighting it on the terms it chooses, knows best and has superiority on -- particularly violent confrontation. Within this framework there are myriad tools in the revolutionary toolbox that help to construct a widespread program of political defiance -- making the exercise of authoritarian power more and more untenable. But for all this to succeed it is usually necessary to have a grand strategic plan!

Around the world political and military collaboration is common among armed forces and governments. But where can non-violent revolutionaries collaborate and learn the strategy and tactics that might turn a spark of anger into the sustained flame of a successful revolution?

Increasingly attention is focusing on the Centre for Applied Non Violent Action and Strategies (CANVAS), in Belgrade. It was established by the leaders of Otpor, who helped to bring down Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic in 2000. After their success, they wanted to support others attempting to overthrow authoritarian regimes around the world with strategies that would increase their chances of winning. Activist from over fifty countries including Burma, Ukraine, Lebanon and Egypt have worked with CANVAS. After training they return to do considered and determined battle with their recalcitrant autocrats. One of their most celebrated alumni is Mohamed Adel, who trained with them in 2009 and then returned to Egypt to teach others in the April 6th movement. They, together with the Kefiya (Enough) coalition, were instrumental in organizing action against the Mubarak regime.

Srdja Popovic, a former Otpor leader and Founder of CANVAS will be speaking at Columbia University next week on the strategy and organization of non-violent revolution. I asked him if anything stood out about the Egyptian revolution. He had many suggestions, but on the speed of its success he said: "It took Gandhi 30 years to walk across India and spread the spirit of satyagraha, the Serbs 10 years to remove Milosevic, the Georgians and Ukrainians two to three years to win, the Tunisians a month and a half, and the Egyptians 19 days -- a real nonviolent blitzkrieg!" He attributes the Egyptian's winning formula to unity, planning and non-violent discipline combined with the speed of today's digital communications.

A significant advantage of non-violent movements is that they require the mass participation of the general public. They have to depend on social groups and institutions in ways that democratize the process of struggle. In an armed conflict the opposite applies, with a few taking all the risks and then usually wanting all the spoils. For these reasons, non-violent movements have been far more successful at establishing democracies.

Popovic and CANVAS want to continue sharpening their tools for the benefit of those around the world struggling to remove a dictator and create a democracy. Any revolutionaries out there needing a hand might want to get in contact!