As nonviolent revolutions have swept long-ruling regimes from power in Tunisia and Egypt and threaten the rulers of nearby Algeria, Bahrain, and Yemen, the world's attention has been drawn to the causes -- generations of repressive rule -- and tools -- social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter -- animating the wave of revolt. But as the members of the April 6 movement learned, these elements alone do not a revolution make. What does? In the past, the discontented availed themselves of the sweeping forces of geopolitics: the fall of regimes in Latin America and the former Soviet bloc was largely a product of the withdrawal of superpower support for dictatorships and the consolidation of liberal democracy as a global ideal. But the global clash of ideologies is over, and plenty of dictators remain -- so what do we do?
The answer, for democratic activists in an ever-growing list of countries, is to turn to CANVAS. Better than other democracy groups, CANVAS has built a durable blueprint for nonviolent revolution: what to do to grow from a vanload of people into a mass movement and then use those masses to topple a dictator. CANVAS has figured out how to turn a cynical, passive, and fearful public into activists. It stresses unity, discipline, and planning -- tactics that are basic to any military campaign, but are usually ignored by nonviolent revolutionaries. There will be many moments during a dictatorship that galvanize public anger: a hike in the price of oil, the assassination of an opposition leader, corrupt indifference to a natural disaster, or simply the confiscation by the police of a produce cart. In most cases, anger is not enough -- it simply flares out. Only a prepared opponent will be able to use such moments to bring down a government.
"Revolutions are often seen as spontaneous," Ivan Marovic, a former CANVAS trainer, told me in Washington a few years ago. "It looks like people just went into the street. But it's the result of months or years of preparation. It is very boring until you reach a certain point, where you can organize mass demonstrations or strikes. If it is carefully planned, by the time they start, everything is over in a matter of weeks."
CANVAS is hardly the first organization to teach people living under dictatorship the skills they can use to overthrow it; the U.S. government and its allies have funded democracy-promotion organizations around the world since the early years of the Cold War. Living under two dictatorships -- Chile under Augusto Pinochet and Nicaragua under the Sandinistas -- and visiting perhaps a dozen others, I had seen armies of them at work and served as an election monitor myself. But I had never seen anything like CANVAS.
Traditional democracy-promotion groups like to collaborate with well-credentialed opposition parties and civil society groups; CANVAS prefers to work with rookies. The theory is that established parties and organizations under a dictator are usually too tired and tainted to be able to topple him, and that hope rests instead with idealistic outsiders, often students. The Serbs are not the usual highly paid consultants in suits from wealthy countries; they look more like, well, cocky students. They bring a cowboy swagger. They radiate success. Everyone they teach wants to do what the Serbs did.
If CANVAS has torn up the old democracy-promotion playbook, it's because the group's leaders have drawn up a new one, taken from their own firsthand experience. The group traces its roots to an October 1998 meeting in a cafe in Belgrade, where Popovic, a tall, sharp-featured man, then 25 and a student of marine biology at Belgrade University, had called several of his fellow students together. At the time, Milosevic had been in office for nine years and was firmly entrenched in power. He had started and lost three wars and was in the process of launching a fourth, in Kosovo. Popovic and his friends had been active in student protests for years. They had marched for 100 days in a row, but their efforts had yielded next to nothing. "It was a meeting of desperate friends," Popovic says. "We were at the bottom of a depression."
The students christened themselves Otpor! -- "Resistance!" in Serbian -- and began rethinking revolution. The first and most daunting obstacle was the attitude of their countrymen. Surveys taken by the opposition showed that most Serbs wanted Milosevic to go. But they believed his ouster was simply impossible, or at least too dangerous to try. And Serbia's extant political opposition was hardly inspiring: Even the anti-Milosevic parties were largely vehicles for their leaders' personal ambitions.
But Otpor's founders realized that young people would participate in politics -- if it made them feel heroic and cool, part of something big. It was postmodern revolution. "Our product is a lifestyle," Marovic explained to me. "The movement isn't about the issues. It's about my identity. We're trying to make politics sexy." Traditional politicians saw their job as making speeches and their followers' job as listening to them; Otpor chose to have collective leadership, and no speeches at all. And if the organization took inspiration from Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., it also took cues from Coca-Cola, with its simple, powerful message and strong brand. Otpor's own logo was a stylized clenched fist -- an ironic, mocking expropriation of the symbol of the Serb Partisans in World War II, and of communist movements everywhere.