School for Revolutionaries: CANVAS Modernizes Nonviolent Resistance

By Rowell, Simon | Kennedy School Review, Annual 2012 | Go to article overview

School for Revolutionaries: CANVAS Modernizes Nonviolent Resistance


Rowell, Simon, Kennedy School Review


A RESTLESS CAIRO NIGHT

On the night of 10 February 2011, Tahrir Square in central Cairo was seething with people inspired by the prospect of unprecedented political change. Transformed from a busy, dirty transport hub, the square had become an oasis of calm and cleanliness, organized by voluntary systems for recycling, compost, lost-and-found items, and even children's day care. Inside, political discussions raged openly; outside, the police continued to intimidate demonstrators and onlookers alike. Even under this extreme pressure, "The square and the protestors remained undeniably peaceful," recalls Maryam Ishani, a digital media journalist based in Cairo.

While the speed of the revolt gave the appearance of a spontaneous uprising, it had actually followed a deliberate strategic plan concocted many years before by a youth organization called the April 6 Movement, along with others. But the April 6 Movement did not work alone. Much of what transpired in Tahrir Square--the takeover of prime public space, the formation of parallel institutions, and even the "clenched first" logo of the April 6 Movement--bore the undeniable hallmarks of CANVAS, an organization devoted to spreading the message of nonviolent resistance. Through a weeklong training course in Belgrade a year and a half earlier, CANVAS helped launch ripples felt in waves across Tahrir Square and all of Egypt.

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REVOLUTION IN SERBIA

The peaceful toppling of Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia in 2000 is arguably the most successful recent example of nonviolent resistance. Two college friends from Belgrade, Srdja Popovic and Slobodan Djinovic, were instrumental in forming the OTPOR movement (meaning "resistance" in Serbian), which would galvanize wide-ranging Serbian popular support against the regime. OTPOR developed many innovative tactics for attracting attention and support of the local population, often relying on humor and popular imagery. In one such event, the image of Milosevic was plastered on a barrel in central Belgrade and locals were offered a chance to beat it with a stick, leaving police with the unenviable task of either arresting people for a nonexistent crime or arresting the barrel itself. (They opted to arrest the barrel, to the laughter of onlooking locals.) In another event, the city was brought to a noisy standstill as citizens beat pots and pans on their balconies during the state-run news broadcast to protest the closure of the last independent media outlet. Although they were characterized in the press by a flag sporting a clenched fist, an unwavering commitment to nonviolent resistance remained at the core of their struggle.

OTPOR's approach was shaped by the work of preeminent nonviolent revolutionary scholar Gene Sharp. Sharp's seminal works, From Dictatorship to Democracy (2010) and The Politics of Nonviolent Action (1973), describe the theory and history of global nonviolent resistance and provide a list of 198 practical tools of nonviolent action. Years later, Sharp's treatise on how to destabilize a government's "pillars of support" is still a core part of CANVAS teachings.

The OTPOR movement was a remarkable success. It united the normally factional populace to stand behind one presidential candidate, Vojislav Kostunica, and it motivated a huge swath of Serbians to mobilize against Milosevic, storm the Parliament, and evict the leader from power. From this experience, Popovic and Djinovic learned that the combination of unity, discipline, and planning could bring down even the most intransigent regime.

MOVING BEYOND SERBIA

With the successful installation of a new democratic regime in Serbia, Popovic and Djinovic took different paths: Djinovic focused on his growing telecommunications business and Popovic was elected to the new Serbian parliament. However, they also began to receive calls from others seeking models for change--most notably from Georgia. …

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