Serbian ousters of Milosevic make mark in Egypt

It was carried through the streets of Cairo during the revolution that ousted president Hosni Mubarak: a black flag emblazoned with a clenched white fist.

The symbol of resistance originated in the most unlikely of places for an Arab uprising — the Serbian pro-democracy movement that overthrew dictator Slobodan Milosevic.

The peaceful sometimes fun-loving tactics of the Balkan student revolutionaries were so successful that they opened up shop mentoring other protest movements in eastern Europe, plotting strategy for successful uprisings in Georgia and Ukraine.

Now, they're becoming a force in the Middle East.

The Serbian movement Otpor evolved into Canvas — a kind of consultancy for would-be revolutionaries. In 2009, in Belgrade, Canvas gave Egyptian youth group April 6 lessons in peaceful protest. The Egyptians adopted the clenched fist symbol, waving it in Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the Cairo protests.

"It makes us Serbs proud that they were inspired by what we have done but it is actually their own thing," said Srdja Popovic, a former Otpor leader who now runs Canvas, which stands for Center for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies.

"The young people of the Arab world have awakened and understood that they are powerful and that is what is happening now."

Popovic spoke in his office in a drab communist-style neighborhood of Belgrade where youth activists from around the world take five-day workshops on how to topple their autocrats.

On a wall-mounted drawing board are diagrams with arrows describing peaceful tactics by demonstrators that feature in lectures by the Serb instructors, all former members of Otpor, which means resistance in Serbian.

"We tell them first to identify the pillars of power of their autocratic regimes, like the police, army and media," Popovic said. "Then we say don't attack those pillars, that would lead to violence, but try and draw support from inside of those pillars."

He said protesters did this perfectly in Egypt, engaging with the army, which refused to crack down.

The Egyptians did not adopt some of Otpor's more whimsical tactics. At the height of the Belgrade uprising, Otpor erected a giant cardboard telescope to let people watch a falling star dubbed "Slobotea," and gave people a chance to punch a Milosevic effigy for a penny. But they used other means to ridicule Mubarak, such as waving cartoons of him cooking Egypt in a pot for over 30 years.

About a year and a half ago, April 6 activist Mohamed Adel traveled to Belgrade to consult Canvas on how to organize a peaceful protest movement. Back in Egypt, he relayed his knowledge to other members of the group, which together with a similar movement called Kefaya, became the main organizers of the revolt.

April 6 displayed the clenched fist symbol in its Cairo headquarters and waved it at rallies, until the opposition decided to use only the Egyptian flag as a symbol of unity.

Popovic's clients include youths trying to shake off autocratic regimes in Iran, Zimbabwe, Myanmar, Venezuela, and elsewhere. The non-profit group is entirely privately funded; there is no charge for workshops and revolutionary know-how can be downloaded for free on the Internet.

Canvas teachings are available in a documentary, "Bringing Down a Dictator," featuring Otpor strategies to topple Milosevic and its manual "Nonviolent Struggle, 50 Crucial Points" which was translated in 16 languages, including Farsi and Arabic, and downloaded 17,000 times from Iran during that country's 2009 protests.

"For eight years now we have worked with people from 37 different countries, which of course includes people from the Middle East and countries like Egypt," he said.

"We don't tell them what to do, but give them tools on how it can be done," Popovic said. "When they come to us, the first rule we tell them is never use violence. The second is never use foreigners to lead your uprisings."

To win a nonviolent struggle "you must have hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands, sometimes hundreds of thousands or millions of people," Popovic said. "And those millions would never follow a Serb in Egypt."

Popovic says Middle Eastern nations are young societies — and that bodes well for successful revolution. In Egypt, the average age is 24, while 65 percent of Iranians were born after the Islamic revolution.

"The new generations don't take that crap any more," he said. "One cannot keep them frozen any longer and serve them lies. One can only try for so long."

Canvas first made its mark in former Soviet lands.

The clenched fist symbol was flying high on white flags in 2003 in Georgia, when protesters stormed the country's parliament in an action that led to the toppling of former autocratic President Eduard Shevardnadze.

The Serbian group also had well-trained followers in Ukraine during its "Orange Revolution" in 2004.

Popovic said the uprising in Egypt bore many hallmarks of the Belgrade protests in 2000. But he said each revolution is different and that the people who come to his courses only pick up "universal tools" that they later apply in their own countries.

Popovic praised Egypt's 19-day protests as "impressive." He said the demonstrations were well-planned, that the leaders managed to maintain political and religious unity and remained peaceful, despite repeated attempts by Mubarak's regime to create bloodshed.

In Iran, he said, it remains unclear how far the Islamic regime is ready to go to maintain power. But, he said the "Iranian system is expired for the people living in Iran, young people, energetic people."

Those young people communicate through new social media and want change, he said.

"Once the fear disperses, enthusiasm rises. Everything is possible."