Feature

Revolution U

Early in 2008, workers at a government-owned textile factory in the Egyptian mill town of El-Mahalla el-Kubra announced that they were going on strike on the first Sunday in April to protest high food prices and low wages. They caught the attention of a group of tech-savvy young people an hour's drive to the south in the capital city of Cairo, who started a Facebook group to organize protests and strikes on April 6 throughout Egypt in solidarity with the mill workers. To their shock, the page quickly acquired some 70,000 followers.

But what worked so smoothly online proved much more difficult on the street. Police occupied the factory in Mahalla and headed off the strike. The demonstrations there turned violent: Protesters set fire to buildings, and police started shooting, killing at least two people. The solidarity protests around Egypt, meanwhile, fizzled out, in most places blocked by police. The Facebook organizers had never agreed on tactics, whether Egyptians should stay home or fill the streets in protest. People knew they wanted to do something. But no one had a clear idea of what that something was.

The botched April 6 protests, the leaders realized in their aftermath, had been an object lesson in the limits of social networking as a tool of democratic revolution. Facebook could bring together tens of thousands of sympathizers online, but it couldn't organize them once they logged off. It was a useful communication tool to call people to -- well, to what? The April 6 leaders did not know the answer to this question. So they decided to learn from others who did. In the summer of 2009, Mohamed Adel, a 20-year-old blogger and April 6 activist, went to Belgrade, Serbia.

The Serbian capital is home to the Center for Applied NonViolent Action and Strategies, or CANVAS, an organization run by young Serbs who had cut their teeth in the late 1990s student uprising against Slobodan Milosevic. After ousting him, they embarked on the ambitious project of figuring out how to translate their success to other countries. To the world's autocrats, they are sworn enemies -- both Venezuela's Hugo Chávez and Belarus's Aleksandr Lukashenko have condemned them by name. ("They think we are bringing a revolution in our suitcase," one of CANVAS's leaders told me.) But to a young generation of democracy activists from Harare to Rangoon to Minsk to Tehran, the young Serbs are heroes. They have worked with democracy advocates from more than 50 countries. They have advised groups of young people on how to take on some of the worst governments in the world -- and in Georgia, Ukraine, Syria-occupied Lebanon, the Maldives, and now Egypt, those young people won.

In Belgrade, Adel took a week-long course in the strategies of nonviolent revolution. He learned how to organize people -- not on a computer, but in the streets. And most importantly, he learned how to train others. He went back to Egypt and began to teach. The April 6 Youth Movement, along with a similar group called Kefaya, became the most important organizers of the 18-day peaceful uprising that culminated in President Hosni Mubarak's departure on Feb. 11. "The April 6 Movement and Kifaya are the groups that have led the charge in actually getting protesters organized and onto the streets," a Feb. 3 report from the geopolitical analysis group Stratfor said. The tactics were straight out of CANVAS's training curriculum. "I got trained in how to conduct peaceful demonstrations, how to avoid violence, and how to face violence from the security forces … and also how to organize to get people on the streets," Adel said of his experience with the Serbs, in an interview with Al Jazeera English on Feb. 9. "We were quite amazed they did so much with so little," Srdja Popovic, one of CANVAS's leaders, told me.

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.

Otpor steered clear of the traditional opposition tactics of marches and rallies -- partly out of necessity, because the group didn't have enough people to pull them off. Instead of political parties' gravity and bombast, Otpor adopted the sensibility of a TV show its leaders had grown up watching: Monty Python's Flying Circus. Its daily work consisted of street theater and pranks that made the government look silly and won coverage from opposition media. Wit was perhaps not always achieved, but it was always the aim.

The most famous stunt involved an oil barrel painted with Milosevic's picture. Otpor rolled it down a busy street, asking people to insert a coin in a slot for the privilege of whacking Milosevic with a bat. This was Otpor's favorite kind of prank, a dilemma action: It left the regime damned either way. If the government had let the barrel roll, it would have looked weak. But when the police stepped in, the optics were no better: The Otpor members fled, and the opposition TV the next day showed pictures of the police "arresting" a barrel and loading it into the police van. The country sniggered at these pranks -- and signed up for Otpor.

Rather than trying to avoid arrests, Otpor decided to provoke them and use them to the movement's advantage. After a few months it became evident that while police would rough up Otpor members, torture was rare and few of them would even be kept overnight. When any Otpor member was arrested, the organization sent a noisy crowd to hang out on the street outside the police station. Detainees would emerge from the police station to find a pack of opposition journalists and a cheering crowd of friends. Young men competed to rack up the most arrests. If wearing Otpor's signature fist-emblazoned black T-shirt made you an insider in the revolution, getting arrested made you a rock star. People who once thought of themselves as victims learned to think of themselves as heroes.

Two years after its founding, Otpor's 11 members had become more than 70,000. "The signal thing they did that should never be lost is that they made it OK for Serbs to say publicly that the regime was not invincible, that many Serbs shared a sense that change could come," said James O'Brien, the Clinton administration's special envoy to the Balkans. By the time Milosevic ran for reelection as president of Yugoslavia in September 2000, Otpor's prolonged protest campaign -- and Milosevic's attempts to suppress it -- had eroded the president's popularity and emboldened and helped to unify the opposition. When Milosevic refused to concede defeat to opposition candidate Vojislav Kostunica, Otpor's example of disciplined nonviolence, along with its masses of activists, were crucial in convincing Serbia's security forces to defy Milosevic's orders to shoot at the protesters. On Oct. 7, the embattled president resigned.

The unthinkable had happened. For the young Serbs, the next step was figuring out how to export it.

Within a few months of Milosevic's ouster, Otpor's leaders began to get calls from democracy activists in other countries eager to copy the movement's success. Slobodan Djinovic, one of Otpor's original organizers, began traveling to Belarus, meeting clandestinely with a student movement there. It was soon infiltrated, however, and eventually collapsed.

Djinovic had more success in Georgia, where a group of young people had founded a movement called Kmara! ("Enough!"). In 2002, Djinovic and other Otpor leaders began visiting, and hosting Kmara students in Serbia. After Eduard Shevardnadze, the former Soviet functionary who had served as Georgia's president since 1995, stole the country's November 2003 elections, a movement led by Kmara forced him out in what became known as the Rose Revolution. It was followed by the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, where former Otpor activists spent months advising the Pora ("It's Time") youth movement.

On a trip to South Africa to train Zimbabweans in 2003, Djinovic and Popovic decided to establish CANVAS. At the time, Popovic was a member of parliament, but he stepped down in 2004, preferring a career as an organizer and a revolutionary. Djinovic had founded Serbia's first wireless Internet service provider in 2000 and was well on his way to becoming a mogul. Today he is head of Serbia's largest private internet and phone company and funds about half of CANVAS's operating expenses and the costs for half the training workshops out of his own pocket. (CANVAS has four and a half staff employees. The trainers are veterans of successful democracy movements in five countries and are paid as contractors. CANVAS participates in some workshops financed by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the United Nations Development Program, an international NGO called Humanity in Action, and Freedom House, an American group which gets its money from the U.S. government. But CANVAS prefers to give Washington a wide berth, in part due to Otpor's experience. Like the entire opposition to Milosevic, Otpor took money from the U.S. government, and lied about it. When the real story came out after Milosevic fell, many Otpor members quit, feeling betrayed.)

Most of CANVAS's work is with democracy activists from the middlingly repressive countries that make up the majority of the world's dictatorships. All its successes have been; the Serbs have helped overthrow the low-hanging fruit of autocracy. Whatever one might say about Shevardnadze's Georgia, it wasn't North Korea. So last year I decided to watch Popovic and Djinovic work with activists from a country that would put their ideas to the severest test yet: Burma.

 

In 1962, a military coup led by Gen. Ne Win put an end to the democratic government that had ruled Burma since its independence 14 years earlier. In the intervening half-century there have only been a few brief moments when it was reasonable for the Burmese to hope for something better. Anti-government demonstrations erupted for months in 1988, but ended after soldiers killed thousands of protesters. Two years later, Burma held the first free elections since the coup. But when Aung San Suu Kyi's party, the National League for Democracy, won an overwhelming victory, the regime nullified the results.

Mass protest did not return until September 2007, when the government removed oil subsidies without warning and the price of some fuels rose by 500 percent. Buddhist monks protested the price hikes, only to be beaten by security forces. A monk in Rangoon named Ashin Kovida, a small, soft-spoken man of 24, was outraged. He sold his robes and used the money to make and photocopy a leaflet inviting the monks in Rangoon's monasteries to march. On Sept. 19, about 400 monks did, joined by students in what became known -- after one of the colors of the monks' robes -- as the Saffron Revolution.

Kovida, who now lives in exile in California, told me he was inspired by Bringing Down a Dictator, a documentary about the fall of Milosevic that had been subtitled in Burmese and circulated clandestinely in the country. He thought the government would not dare to shoot monks. He was wrong. Dozens of people were killed, and thousands of monks and nuns were arrested; some of them were handed sentences of more than 60 years. Burma's opposition fell silent again; elections were held in November, 2010, but brought the country only token change.

There are still Burmese, however, willing to take risks for real democracy. Last year, 14 of them, most of them very young, gathered in a hotel conference room outside of Burma for a CANVAS workshop. They had been brought together by a veteran opposition activist who asked to be identified only by his nickname, K2. (The presence of a reporter and photographer was carefully negotiated to protect the participants' safety: I could not identify the Burmese or mention the date or location of the workshop.)

This was new ground for the Serbs -- CANVAS had worked with Burmese exiles, but these were people who lived inside the country. The Serbs worried about the fact that the students did not know each other. Mistrust could be fatal. Popovic once taught a group that included both opposition party youth and nongovernmental groups from Zimbabwe. They were all against the dictator, Robert Mugabe -- but they also hated each other. "Endless war," was how he characterized it. In a country like Burma, people feared those they did not know. The Serbs thought that this could be trouble.

And of course, Burma was not Ukraine. The less developed the democracy movement, the longer it takes for the gears to start turning. The countries whose activists had caught on the quickest, the Serbs said, were Georgia and Vietnam. The Burmese were more likely to respond like others from totalitarian countries had. "Belarus," said Djinovic, shaking his head. "They were extremely tough to motivate -- extremely passive. I couldn't find the spark in their eyes." And then there were the North Koreans: "They were great young students in a big hotel in Seoul," Popovic told me. "We worked for two days and had no idea how the hell we were doing. People didn't change the expression on their faces. They sat like monuments. It was awful."

With Africans, Latin Americans, and Georgians, the CANVAS trainers were loose and lively -- "Serb style," Popovic called it. With people from Asia, the Middle East and most of Eastern Europe, they tried to be more formal. But while the style needed adaptation, the curriculum stayed the same. It was developed for the first two ongoing conflicts where they had worked, Zimbabwe and Belarus -- places that differed in every possible way. Middle Eastern students, Djinovic said, sometimes argued that the strategies wouldn't work in the Islamic world. But CANVAS's only successes outside the former Soviet Union had come in Lebanon and the Maldives, both predominantly Muslim countries.

When Popovic asked the Burmese what they hoped to learn from the week, their answers focused on two issues: mobilizing people and overcoming fear. "We are afraid of what we are doing," said a tall man. "We have the 'there is nothing we can do' syndrome. We have never tasted freedom." One young woman pointed out that the government considers any meeting of more than five people to be illegal. "Nonviolent struggle is very risky," she said.

The Burmese were exhibiting the most formidable challenge facing CANVAS in countries without a history of effective opposition: the passivity, fatalism, and fear of their citizens. CANVAS's most useful lesson is how to dismantle this barrier. "At each workshop, someone comes to me and says, 'Our case is totally different,'" Djinovic told the Burmese. There was nervous laughter. But the Burmese had a point: Anyone demented enough to roll a barrel with Than Shwe's picture on it for the citizens of Rangoon to whack would be risking not a few hours in jail, but dozens of years. What could the Serbs possibly talk about?

A lot, it turned out. Some of the students said they had thought nonviolence meant passivity -- morally superior, perhaps, but naive. Popovic framed the task in terms of Sun Tzu: "I want you to see nonviolent conflict as a form of warfare -- the only difference is you don't use arms," he told them. This was new. He argued that whether nonviolence was moral or not was irrelevant: It was strategically necessary. Violence, of course, is every dictator's home court. The Otpor founders also knew they could never win wide support with violence -- every democracy struggle eventually needs to capture the middle class and at least neutralize the security forces.

Over and over again, Djinovic and Popovic hammered at another myth: that nonviolent struggle is synonymous with amassing large concentrations of people. The Serbs cautioned that marches and demonstrations should be saved for when you finally have majority support. Marches are risky -- if your turnout is poor, the movement's credibility is destroyed. And at marches, people get arrested, beaten, and shot. The authorities will try to provoke violence. One bad march can destroy a movement. Here was a point that had people nodding. "Any gathering in Rangoon is lunacy," Djinovic said.

But if not marches, then what? The Serbs showed the participants excerpts from A Force More Powerful, a documentary series about nonviolent struggles: Gandhi's Salt March, the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, and the lunch-counter sit-ins and bus boycotts of the American civil rights movement. Popovic pointed out the planning involved in these actions, and made the group list the tactics they saw: leaflets, banners, sit-ins, boycotts, picketing, music. "South Africa and Burma have a similarity: zero free media," he said. "So how do you spread the message?"

"Songs," said a man with a mustache. "Prayers and funerals," said a middle-aged woman, the oldest in the group, a stern woman the others took to calling Auntie. Popovic pounced. "So what's interesting about using funerals?" "It's the only place people can meet," a young man said.

"Funerals are a dilemma for your opponent," said Popovic. In Zimbabwe, a gathering of five people was banned, but what if I have 5,000 people at a funeral? Whenever anyone related to the movement dies, they will gather and sing songs -- and the police will not interfere! It's a real problem to tear-gas a funeral."

The next idea was one the Serbs had learned from the American academic Gene Sharp, the author of From Dictatorship to Democracy (a book originally published in 1993 in Thailand for Burmese dissidents), who has been called the Clausewitz of nonviolence. Popovic was first introduced to Sharp's ideas in the spring of 2000 by Robert Helvey, a former U.S. Army colonel who had served as defense attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Burma in the 1980s before becoming disillusioned with armed struggle. When the Otpor members met Helvey, the movement already had 20,000 active members and a formidable reputation. But the group had hit a wall -- the movement was growing, but its leaders couldn't see how Otpor could turn that growth into the fall of Milosevic.

Helvey showed them how. He explained Sharp's idea that a regime stays in power through the obedience of the people it governs. The goal of a democracy movement should be to persuade people to withdraw their obedience. A government is like a building held up by pillars, Sharp explained. Otpor needed to pull Milosevic's pillars into the opposition camp.

In fact, Otpor was already doing well with two important Milosevic pillars. One was old people: They had always been Milosevic's base of support, but the constant arrests of Otpor's 16-year-olds -- and the government's hysterical accusations that the students were terrorists -- were getting grandma angry. The other pillar was the police. From the beginning, Otpor had treated the police as allies-in-waiting. Otpor members delivered cookies and flowers to police stations (sometimes with a TV camera in tow). Instead of howling at police during confrontations, Otpor members would cheer them.

The Serbs recounted this to the Burmese, and added another step: the power graph, a Djinovic invention. He asked the students to list various groups with influence in society, and then chart each group's level of loyalty to the regime over time. The idea was to see which groups had fluctuated -- and what events in Burma's recent history provoked the change. From that they could glean clues about whom it was most profitable to woo.

The students put themselves in the shoes of Burma's police, workers, women, and other groups -- what did they all want? The lists they compiled were predictable in their self-interest: Students wanted private schools, businesspeople wanted a reliable banking system, farmers wanted crop subsidies. What was interesting was what the lists didn't include. "Where is democracy? Human rights?" Popovic said, pointing to the lists tacked to the wall. "People don't give a shit about these things. Normally your politicians talk about things that don't matter to people. Remember Gandhi's Salt March? The issue was not 'You Brits get out!' -- not officially. The issue was: 'We want to make salt.'"

 

Approaching midweek, the Serbs were worried. "They don't trust each other," Djinovic told me over lunch. The Burmese held a meeting on Tuesday night in K2's hotel room to air it all. They introduced themselves to each other, and set rules for the group. They figured out a common cover story to tell Burmese authorities. They ended up playing songs like "Dust in the Wind" on the guitar and singing until 3 a.m.

Things started to change the next day. Wednesday's lesson was about replacing tactics of concentration -- rallies, demonstrations, marches -- with tactics of dispersal, which are lower cost, lower pressure, and less dangerous. The Serbs talked about Chile's cacerolazos, or pot-banging sessions, which served to let people know that their neighbors, too, were against Pinochet. They explained the concept of dilemma actions, such as Otpor's stunt with the oil barrel. "Do a small thing and if it is successful, you have the confidence to do another one and another one," Popovic said. "You recruit people, train them, and keep them constantly active. You hit, proclaim victory -- and get the hell out. If it is successful, people will come to you. Participating in small successes, you build self-confidence. Nonviolent struggle changes the way people think of themselves."

The Burmese did not seem persuaded. "So we are all putting candles in our windows at a certain time," said a young man with glasses. "They might not be able to arrest 10,000 people, but they will pick one poor guy and arrest his whole family -- even his children."

Popovic agreed. "Yes, you guys have problems even if the tactic is low-risk -- if it is political," he said. "But what if the issue is the government is incapable of supplying people with electrical power?"

When the Burmese divided into small groups to invent their own dilemma actions, the first group took this advice to heart. It had decided to tackle the issue of garbage, which the Rangoon government had stopped collecting. The members proposed starting with a group of 20 young people to do the work, providing gloves and masks, and trying to recruit others to join in. Then they would go to the city government, submit a petition signed by influential people, and tell them: It's your problem.

"OK, good. You're developing parallel institutions," said Popovic. This was Adam Michnik's strategy for Solidarity in Poland: Don't tear down institutions -- build your own. "You did this to remove bodies after Cyclone Nargis" -- the 2008 disaster that killed more than 138,000 people in Burma -- "when the government would not. Now, what if the municipality doesn't care?"

"We'll dump the garbage in front of the mayor," said a tall man. Popovic laughed. "Or you could choose a lower-risk strategy -- take pictures of the garbage and present them to authorities," he said.

When the next group came to the front of the room, its members were smiling and, oddly, taking off their shoes. Their spokeswoman, a young woman in a pink shirt who was wriggling with excitement, proposed a "Barefoot Campaign," to commemorate the monks of the Saffron Revolution, who do not wear shoes. The idea was to start with 100 young people, contacted by email and social networks. They would do something simple: go barefoot in public spaces. "We can start with the pagodas," said Pink Shirt -- no one wears shoes in a pagoda anyway. And people could walk through paint, Pink Shirt said. "We can easily measure success -- if we see barefoot people and footprints everywhere."

"When the authorities respond with arrests, how will you respond?" Auntie asked. The group had thought through this. "For safety, people can carry a pair of broken sandals in their pocket to show the police," said a cherubic-faced young man. "Or you can say, 'I'm getting ready to go running.'"

The tall man halted their excitement. "If the authorities see you leaving footprints, they will know and arrest you."

"They won't know who it was if we do it at night," said the Cherub. "Let's do it!" He pumped his fist in the air. Everyone laughed.

But the footprints were a problem -- they could quite literally lead the police to their prey. Then a soft-spoken young woman in a gauze shirt spoke up. "There are lots of stray dogs and cats," she said. "We can put a dish of paint in front of where they live so they will walk through it." Cats and dogs as the foot soldiers of democracy! They looked at each other, awed by their own brilliance, and slapped hands all around.

Near the end of the week the group watched Burma VJ, a 2008 documentary by Danish director Anders Ostergaard about a group of clandestine Burmese video journalists, whose footage, smuggled out of the country, is often the only way the outside world knows what is happening in Burma. The film takes place during the Saffron Revolution; it is precious contraband in Burma, and most of the participants had seen it before. It is a document of hope and valor, a record of a few weeks many Burmese consider the high point of their lives. But after a week of CANVAS training, the Burmese were watching it with fresh eyes.

When the film ended, Djinovic walked to the front of the room. "So what did you think?" he said. The Cherub was wide-eyed. "This was not organized!" he said. Suddenly the Saffron Revolution looked very different. It was so brave, so inspiring -- and so improvised, foolish, and irresponsible. "People were going into the streets spontaneously, asking for something that is not achievable," Djinovic told them, perhaps not gentle enough as he razed their heroes. "Our advice," he said slowly, "is that you think about nonviolent struggle totally differently than you have seen in this movie."

Silence fell over the group.

"Then you know what you have to do," he said.

 

CANVAS has worked with activists from 50 countries. It cannot point to 50 revolutions.

The most prosaic reason is that often the people it trains aren't the ones in charge of a movement. Some groups, like Georgia's and Ukraine's dissidents, choose to model themselves on Otpor. In Iran, by contrast, though small groups of CANVAS trainees held successful actions, the leaders of the Green Revolution have not adopted Otpor's tactics.

The more profound reason, however, is that context matters. A very closed society, the kind that most desperately needs a strong democracy movement, is the place least able to grow one. By the end of the Burma workshop, Popovic and Djinovic were content; the students had understood the lessons. But what they could do with them was not clear. On the workshop's last day, I asked the members of the Barefoot Campaign group whether they would try to start one in Burma. The strategies were wonderful, valuable, fresh, they said -- but better for someone else. "I am not sure it's practical for me," Pink Shirt said.

The Serbs argue that a country's level of repression is not dispositive. Popovic told the Burmese that far more important than the government's brutality is their own level of skill and commitment; a well-organized and committed democracy movement can gradually win enough freedom to work. "Political space is never granted. It is always conquered," he said. It was easier to work in Serbia in 2000 than it had been in 1991 because the opposition had won important concessions over that time. "Serbia built those advantages," he said. For example, it forced Milosevic to respect local election results in 1996 that left municipal television stations in opposition hands. But could this apply to Burma? Winning political space there could take decades and there was no guarantee that the country would even move in the right direction.

Burma, however, is the extreme. Most authoritarian countries are closer to Milosevic's Serbia, or Mubarak's Egypt: autocratic governments that do permit some opposition media and political activity. Algeria, Angola, Cambodia, Ethiopia, Kazakhstan, Nicaragua, Russia, and Venezuela, to name a few, follow this model. And though the Serbs cannot carry revolution in their suitcases, their strategies can greatly increase the chance that when there is a moment that shakes a dictatorship, the opposition will be able to take advantage of it.

The Egyptian example shows how. The April 6 movement knew about Otpor and adopted the fist as its logo even before Mohamed Adel went to Belgrade. The course he took there was the same one the Burmese took. Last April, Serbian newspapers carried a front page photo of a protest in Egypt, with demonstrators waving the April 6 flag, complete with a familiar fist logo. "The Otpor fist threatening Mubarak?" the headline read. As images of demonstrators in Tahrir Square hoisting their children onto Egyptian Army tanks filtered out to the rest of the world last week, Popovic recalled that on Adel's power graph, the military loomed particularly large; it was crucial, he had realized, to pull out that pillar.

The Serbs never met Adel again, but their young Egyptian student kept emailing, occasionally pointing out mistakes in Arabic translations of CANVAS materials. He had gone home with copies of Bringing Down a Dictator subtitled in Arabic and continued to download books. He conducted miniature versions of the CANVAS workshop in Egypt, stressing unity, nonviolent discipline, the importance of clear goals, and keeping members engaged.

Just after the Jan. 25 protests began a 26-page pamphlet called "How to Protest Intelligently" -- authored anonymously, but widely attributed to the April 6 group -- began circulating in Cairo. It laid out the goals of the protests: taking over government buildings, winning over the police and Army, and protecting fellow protesters. It instructed people to carry roses, chant positive slogans, gather in their own neighborhoods, and persuade policemen to change sides by reminding them their own families could be among the protesters. It also gave practical advice on what demonstrators should wear and carry to protect themselves from tear gas and police batons. It suggested that they carry signs reading "Police and People Together Against the Regime."

The protests were a model of unity, tolerance, and nonviolent discipline. The different groups put aside their individual flags and symbols to show only the Egyptian flag and to speak, as much as possible, with one voice. Protesters swept the square clean and protected shops, detaining looters and making them give back the stolen goods. Coptic Christians in Tahrir Square formed ranks to protect the Muslims while they prayed; when the Christians celebrated Mass, the Muslims formed a ring around them. Together they embraced soldiers and faced the police with roses. They sang songs and wore silly hats. It had an authenticity that was uniquely Egyptian, but it was also textbook CANVAS.

CANVAS has worked with dissidents from almost every country in the Middle East; the region contains one of CANVAS's biggest successes, Lebanon, and one of its most disappointing failures, Iran. Popovic wonders whether Iran could turn out differently next time: What would happen if the Green Movement were to organize not around election fraud, but staged a Salt March instead, focusing on unemployment, low wages, and corruption? Iran is like Tunisia and Egypt were: a young, relatively well-educated population and a corrupt authoritarian government dependent on fear to keep people in line. "Governments that rely for decades on fear become very inflexible," said Popovic. "The pillars of the regime support it out of fear. The moment the fear factor disappears and people are fearless with the police and hugging the military, you have lost your main pillars." Hosni Mubarak no doubt would have ruefully observed the same thing.

In Burma, it is hard to imagine what can vanquish that fear -- what can turn people from passive victims into daring heroes -- unless people like Pink Shirt do it themselves. In the Middle East, however, the fear is already crumbling, and the heroism is infecting country after country. This is a huge advantage. But for dictatorship to fall throughout the region, the protesters must catch more from Egypt than audacity.

Philip Blenkinsop

Feature

The Ripple Effect

From Algeria to Iran and the countries in between, a look at how revolution fever is spreading across the Middle East.

When Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in Tunisia on Dec. 17 after a municipal worker confiscated his wares, it appeared to be simply another sad story in a region plagued by corruption, brutal state security services, and lack of accountability. But against all odds, his act of desperation has spurred a wave of reform that has engulfed the entire region, toppling the autocratic regimes in Tunisia and Egypt and threatening to engulf other countries across the Middle East.

But the uprising has not followed the same course in every country. In Jordan, protests have forced the government to abandon liberal reforms in favor of an unsustainable economic status quo. In Algeria, they have highlighted the public's disaffection with the political process. In other countries, the reverberations from the popular upheaval are still unclear. In the West Bank, for example, opinions remain divided about whether the events represent an opportunity for the Palestinian Authority, or its death knell.

Read on for dispatches and observations from the countries most affected by the Middle East's revolutionary moment.

MOHAMMAD HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images

Yemen: The Revolution Turns Bloody

By Laura Kasinof

In the impoverished south Arabian country of Yemen, there has been an important shift in the anti-regime movement since Hosni Mubarak relinquished power in Egypt on Feb. 11. The old-guard leaders of Yemen's political opposition who had led anti-regime rallies in the past few weeks have taken a step back. Meanwhile, more energized and angrier younger activists have taken the lead, as protests, which have grown notably more violent, have erupted in major cities across the country. 

In Yemen's capital of Sanaa, hundreds of students have been coming out daily since Friday night calling for an end to the regime of President Ali Abdullah Saleh. There has been a notable shift in the intensity of rhetoric used in demonstrations in past weeks. Many of the protesters are unemployed college graduates who say they are tired of how their society's endemic corruption prohibits them from obtaining work. "I can't afford my studies because there is corruption," one visibly upset young Yemeni protester told me. "There is no real justice in Yemeni society. Some people get everything and others are starving."

They shout the same chants heard during Egypt's revolution and carry signs that say simply in Arabic: "Leave." And, as in Cairo, the demonstrators have been routinely attacked by pro-government thugs using sticks and throwing rocks. Sunday marked the first time official security forces used violence against opposition protesters, when riot police used tasers to disperse a crowd of about 100 staging a sit-in at one of Sanaa's main squares.

But it's important to note that the number of protesters on the streets in Yemen remains fairly small. On Sunday, about 1,000 anti-government protesters took part in what were the largest rallies to date. The country has yet to see the sort of mass mobilization that came together to topple the regimes in Egypt and Tunisia.

Furthermore, there are also competing pro-government rallies taking place. Tribesmen, mostly heralding from staunchly pro-Saleh areas outside the capital, have set up tents in the main square of Sanaa since Friday night. "We are here to protect our country," declared Mahyoub Dahan, one pro-Saleh supporter from Beni Hushaish, who on Tuesday was affixing two pins to his suit coat, one with a photo of Saleh and another that read: A united Yemen. "Maybe we'll stay [in the square] one month. Maybe more."

Saleh badly wants to stave off a mass uprising in Yemen -- a scenario that Washington also wants to avoid because of the strong al Qaeda presence in Yemen. In a Feb. 2 speech before an emergency session of parliament, Saleh announced that he would not run for president again -- nor would his son succeed him. He also proposed a number of economic reforms. On Monday night, he said that he would open the presidential office to civil society organizations in order to discuss "issues concerned by the public." But these concessions have not appeased the political opposition, which says that Saleh has not dealt with any of the issues that truly need to be addressed, such as calls for secession in south Yemen.

This is why Yemen's coalition of formal opposition parties, the Joint Meetings Parties, is pushing for more. Yet even while gaining a lift from the anti-regime energy of Tunisia's and Egypt's revolutions, the opposition in Yemen suffers from disorganization and a fractured leadership. Its leaders have not been clear about what their response will be if the president refuses to meet their demands. They know what they don't want -- but what they're in fact advocating for remains even less clear.  

Laura Kasinof is a freelance journalist based in Sanaa, Yemen.

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Iran: The Green Movement Lives On

By Kelly Golnoush Niknejad 

It seemed like a peculiar time for Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, prominent leaders of Iran's Green Movement, to call for protests. After all, it wasn't just Iran's venomous hard-line press that had long declared the democratic movement dead. In the absence of street protests for more than a year, the Western mainstream media had ruefully pronounced that the Islamic Republic had succeeded in violently repressing the nascent reform movement. But the two leaders, despite being placed under house arrest by the regime, urged their followers to take to the streets on Feb. 14 for the largest protests since the muzzling of the Green Movement in December 2009.

True, the recent uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt sent ripples throughout the region. But the Islamic Republic is its own peculiar animal, and the odds were stacked against a significant turnout by the opposition. Despite Iranian officials' grandstanding about the events in Egypt, contending that they were inspired by Iran's own 1979 revolution, they refused to grant opposition leaders a permit to demonstrate in solidarity with the brave people of Egypt.

The stakes were high -- in a word, death. If you didn't get shot on the street, there was the distinct possibility of falling prey to Iran's version of swift justice. The rate of executions has increased -- in mid-January, the New York-based International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran put it at one every eight hours.

That punishment has now been extended to a Dutch woman of Iranian descent arrested during the 2009 post-election protests and a web developer facing execution for allegedly building an adult website.

The death sentences sent chills beyond the sphere of political activists. "Now we don't know exactly what he has done," a musician in Tehran wrote me a few days ago, "but if it is only designing a website that is considered immoral by the government and getting a death penalty for it, then it is truly terrifying."

But despite the enormous risks, tens of thousands of Iranians streamed into the streets of Tehran and other cities for the Valentine's Day protests. "It was beyond anything we had expected," a Tehran Bureau correspondent in the capital told me. "I was all over on foot and on the rapid transit buses. The crowds were EVERYWHERE."

There were reports of scuffles, confrontations, and even severe beatings throughout the city. At least one protester was killed. But on the whole, the security forces were restrained. "It seemed like the Basij were ordered not to act until ordered," our correspondent added. "They just stood around looking bewildered. When the riot police would drive by on their bikes, they just put the fires out."

And perhaps most significantly, it appeared that Iranians from working-class neighborhoods were involved in the protests for the first time.

"I see the frustration over higher prices for fuel and basic food stuff and the jadedness of people toward the laws and regulations attacking their very foundation," a friend from affluent north Tehran wrote me in an email. "And I see the strength of the moneyed -- the privileged importers (ghachaghchis), the big developers, the quasi-government businesses -- keeping their grip on the economy by enriching the ruthless to rule the innocent. The tragedy is beyond description."

Iranian state media did its best to demonize the protest movement. The Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting repeatedly showed a clip of the former shah's son Reza Pahlavi praising Monday's protests and Voice of America and BBC Farsi analysts supporting the demonstrations. "In between the clips, [Iranian media featured] pictures of Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi [with] a backdrop of a Star of David and U.S. flag," reported a Tehran Bureau intern who watched state TV coverage of the protests.

The protests raged into the night, but few expect them to spill over into successive days. Conditions in Iran are far more repressive than under the autocrats in Tunisia and Egypt, and Iran is far less susceptible to international pressure. The question on everyone's mind was whether anybody would show up in the first place. In that sense, the Feb. 14 protests opened a window of opportunity for the Green Movement and showed that its leaders can still bring their followers to the streets.

Kelly Golnoush Niknejad is the founder and chief editor of Tehran Bureau, now in partnership with PBS's Frontline.

BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images

Jordan: A Step Backward

By Alice Fordham

Blink, and you'll miss the tiny shift toward change in Jordan. In the capital of Amman, where pictures of King Abdullah and his gorgeous consort Queen Rania deck public buildings, dissent is unusual. But lately, protesters have marched through its rain-washed streets.

Jordan has not been immune to the wave of unrest sweeping the region. As the Egyptian government tottered, protesters took to the streets in the thousands to protest rising commodity prices and rampant unemployment. They rallied outside the Egyptian Embassy in downtown Amman, the Islamists waving elaborate green banners and yelling "Allahu akbar" into megaphones. Stern women marched with small children, declaring that they, too, were demonstrating for their country's future.

But the bloggers and tweeters -- the young, secular, and liberal citizens who caught the imagination of Western audiences in Egypt and Tunisia -- have mostly stayed at home. In this poor, sparsely populated kingdom, the protests have come from tribal elders and religious conservatives. The populist concessions the king has made to his noisy critics have marked a significant step backward for the country.

In a bid to contain the simmering discontent, the king fired Prime Minister Samir Rifai, reversed a government hiring freeze, and raised wages for civil servants. In the place of Rifai, the king appointed Marouf Bakhit as prime minister, a more conservative figure who used to be the head of national security. King Abdullah also held talks with the Muslim Brotherhood and listened sympathetically to tribal leaders, who argued for greater representation in parliament.

While sold as reforms, critics said that giving more political power to tribes and Islamists, and more money to government employees, were in fact regressions to business as usual. The tribal segments of Jordanian society -- or "East Bankers" -- the inhabitants of the area who predate the arrival of the Palestinian population, are the bedrock of support for the king, and they demand civil- and security-service jobs in exchange for loyalty. However, critics worry that the economy cannot sustain this bloated mass of government workers for long.

The regime has rigged electoral districts and election laws to make sure that loyalists and tribal figures are disproportionately represented in the country's parliament. Reformist MPs were stymied in their effort to push through a new election law before the most recent parliamentary elections last November, and the elections went forward as they had previously -- with low turnout and predictable winners. The biggest loser in this dynamic has been the Muslim Brotherhood, the most organized party in Jordan. It boycotted the most recent election but would likely do well in another, fairer contest.

Abdelatif Arabiyat, a member of the Brotherhood's shura council, said that its main demand was simply for real polls, but indicated a desire to distance Jordan from the United States as well. "The West has implanted Western terminology about liberal democracy," he said. "Why is democracy only for liberals?… All U.S. policy is to stop Islamists. This is bad and will fail."

This order has been shaken lately by a sagging economy and soaring population. Jordan has few resources, and the money coming in from aid, tourism, and knowledge industries like technology and medicine is not enough to support its growing population.

The previous government attempted to implement painful measures to remedy the situation, instituting a hiring freeze in the civil service and pay cuts, which hit East Bankers hard, because they make up the bulk of government jobs. Rifai also carried out World Bank-supported liberalization programs of state assets, continuing the privatization of the telecommunications network and large parts of the Aqaba port operation.

In a departure from previous examples of dissent, some Jordanians have boldly escalated their critiques to explicit attacks on the royals during the current wave of protests. An open letter to the monarchy issued by 36 tribal leaders included some snide invective about Queen Rania, comparing her to Tunisia's famously profligate former first lady, Leila Trabelsi. The monarchy responded harshly, threatening the Agence France-Press journalist who reported on the letter with legal action and demanding that the AFP remove her from her post.

But while the monarchy tries to quell dissent, its concessions on its program to reform the economy mean that it has already lost the larger battle. The Jordanian economy cannot survive the country's backward politics much longer. As life for Jordanians gets harder, the protests on the streets of Amman will only get louder.

Alice Fordham is a Middle East correspondent who has reported from Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon, and Egypt.

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Tunisia: Ben Ali Is Gone -- But Economic Hardships Remain

By Eric Goldstein

Since Tunisians ousted President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali four weeks ago, many refugees have returned to emotional homecomings, while other émigrés have said they will head home soon to help build a new Tunisia.

But the surprise arrival over the last few days of 4,000 Tunisian "boat people" to the small Italian island of Lampedusa, off the Sicilian coast, is a stark reminder that, "Jasmine Revolution" or no, many Tunisians see their best chance for a better life in Europe rather than at home.

Tunisia may commonly be labeled a middle-class Arab nation, but it still has a large underclass, and even for the moderately well-off, the standard of living remains far below that of Europe. Little surprise, then, that many Tunisian youth are ready to risk their lives crossing the Mediterranean in rickety boats. Some who reached Lampedusa say they also fear continuing instability at home. While their status has yet to be determined, most will likely be repatriated to Tunisia if they cannot make a viable case for asylum.

Tunisia's transitional government is now faced with the difficult task of responding to the economic demands of an impatient public. The government is headed by Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi -- the only holdover from Ben Ali's last council of ministers following a cabinet shake-up on Jan 27. The government includes many respected independent figures and leaders of two small opposition parties. On Feb. 9, parliament voted to give acting President Fouad Mebazaa, the speaker of the assembly, the authority to rule by decree.

Labor unrest has mounted following Ben Ali's departure, which lifted the lid on the population's long-suppressed demands. Elementary school teachers went on strike on Jan. 24, the day schools were to reopen, keeping many parents home from work. Baggage handlers at Tunis's airport walked off the job on Jan. 31, forcing at least one arriving jet to turn back mid-voyage. Last week, it was sanitation workers in Tunis seeking better working conditions and benefits. And unemployed university graduates have held frequent rallies in front of government ministries, demanding state jobs.

These strikes have clouded the country's short-term economic outlook, while sustained street protests have tested the police force, which is ill-trained in nonviolent crowd control techniques. Adding to this combustible mix is the pervasive suspicion that militias and provocateurs from the deposed regime are provoking crowds and instigating violence, calculating that fear and instability benefits them and whoever is giving them their orders.

The transitional government, led by Mebazaa, has moved ahead boldly on human rights issues, communicating a determination to break with the repressive past. The government has conditionally freed most of the 500-plus political prisoners held at the end of Ben Ali's presidency, pending a promised general amnesty. It also has promised that Tunisia will join the International Criminal Court, making it the first North African state to do so, and become a signatory to other international human rights treaties.

The transitional government also has taken steps to dismantle the infrastructure that enabled Ben Ali's repressive rule. It has formed a commission to recommend legal revisions that will ensure the general elections promised for later this year are free and fair. The reformist interior minister announced he would sack 42 high officials associated with the old leadership. Judges renowned for their high conviction rates in political cases have been reassigned to desk jobs. But there has been no indiscriminate de-Baathification-style purges so far; the new ministers have retained most of the high-level bureaucracy they inherited, at least for now.

One dramatic change is in the state-run and state-influenced media. Now, the national media is giving voice to the grievances of ordinary Tunisians, putting thinkers and activists blacklisted until one month ago on camera. Tunisia has become the only North African country where people seem to be tuning in to their own television stations as much as Al Jazeera.

These are positive steps -- but the challenge, exemplified by the arrival of thousands of Tunisian refugees on the shores of Italy and the need to reassure foreign investors and tourists, still looms large. One can only hope that the tangible gains Tunisians have achieved since ousting Ben Ali will strengthen their resolve to get through the tough economic and political challenges that lie ahead.

Eric Goldstein is deputy Middle East and North Africa director for Human Rights Watch.

FETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images

Algeria: A Recipe for Repression

By Kal

Algeria, where social and economic unrest have produced frequent mass protests over the last 10 years, has long been at the top of everyone's list of countries poised to be swept up in the wave of unrest that has engulfed Egypt and Tunisia. However, the riots and demonstrations in the country have so far failed to coalesce into a mass political movement that could threaten aging President Abdelaziz Bouteflika and the tight clique of military elites surrounding him.

Activists opposed to Bouteflika's regime have attempted to ride the wave of unrest currently sweeping the Middle East. The Coalition for the Coordination of National Change (CNCD), an umbrella coalition of opposition parties and human rights groups, demonstrated against the government on Jan. 22 and again on Feb. 12. The CNCD's demand for political reforms include the repeal of the country's 19-year-old emergency law, which bans public demonstrations. The organization also vowed to hold protests every Friday, beginning on Feb. 18, until the government meets their demands.

So far, however, protesters have been badly outnumbered by the Algerian security services. Police quickly dispersed the demonstrators on both occasions. The government deployed 30,000 riot police in anticipation of the Feb. 12 march, who made quick work of the 2,000 to 5,000 protesters.

But while the government has reacted harshly to any signs of unrest, Bouteflika has also signaled that he has heard Algerians' desire for political reform. On Feb. 3, the president released a communiqué announcing the government's plans to lift the emergency law "very soon." There have also been rumors of a cabinet reshuffle, which could replace as many as 15 long-serving and unpopular government ministers.

Bouteflika has spent the better part of the last decade trying to re-establish a sense of normalcy in a country traumatized by the civil war of the 1990s. The repeal of the emergency law fits this narrative well. The president coupled his announcement about lifting the emergency law with a declaration that he would introduce two new antiterrorism laws. But Algeria's oldest opposition party, the Front of Socialist Forces (FFS), dismissed the measure as a "scam," claiming that the legislation would simply institutionalize the emergency law's restrictive provisions.

Algeria's protests have also been shunned by the major opposition parties, which has hindered their effectiveness. The head of the left-wing Workers Party criticized the protesters, saying, "Half of them were journalists assigned to cover it, and there was no public involvement in the process." Religious leaders also told followers to keep away from the demonstrations, leaving only a small Islamist presence featuring Ali Belhadj, former head of the banned Islamic Salvation Front (FIS).

As in Egypt, the legal opposition has been co-opted by the regime and reluctant to engage in anything but the most timid criticism. Algeria's opposition leaders are hardly popular; many ordinary citizens are as suspicious of the professional opposition -- which they see as legitimizing a fraudulent political system -- as they are of the government. This view is shared by the Rally for Culture and Democracy, a small political party that has emerged as a vocal faction within the CNCD and that supported the military junta during the civil war in the 1990s.

The political elites in Algiers have responded cautiously to the crisis of stability in the Arab world, but have been able to call on more tools than their counterparts in Egypt and Tunisia. Common Algerians' alienation from the political class has made it exceedingly difficult for opposition parties to mobilize a mass movement. And the regime has also gained experience managing similar waves of protest and discontent over the last 12 years through symbolic reforms, a strong security service, and liberal allocations of oil money. For now, this recipe for maintaining stability seems to be doing the trick.

Kal writes The Moor Next Door, a blog on politics in North Africa and the Middle East.

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Palestine: This Revolutionary Moment Will Re-Energize the Palestinian Leadership

By Nour Odeh

Palestinians are in a revolutionary and festive mood following the overthrow of the Mubarak regime in Egypt.

But while ordinary Palestinians have been most forward in expressing their solidarity with the protesters, the Palestinian Authority (PA) was far more cautious. Mubarak's regime was a source of political backing for Palestinians in the international arena, and it would have seemed ungrateful for the PA to jump on the revolutionary bandwagon early on. "Our position has been very circumspect -- we are very much aware of the difficulties Egypt is going through and we cannot take sides," said Nabil Shaath, a senior Fatah official, as the uprising unfolded.

But behind closed doors in Ramallah, many Palestinian politicians admired the revolution in silence. "These young students remind me of myself when I was a college student in 1967," a senior Palestinian official told me.  A silent split emerged in the Palestinian leadership between these figures, who lobbied for the right of Egyptians to express their demands for more freedom, and other more traditional and regime-allied figures, who fought back.

This fact explains the PA's shifting response to demonstrations in the West Bank supporting the Egyptian uprising. The first such demonstration was organized by young Palestinians on Facebook on Feb. 2. Held in the center of Ramallah and attended by young Palestinians, it was quickly and violently crushed by the Palestinian police.

Three days later, a much larger pro-revolution rally was held in Ramallah and attended by senior Palestinian officials like Hanan Ashrawi, an independent member of the PLO Executive Committee, and Bassam al-Salhi, the secretary general of the left-leaning People's Party. And on Feb. 11, the day Mubarak stepped down, hundreds of Palestinians from all walks of life and different political persuasions poured into Ramallah to celebrate the revolution's victory, chanting the Egyptian national anthem and calling for Palestinian unity. The celebrations lasted for hours.

In response to the events in Cairo, the Palestinian Authority is going back to basics. It is paying more attention to the Palestinian public's demands and reconnecting with its role as the leadership of an occupied people. For example, the reshuffling of the Palestinian cabinet led by Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, while not directly caused by the Egyptian uprising, is meant to respond to growing public discontent with the performance of certain ministries.

Sources close to Fayyad have confirmed that consultations to fill the cabinet slots will include civil society and academics, including prominent figures in the Gaza Strip, which is controlled by Hamas. This break in the traditional political factions' monopoly over political discourse is one of the positive lessons drawn from Egypt's revolt.

The Palestinian leadership has also taken steps to increase official accountability. The resignation of the PLO's chief negotiator, Saeb Erekat, following Al Jazeera's publication of thousands of official documents leaked from his office, the Negotiations Support Unit (NSU), marked the first time that a Palestinian politician took responsibility for a scandal he was involved in.

The Palestinian leadership even went a step further, dissolving the NSU -- a popular move, given that there are no negotiations with Israel at this stage. The main message here is that it is not business as usual and that the Palestinian leadership is reforming the way it conducts its business.

Palestinians are perhaps most thankful to Egyptians for the new sense of optimism and activism that the revolution has brought to the region. For decades, international support for the universal rights of peoples, freedom, and democracy seemed to stop at the gates of the Middle East. Egypt changed that. Now, Palestinians are hoping those that embraced the Egyptian revolt will also extend support for their struggle for national unity and liberation. That makes these events an opportunity for the PA to rally wide public support -- and a test of the world's commitment to a just solution in Palestine.

Nour Odeh was Al Jazeera English's senior correspondent for the West Bank from 2006 to 2011.

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Palestine: ...Actually, It Just Highlights Their Bankruptcy

By Jared Malsin

If Palestinians were to stage an uprising against their own authoritarian leaders, Ramallah's al-Manara Square might be their equivalent of Cairo's Tahrir Square.

Palestinians celebrated news of the overthrow of Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak in al-Manara on Friday night, Feb. 11 -- a brave decision, given that their protest was in violation of an explicit order by the Palestinian Authority (PA) banning demonstrations in solidarity with the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia.

In Ramallah that night, Palestinians showed a willingness to defy the PA rarely seen in the areas of the West Bank it controls. Civil society activist Omar Barghouti was one of those who joined the Ramallah gathering, which he called a "wonderful celebration." He held a sign reading "Freedom Wins! 2 Down, 20 to go!" Fireworks could be seen over several West Bank towns.

As publics throughout the Middle East follow Egypt's lead in demanding accountability from their governments, the PA figureheads in Ramallah -- President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad -- have good reason to be alarmed. Long before the Egyptian revolution, the PA faced serious questions about its legitimacy from Palestinians who increasingly view it as complicit in Israel's occupation of their land.

The PA initially sided with the Mubarak regime when the Tahrir uprising broke out, sending security forces to crush pro-democracy protests in the West Bank. Senior PA officials vilified the Egyptian demonstrators, with Abbas aide Tayeb Abdel-Rahim making dark allusions to the protesters' "suspicious allegiances" to "international and regional forces," a reference to the laughable theory that the uprising was a foreign or Islamist conspiracy.

Since then, the PA and PLO have adopted a more moderate, more conciliatory tone, responding to the present demands for accountability with three measures: the resignation of chief negotiator Saeb Erekat, the dissolution of the cabinet, and a call for local elections in July and parliamentary and presidential elections by September, though no dates have been set.

In the long run, none of these measures is likely to rescue Abbas and Fayyad. A similar cabinet reshuffle in May 2009 resulted in little substantive change. Any new cabinet would also continue to face questions in terms of legality: Fayyad's unelected government derives its mandate from a 2007 presidential emergency order of doubtful constitutionality.

Erekat's resignation, coming in response to Al Jazeera and the Guardian's release of peace process documents known as the "Palestine Papers," was more significant because of his seniority in the PLO. But this move, and the subsequent closure of his Negotiations Support Unit, could prove problematic. If direct control over negotiations reverts to Abbas, as some Palestinian officials privately predict it will, this would further centralize power with the president. It would also further blur the lines between the PA, whose authority is limited to the West Bank and Gaza, and the PLO, an organization intended to represent all 10 million Palestinians -- including refugees across the Middle East and the world.

The PA's call for elections is also not viable because the PA never stood a chance of convincing Hamas, which governs Gaza, to accept it. Since 2007, the group has argued that political and administrative reconciliation must precede elections. In the new reality following events in Egypt, Hamas is even less likely to compromise on this point, viewing the PA's position as weakened. To be fair, Abbas's Fatah movement and the PA are hamstrung from striking a new unity deal with Hamas due, it is widely believed, to opposition from the United States and its other international backers. Any deal with Hamas would risk Western donors canceling the funding the PA needs to survive.

This lack of diplomatic independence is another of the sad truths that alienate the PA from its own people. In the wake of Egypt's revolution, Abbas and Fayyad will face calls for deep and radical reforms -- including their own resignations -- and demands for a viable liberation strategy vis-à-vis Israel. If they do not heed these calls, they could soon face their own Mubarak moment in al-Manara Square.

Jared Malsin is the former chief English editor of the Palestinian news agency Ma'an.  His website is jaredmalsin.wordpress.com.

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