Blueprint for Revolution – 3 questions to Srdja Popovic

19 novembre 2015
Interview with Srdja Popovic, political activist, director of the “Center for applied non violent action and strategies”.
Srdja Popovic formed the student movement Otpor! that helped topple Serbian dictator Slobodan Milošević. He’s the Director of the “Center for applied non violent action and strategies” and teach classes in non-violent political and social change at the New York University. “Blueprint for Revolution” (« Comment faire tomber un dictateur quand on est seul, tout petit, et sans armes » in French) is a guide to starting a revolution, laced with humour. Interview realized by Pascal Boniface, Director of IRIS.

You are advocating for non-violent actions and writing about many success stories. But, don’t they have in common to be exercised against governments which, to some extent, care about international public opinion?
It may be the way to look at it if you look at the Gandhi and British occupation, or Martin Luther King’s struggle for human rights in the United States. History of nonviolent movements however teaches us that nonviolent struggles can work even in cases where opposition movements, Government or extreme groups don’t really care about their “public image” can also work. It was the meticulous work of LGBT people in San Francisco and elsewhere which made their rights struggle visible, popular, important and part of national dialogue, as well as work of South African activists that have made apartheid a subject of attention of influential foreigners, rock musicians and celebrities included, and, as a consequence, international pressure has been imposed against those bad politics. In other words, gaining support within media or international community is one of the strategies that have been achieved by nonviolent movement, so we maybe don’t consider it as “necessary condition to successful struggle” in country X, but rather as a “skill of strategic planning on how to engage those actors” exercised by nonviolent movements.

What would you advise to fight terrorism?
One of the most important questions in today’s world shaken by terrorism may be facing right now is how to fight extreme non-state actors, groups like ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) by the means of nonviolent struggle. It may sound silly but the potential of nonviolent struggle against the terrorist is highly unexplored. Aside just flying planes and tanks, we may want to think about “why those groups are able to appear and multiply at the first place?”. There are three main lines of thought in settling the nonviolent battlefield against extremists.
First is to fight their narrative, which seems to be very appealing to young and disillusioned people across the world, that may be easily brainwashed and seduced by their propaganda. There are several great authors giving some ideas, from Suleiman Bakhit who fights the narrative by inventing positive comic heroes (including female comic heroes) for young people across Arab world.
This type of battlefield also stretches into virtual space to groups that are fighting extremist’s propaganda on social media (where ISIS is reportedly using “army” of 14 000 twitter accounts)
Second line of thought in our nonviolent arsenal may be to deconstruct extremists’ narrative by mocking them. Many Syrian and Kurdish groups are successfully mobilizing thousands of people by simple mocking videos, that seems to hurt this narrative far more than “declarations of war” by state actors across the world.
Third one is to take methodology outlined in my little book and think how to challenge extremists on the battlefields of Authority, human and material resources, as well as challenging the vacuum of delivery. It was the chaos, both economic and social, of Weimar Germany that have given fertile soil to the Hitler’s extremism, and lack of delivery, rule of law and basic services in failed places in Syria and Lybia where their message of “we are the order” resonates well. Fixing this places and supporting countries throughout the transition may be a good way to prevent this groups from gaining ground in the future.

Is humor the best weapon against dictatorship?
Humor is one of many great tools in activist’s toolbox against people in power. From Serbian “laughing barrel” with face of president Milosevic “arrested by the police” in 2000, to fantastic Toy Protest against Putin`s election fraud in Barnaul Russia in 2012, when police officials were forced to officially “Ban” the protests humor and “laughtivism” are showing at least three great potentials in fighting authoritarians. First one is simple fact that humor breaks fear – and fear is main “status quo factor” in any struggle against dictators. That derive from our human nature – if you are expecting major surgical operation last thing you want to hear are medical details. Instead on your way to surgery room if your friend cracks a joke – fear just disappears. Second is so called “cool factor”. Think about people in your own personal environment and tell me: who is natural center of everybody’s attention: richest one, tallest one, or person that can always make you laugh. Funny movements are considered cool, and people like to join cool things.
Last but not of least importance, people in power, whether democratically elected or autocrats, share one thing in common. They tend to take themselves too seriously, probably lured by “public image” of their own person seen in newspapers, billboards or tv screens. Very often when faced with acts of “laughtivism” they don’t know how to respond, and they respond in the way that makes them even more ridiculous than “laughtivism” activity itself. It’s classic “dilemma action” if they don’t react to mocking, they will look weak, and therefore encourage people to mock them even louder. If they react they may end up looking stupid (Putin`s police banning the toy protest…).