Protests and Principles

The source of the article: The Wilson Quarterly

In Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Americas, a fire of civil resistance blazed around the world in 2019. And citizens around the world who are awakening to the far-reaching effects of the climate crisis have made the tide of protest truly global with actions such as Extinction Rebellion.

Civilians protested against corrupt regimes, repressive legislation, gross human rights violations, exploitative economies and environmental injustice. However, beyond any immediate trigger events, recent popular mobilizations also are driven by a deep seated, emotional discontent created by years of accumulated grievances and thwarted aspirations for progress. As a result, we have not just protests, but persistent civil resistance within these movements.

The far-reaching and sustained wave of global protest and resistance in 2019 attracted considerable media attention. But do news outlets and social media commentators focus on the actual reasons that citizens are mobilizing? Or do they succumb to misconceptions that attempt to place pervasive social movements into narrow regional, geopolitical or ideological “folders?”

As an organizer, I take a different view. What interests me is what protest movements share in common – and the principles they put into practice as they coalesce. If we focus on those things, we often can predict a particular movement’s prospects, and discover why nonviolent forms of protest have more sustained success in achieving their aims.

The Wrong Optics?

The most popular media explanations for protest often center on ideological or geopolitical factors. For example, the recent protests in Lebanon, Iraq and Iran that had coalesced in 2019, before the U.S. drone strike on commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s Quds Force, Qasem Soleimani, were explained as symptoms of Iran’s waning influence across the Levant. Global unrest from Latin America to the Middle East is viewed through an ideological lens, with suggestions that the public reacts negatively to populism on a broad scale, and rejects authoritarian leaders associated with it.

Simply filing protest movements into bins of left and right serves both sides equally well. In Bolivia, for example, the left sees evil forces of the West back an “imperialist” coup – and counts a battle against social injustice lost. Right-wingers and centrists applaud a “democratic outbreak” in the same country. Even a global force such as the climate movement often is explained away by assigning its members allegiances within dominant political narratives.

These explanations have some truth, of course. But frames of thought that deploy political or regional trends rarely offer useful mechanisms to accurately predict the success of any given movement.

As Hardy Merriman, President of the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, observes, structural conditions “can influence a movement, but they alone do not determine a movement’s trajectory and outcome.” When waves of protest reach not only fragile governments, but also stable democracies and autocracies, it is overly simplistic to point to a single common denominator or trigger.

What does it really tell us that nonviolent movements can be categorized by their motives, such as people organizing against autocracy (Sudan, Algeria, Hong Kong, Bolivia), or people struggling with bread and butter issues (Columbia, Chile, Ecuador, Iran), or people mobilizing against failed and unsustainable systems (Lebanon and Iraq)?

The Washington Post’s Jackson Diehl suggests a different frame: Movements should be viewed through the lens of their outcomes, and that many of 2019’s protests have lacked the “revolutionary” impact of 1989 or 2011 protests.

What the protests of 2019 do have in common is that organizers of “people power” have begun to fill the vacuum left by the failure of existing political elites to address public demands. In many (but not all) cases, 2019 demonstrated that the traditional and institutional ways of creating change – elections, legal systems and dialogue with the elites – are insufficiently effective. So protesters have decided to utilize another form of power to force constructive change.

The climate movement is a perfect example of this trend. The United States withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord and insufficient progress in tackling the crisis increasingly has mobilized millions of average citizens across the globe with a new sense of urgency to make change.

Organizers of nonviolent movements look especially at outcomes, such as those outlined by Maria Stephan and Erica Chenoweth in their book, Why Civil Resistance Works: the Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict. Where are the “successes?” The movements in which the demands of protesters were fully (or partially) met? Where did protests fail?

Geography and ideology are rarely the determining factors in the success of a movement. The movements that reversed government policies in Chile and Ecuador, won fresh elections after voter fraud in Bolivia, and ousted the Sudanese dictator Omar al-Bashir can be counted as successes. Algerians who ousted president Bouteflika but remain stuck within the same corrupt system and rule by military elites, or the resignations of prime ministers in Lebanon and Iraq without substantive changes in the status quo, count only as limited successes. And the perception of “failure” has attached to many movements at present, including those in Colombia, Venezuela, Iran, climate and many others.

Sticking to Principles

If geography and ideology don’t determine success, what does? How can organizers understand how turmoil in one place can feed turmoil elsewhere, or how movements are exacerbated by government reactions? Why is nonviolence often the best strategy for channeling the energy of protest into change?

In my experience, there are four key principles to have in mind in order to understand protest, act effectively in using it, and engineer ultimate success in a predictable way.

Principle One: A Vision of Tomorrow

It is not enough to be “angry and against.” Real social change may begin with anger, but it needs a clear vision of the desired change. Movements need a “Vision of Tomorrow.” One must first define exactly what should happen, and precisely what success looks like.

A clear definition of change is a consistent theme of successful movements. Mahatma Gandhi wanted independence from the British. The U.S. civil rights movement pushed for specific legislation. The color revolutions wanted a change in leadership. These movements could build a strategy around these tangible goals.

Even a smaller organizing point will do in the near term. In the Serbian case of the Bulldozer Revolution of 2000, the ultimate objective was to change the system, but a clear intermediate goal was to oust Slobodan Milošević, who earned the title “Butcher of the Balkans” through his decade in power.

A concrete goal is a useful measure. Take the Women’s Marches of 2017. Was the goal of these actions to raise awareness, introduce specific policies, or to spur on impeachment? Those who marched with such great enthusiasm need to ask themselves: If we could wave a magic wand and create change, what specifically would happen?

Failed movements usually lack this clarity of vision. New York Times columnist Joe Nocera noted that the Occupy movement “had plenty of grievances, aimed mainly at the ‘oppressive’ power of corporations,” but “never got beyond their own slogans.” It is not enough to point out what you do not like. What do you want instead?

Clarity does not mean rigidity, however. Movements should listen, and be respectful, to those who do not hold the same views. Yet clarity is essential, so that everyone knows where he or she stands.

Sudan is one country where clarity is working. The movement in that country, led by the Sudanese Professionals Associated (SPA), drafted the Declaration of Freedom and Change in January of 2019. This document made clear demands for reform in Sudan, called for an end to Oman al-Bashir’s presidency, suggesting a four-year transitional government as a sustainable democratic structure, and condemned the mistreatment of peaceful protestors. It was a manifesto for freedom and a blueprint for strategic action. It attracted support from other groups and communities, both domestically and internationally.

Making a comparison between Sudan and Algeria is irresistible. Sudan is in a fragile but indisputable political transition. Algeria’s year of protests ended in a deadlock. According to indicators such as the Transformational Index, one might argue that Algerians had a better starting point for change, and their strongman was arguably more a benevolent figure. Yet Algerians have not articulated what they want, other than “regime change.” After almost a year of protest, the newly elected regime is still working to stifle what is left of democratic and individual freedoms.

Principle Two: It’s the Unity, Stupid

After clearly defining a desired change, activists must examine their potential spectrum of allies. From whom can they expect active support? Passive assistance? Neutrality? Who will offer opposition? As Sun Tzu wrote in his Art of War, “Know yourself, know your enemy, and know the terrain.” In any social conflict, the spectrum of allies is the terrain.

Successful movements do not win by overpowering their opponents. Instead, they gradually chip away at their support. Activists must start at the receptive end of their spectrum of allies, and eventually work their way through higher and higher thresholds of resistance. First, mobilize active allies and core supporters. Then, engage passive supporters and those who are neutral. Once a movement begins to win over the passive opposition, they are on the brink of victory.

When Harvey Milk sought to expand the LGBT movement, he started with gay people on Castro Street, and then moved to convince straight liberals in the San Francisco Bay area. But it was not until long after Milk’s assassination in 1978 that the movement he helped to pioneer won over “traditional opponents.”

When U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney and other conservative political figures ultimately shifted their position on the issue in the first decades of the 21st Century, the sexual equality movement was on a path to victory. Attracting your opponents, or simply the people you disagree with on some points, is essential in building successful social movements.

Poland`s Solidarity movement also illustrates this point. What started as a working-class movement in the shipyards of Gdansk in 1980 succeeded only when diverse groups came together to stand with workers: intellectuals, youth and students, the middle class and farmers, and even the Roman Catholic Church. They agreed to agree on getting rid of communism, while agreeing to disagree on many other socioeconomic issues.

A clear definition of change is a consistent theme of successful movements. Movements must articulate their values with a clarity that persuades others to join the cause. To win, you need to convince others to defect.

Principle Three: The Key Pillars

If any social change aims to be durable, it requires not only personal change in leadership, but also deep institutional changes. Therefore, while it is crucial to recruit allies from every point along the spectrum of potential support, activists must also identify the institutions that have the power to implement the changes they want. These “pillars of power” can be the police, the media, the education system, government agencies, or social institutions.

In his 2004 book, Strategic Nonviolent Struggle-Thinking on Fundamentals, Robert Helvey observes that in strategic nonviolent conflicts, the primary operational focus for planners is the alignment and capabilities of any pillars of support.

In the series of protests over the past three years in Romania, for instance, targeting the right pillars of society produced a sustained string of small victories that accumulated into overall success. In Bolivia, a coalition of environmental organizations, urban youth, the international electoral mission by OAS, and indigenous groups that were outraged by President Evo Morales’ corruption eventually garnered enough popular support to ensure his resignation. Even the police force came to their side during peaceful protest marches, helping Bolivians achieve legislation that guaranteed fresh elections.

Similarly, Sudanese protesters targeted large business sectors with mass noncooperation tactics, while at same time building international support for civilian-led government via the powerful Blue for Sudan social media campaign. Ultimately, President al-Bashir’s military successors were powerless to rule, so they had to concede.

Venezuela’s protests offer a cautionary tale about pillars. Despite massive international support, the efforts of Juan Guaidó and his supporters were doomed from the moment they decided that the only way to enact change was to focus on only one “pillar,” e.g. to transform military support for Maduro into a coup.

Principle Four: The Power of Attraction

One common element in the current wave of uprisings is that most protestors are opting for nonviolent methods over violence. Research suggests movements that maintain this choice are significantly more likely to achieve their goals over time.

Nonviolent discipline can make and break movements, however. Violence by protestors not only allows governments to justify a crackdown, but it also affects a movement’s reputation, and compromises its ability to mobilize numbers. An example of this danger can be seen in Hong Kong, where numbers at protests fall with increases in violence.

Every movement seeks to correct some injustice, so it is easy to fall into the trap of demonizing the other side. The world is in turmoil, and the temptation to resort to violence is strong – especially when stakes are high and the powers that are being challenged are so pervasive. Practitioners of nonviolent resistance cannot understate its moral essence and its practical effectiveness.

Yet violence is the place where many movements go off the rails. Anger is an effective mobilizer, but anger without hope is a destructive force. Demonstrators must make an affirmative case with affirmative tactics.

This is why it is often best for movements to start with small, achievable goals. Gandhi’s allies questioned his idea to make the salt tax a primary focus of the Indian independence movement, because they favored a plan for comprehensive change. But Gandhi saw that a single issue, even a small one, could unify the nation and break British Raj’s monopoly on power.

Cheap, easily replicable, and low-risk tactics are the most likely to succeed – especially if they are seen as positive and good-humored. Blocking streets and throwing rocks at the police will likely turn off those in the middle of your spectrum of allies, and will make it particularly difficult to gain support from institutions inside the pillars of power.

In Sudan, the SPA meticulously assembled campaigns of consistent nonviolent resistance across Khartoum and dozens of minor cities and towns. Their protest tactics included sit-ins, occupations of major streets, social media initiatives aimed at spreading awareness, and appeals to the international community.

The time invested in these tactics worked. When government forces moved to disrupt protestors at a sit-in on April 6, 2019, many security personnel opted to join the civilians and protect them from al-Bashir loyalists. The SPA maintained a policy of nonviolence throughout the protest period, eroding al-Bashir’s ability to govern, and eventually resulting in his removal from power.

Follow the Roadmap

When civilians rise up to fill a vacuum left by failing institutions and corrupt leaders, attempting to rationalize the movements along merely geopolitical lines or ideological boundaries will not help to make sense of them.

The principles presented above offer a more useful measure, especially for nonviolent movements. Conditions and context matter, but strategic skills matter even more. Are organizers of a particular protest doing these things? If yes, the movement likely will move forward. If no, there is a significant chance it will fail.

We can find make sense of the turmoil of 2019 and predict the paths that these movements will travel, if we direct our attention to whether they possess the substantial and strategic ingredients to achieve victory.

Srdja Popovic is the Executive Director of the Center for Applied Nonviolence Action and Strategies (CANVAS). He has been named one of Foreign Policy’s Top 100 Global Thinkers, and is the author of Blueprint for Revolution. He was previously a founder of Otpor!, the Serbian youth movement that toppled Slobodan Milosevic. He is also the rector of St. Andrews University in Scotland.

Toppling A Dictator with Srdja Popovic

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Episode Description

Srdja breaks down the elements of what makes a successful movement of resistance and what that looks like in practice.

Srdja Popovic is the Founder and Executive director of the Center for Applied Nonviolent Actions and Strategies (CANVAS), a non-profit organization based in Belgrade, Serbia that aims to teach the use of nonviolence to make a change.

He was born and raised in Belgrade, Serbia (then part of Yugoslavia), in 1973. Popovic played the guitar in a rock band and graduated from the Faculty of Biology in Belgrade, holding a Master’s degree (MA) in animal ecology. Since his early 20ies, he has focused on activism, democracy and human rights issues.In 1998, Popovic founded the student movement “Otpor!” (“Resistance!”) which played a crucial role in ousting president Slobodan Milosevic, former Serbian dictator accused of war crimes. After Milosevic was defeated in 2000, Popovic was elected to the Serbian Parliament where he served from 2000 until 2004.Following his career in the Serbian Parliament, Popovic went on to found CANVAS, acting as its executive director ever since.

CANVAS was created with the intent of teaching people all over the world about how to be successful in nonviolent conflict. So far, the organization has worked with activists from 46 different countries, spreading the knowledge of the nonviolent strategies and tactics used by Otpor! worldwide.He is currently the 53rd Rector of the University of St. Andrews. He commenced the role of the University Rector for a period of 3 years from 1 November 2017.

Apart from being nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012, Popovic was listed as one of the “Top 100 Global Thinkers” of 2011 by the Foreign Policy Magazine. And in 2014 he was listed as a “Young Global Leader” by the World Economic Forum in Davos. Popovic is also the author of the recent book Blueprint for Revolution.

Episode Questions:

• What forms of art have stirred your consciousness? What about this/these work(s) moved you?

• What is the vision of the movements you support or are a part of? What about their vision captivates you? What steps are they taking to see their vision become reality?

• Who are folks who might ally with you in your work for social change? What makes them effective allies?

KEEP IT CIVIL (AND DISOBEDIENT): the power of non-violent direct action, podcast

The source of the podcast: Podfollow

Episode notes

Hello! Is mobilising 3.5% of the population all it takes to achieve political change? As Extinction Rebellion continue their latest action in London, we’re talking about the ideas behind non-violent civil disobedience. We hear from some of those involved in Extinction Rebellion, before spokesperson Zion Lights talks us through their theory of change. Historian Talat Ahmed explains Gandhi’s approach to civil disobedience and how this has inspired movements since. And Serbian activist Srdja Popovic tells us about the principles of effective non-violent strategy that he teaches to campaigners around the world. 

Why a Successful Cultural (R)evolution Requires a Movement

The source of the podcast: Agabajer

Meet Srdja Popovic, an activist who formed the Otpor! movement in 1998 to overthrow Slobodan Milosevic.

Born and raised in Belgrade, Serbia during times that he describes as culturally schizophrenic, economically devastating, and historically confusing, Srdja initially didn’t see himself as a change agent.

A bass player in a band, Srdja just wanted to play music and have fun. Like most of his friends, he despised the security police, the terror, and the repression, but he didn’t believe anything could be done about it. That is, until he and his friends realized that activism could be…cool and that it was, in fact, possible to mobilize people to resist Milosevic regime.

Today, Srdja is the Executive Director of The Centre for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies or CANVAS, a Belgrade-based NGO he founded with a handful of other Otpor! members in 2003. He has now advised and trained pro-democracy activists in more than 50 countries, including India, Iran, Zimbabwe, Burma, Ukraine, Georgia, Palestine, Belarus, Tunisia, and Egypt.

I really wanted to interview Srdja because the principles he developed are extremely relevant to creating change in organizations, especially in evolving organizational culture.

Episode Highlights

In this interview, Srdja and I discuss:

What changed Srdja’s self-perception and allowed him to view himself as a change agent

How Srdja and his colleagues from CANVAS identified the main principles of nonviolent movements

What makes a movement successful

What makes humor such a powerful tool in building movements

How nonviolent action principles can be applied to non-movement organizations (aka: to your company!)

What to do after you have succeeded with the change you were looking to create

Why disruption can be one of the best opportunities to shake things up and improve them

More about Srdja Popovic

Srdja was born and raised in Belgrade, Serbia (then part of Yugoslavia). Popovic played the guitar in a rock band and graduated from the Faculty of Biology in Belgrade, holding a master’s degree in animal ecology. Since his early twenties, he has focused on activism, democracy, and human rights issues.

Apart from being nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012, Popovic was listed as one of the Top 100 Global Thinkers of 2011 by the Foreign Policy Magazine. And in 2014, he was listed as a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum in Davos. Popovic is also the author of the recent book Blueprint for Revolution: How to Use Rice Pudding, Lego Men, and Other Nonviolent Techniques to Galvanize Communities, Overthrow Dictators, or Simply Change the World.

Appeal to the 99%: Srdja Popovic, Revolutionary & Author of Blueprint for Revolution – Love Your Work, Episode 179

The source of the article and audio record:

Srdja Popovic (@SrdjaPopovic) is a revolutionary. He played a big part in overthrowing Serbian president Slobodan Miloševi?. He now coaches activists around the world in non-violent resistance techniques, through CANVAS (Center for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies).

Want to 4x your creative output? Click here for my free toolkit »

This may seem out of left field to have a political activist on the show. It’s not meant to be some thinly-veiled political statement. Rather, I think anyone who is trying to get people on board with their message can learn a lot from the techniques of revolutionaries.

I recently read Srdja’s book, Blueprint for Revolution: How to Use Rice Pudding, Lego Men, and Other Nonviolent Techniques to Galvanize Communities, Overthrow Dictators, or Simply Change the World, and was blown away by the inventiveness and deft strategy of the techniques he shared. It’s a fascinating book whether you’re trying to overthrow a dictator, or you’re merely trying to get people to read your blog.

In this conversation, you’ll learn:

We think Rosa Parks’s courageous stand was a spontaneous event. Learn how it was actually a strategic hit, designed for maximum effect.
If you’re trying to get people on board with your message, branding is everything. Learn how a movement like Occupy Wall Street missed a golden branding opportunity.
Effective activists choose tactics that have the most influence, with the smallest risk. Learn Srdja’s brainstorming techniques for homing in on these tactics. It’s a valuable exercise for any influencer.

Listen to the Srdja Popovic Interview .

Take Note: A ‘Laughtivist’ Who Helped Overthrow Milosevic On Nonviolent Activism

The source of the audio record: WPSU

Srdja Popovic is an activist and author of the book “Blueprint for Revolution: how to use rice pudding, Lego men, and other non-violent techniques to galvanise communities, overthrow dictators, or simply change the world.” Popovic was a founder of the student movement “Otpor!” or “Resistance!” The movement helped oust the Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic, who was later charged with war crimes. Popovic served in the Serbian parliament and in 2003 founded Canvas, a nonprofit focused on teaching the use of nonviolence to promote human rights and democracy.

Popovic spoke with WPSU while visting the Center for Global Studies at Penn State.

Is It Spring Again?

The source of the article: Slate

Don’t look now, but a wave of youth-driven pro-democracy movements is having an impact across Africa.

There is something going on across Africa. While the world’s media has been focused on the U.S.–North Korea nuclear talks or the tumult in Venezuela, two of the world’s longest-standing dictators decided to take a step back from forthcoming elections amid mass protests.

This marks what many believe to be a new era in two large and geopolitically important countries. The protests surprised the international community and observers of Algerian and Sudanese politics, as the countries had largely avoided the mass rallies held across the Middle East and North Africa during the Arab Spring in 2011.

The people of Sudan took charge against their war criminal president in December, in a protest sparked by fuel price hikes that soon became nationwide movement for Bashir to step down. Employing street demonstrations, graffiti, and social media under the leadership of youth groups like Girifna and professional associations, Sudanese protesters achieved a unity that persevered in the face of crackdowns from security forces that have killed 57 people since December, according to Sudan’s Doctors Syndicate. They successfully brought rural and conservative populations alongside urban and social media–savvy youth, while mobilizing an unprecedented number of women to participate. After trying everything to break up the protests, Bashir reshuffled the government and decided to step back from his plans to amend the constitution so he could run for another term in power.

Then, in February, Algerian President Bouteflika’s announcement that he would seek a fifth term as president sparked anger among Algerian citizens and initiated a grassroots movement in several cities after anonymous calls appeared on social media for people to protest. Protests were soon joined by thousands of students, professional organizations, and the mass participation of Algerian women. The protests occurred spontaneously and outside of the country’s traditional political power structures. Despite a harsh response from security forces, the protests have achieved unexpected success. They grew in geography, numbers, and diversity, and were strategically followed by mass tactics of noncooperation like general strikes.

They swayed parts of the military to abstain from oppression. Last week, Bouteflika was forced to announce that he will step down, but the announcement came with a muddled compromise of the scheduled April 18 elections being postponed. Though we can expect strikes and street protests to continue, this “buying” of time can be used by three dominant groups within the ruling elite—coalitions of parties around the former president, the business community and the military—to regroup and make sure their hand-picked candidate is the front-runner of the election. Even then, popular demands for change are there to stay.

While two oppressive leaders may be close to leaving power, it is still too early to celebrate. The recent history of the Arab world, from Egypt to Syria, proves that dictatorships are best viewed less as one individual occupying an office than a systemic disease that tends to be resistant to popular uprising efforts and finds new ways to survive, transform, and surprise even its own people with its cruelty and oppression.

But Algeria and Sudan seem to be only the tip of the iceberg—over the past several months, some of the longest-standing African autocracies have had their foundations shaken. For example, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Joseph Kabila’s reign of 18 years seems to be wobbling after his hand-picked candidate narrowly won the disputed elections. In Swaziland and Zimbabwe too, unlikely players—namely labor unions, civil society organizations, and professional associations—are shaking the status quo of Africa’s last standing autocratic monarchy and ZANU-PF’s four decades of rule, respectively.

For a decade and a half, our organization, CANVAS, has worked with pro-democracy groups in authoritarian countries. This research has concluded that three main elements lead to successful uprisings: the leading role of youth movements, unity and diversity, and long-term strategies not only to win but to consolidate the path to democracy.

How Can Social Movements Help Defend Democracy?

The source of the article: Berghahn Journals


This piece of “movement writing” is written by the coheads of the Center for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies and the cofounders of the Otpor! movement that ousted Yugoslavian President Slobodan Milošević in 2000. The article discusses the most promising tactics in contemporary prodemocracy activism, drawing on the authors’ considerable experience working with activists across the globe. Popović and Djinovic argue that the efficacy of traditional nonviolent strategies has waned with respect to contemporary prodemocracy struggles—which often seek to defend institutions rather than dismantle them—and advocate for more creative, humorous approach to contention.

A Small Spark of Hope for Democracy in the Indian Ocean

The source of the article: Slate

From the genocide of the Rohingya, to the violent crackdown on peaceful protesters in Nicaragua, to the surprising success of right-wing populism in Brazil, to the increasingly virulent strains of isolationist nationalism that have been taking root in eastern Europe, it’s a grim time for democracy around the world. But an unexpected source of hope has emerged from the Maldives, an island nation known for little more than its idyllic beaches and long history of authoritarian rule.

Since 2013, the reign of President Abdulla Yameen brought mass abuses of human rights to the Maldives: the jailing or exiling of opposition leaders, increased control over state institutions, withdrawal from Commonwealth, and widespread corruption are only the tip of the iceberg for the small, tropical country.

But on Sept. 23, over 90 percent of Maldivians voted in the first general elections since Yameen came to power five years ago—and voted overwhelmingly for the opposition, Ibrahim Mohamed Solih of the Maldivian Democratic Party, who won after receiving 58 percent of the votes.

But while a celebration is in order, it’s worth remembering that the Maldives has been here before. When two of us first came to work with Maldivians in 2006, we were impressed by the brave and committed Maldivian people, who acted time and time again with courage and talent to defend democracy within their country. And though both of us spent more than a decade with brave Serbian activists fighting the Slobodan Milosevic regime, and years after that training and educating democracy defenders from Kiev, Ukraine, and Tbilisi, Georgia, to Caracas, Venezuela, and Harare, Zimbabwe, through our organization, CANVAS. we could see immediately that Maldivian activists are unique in so many ways.

While a celebration is in order, it’s worth remembering that the Maldives has been here before.
In 2008, after a 30-year-long period of dictatorship under Maumoon Abdul Gayoom—whose iron-hand rule of the island nation was characterized by a low tolerance for protests and any vocal opposition combined with a high appetite for nepotism and corruption—overwhelming popular support brought “Anni”—the popular nickname for former journalist Mohamed Nasheed—to power as the Maldives’ first democratically elected president. Anni was successful for the first three years of his presidency as he worked to combat radical Islam and mobilize the tiny island nation to become a leading global voice in the fight against climate change. But his term ended prematurely after three years when, after a coup led by parts of the judiciary and the military, Nasheed resigned after reportedly being held at gunpoint.

Key foreign powers quickly signed on to the new regime’s interpretation that this was a voluntary resignation; the governments of Britain, the United States, and India quickly recognized the new government as valid. However, Nasheed and his followers asserted that a coup had taken place and that he had been forced to resign at gunpoint. The Commonwealth met and concluded that an international investigation needed to take place, but no further action was taken to investigate the constitutionality of the regime change from an international perspective.

Just a day after the regime change took place, Nasheed penned an op-ed for the New York Times detailing his attempts to reform the entire governmental system of the Maldives and the struggles that he faced attempting to do so. He writes, “The dictator can be removed in a day, but it can take years to stamp out the lingering remnants of his dictatorship.” His words proved prophetic. At the next general elections in 2013, Abdulla Yameen (the half-brother of former dictator Gayoom) was elected, and the Maldives returned to old habits. Under Yameen, government funds were embezzled, peaceful protests were suppressed, independent media outlets were shut down, and political prisoners were jailed. Now it seems that the collective international community has finally exhaled in relief. The Maldives may, in fact, have a democratic transition of power. Yameen’s regime is finally over.

Recent history has shown that we cannot allow this positive development to cloud our judgment and lull us into a false sense of security. About 90 percent of the Maldives’ population voted in this year’s elections, showing an unprecedented amount of engagement in Maldivian democracy. The international community owes it to Maldivian citizens to keep watch and ensure a democratic transition of power occurs in November, and furthermore aid the new government in ensuring it can implement positive changes to ensure the longevity of the country’s democracy.

It is especially imperative that we pay close attention to the Maldives in the wake of this election, taking into account the lessons that we have learned through the forced resignation of Nasheed. The Maldives is a relatively small nation, and the apathy of the international community toward the continuation of its democracy not only hurts the country but has a negative impact on the entire world. Had it continued along its path as a democracy last time, thrusting itself into the spotlight as the first Muslim-majority country with peaceful transitions of power within its democratic institutions, and had the world not ignored this tiny island nation, the Maldives might have brought its institutions, expertise, and goodwill toward other countries in the region, maybe even setting the example, case study, and inspiration, and thus radically changing the context through which the Arab Spring occurred only three years after Nasheed`s victory in 2008.

Major media outlets have focused most of their attention on the geopolitical impact of this change, especially the fact that Yameen had been turning a country closer to China, while Solih’s MDP has always advocated for closer ties to the most populous democracy, India. But there is another very important arena in which the smallest Asian country can affect not only the region, but the world—the struggle for democracy.

The world should recognize Solih’s presidency as a beacon of light for other Muslim countries that have experienced similar issues in transitioning to power. Instead of ignoring the potential of the Maldives, we need to instead do our best to nurture Maldivian democracy until it is able to fully bloom—and this means that the international community must do its best to push the Maldives toward a few key changes. At least two avenues of reform are clear: fixing the judiciary and building a muscle of the civil society.

Amnesty International has regularly called for the reform of the Maldives’ infamously corrupt judiciary. The courts have been used by the government to crush the opposition—most notably in the trial of Nasheed shortly after he was forced out of the presidency. He was sentenced to 13 years in prison for terrorism charges and denied access to a lawyer by two judges who had already served as witnesses against him during the investigation phase. In this case, the Maldives needs critical outside aid in order to form an educated, experienced, and corruption-free set of judges.

Second, and even more important, is to empower and support another backbone of vivid democracy: Maldivian civil society. The issue in the Maldives is not that people are unwilling to engage with democracy—they have proven their commitment twice in the past decade by voting in numbers unimaginable for Western democracies. But the international community can help, guide, equip, and train already mobilized Maldivian citizens into a solid and lasting civic power that will make any further efforts to hijack democracy in Maldives impossible.

The new hope for world democracy may be rising in Maldives. This time, democracy lovers of this world must not miss the importance of helping it.

What really scares populists? Grassroots campaigning and humour

The source of the article: The Guardian

In Belgrade, we started with a prank. Then Otpor! became a household name, and helped topple Slobodan Milošević

If you want a citizens’ movement to grow quickly, humour is a better strategy than anger. I was one of the founders of the Otpor! (Resistance!) grassroots movement in Serbia, which in 2000 helped topple Slobodan Milošević. With democracy in Europe today challenged by populism, perhaps some of the lessons we learned at the time are worth recalling. In Belgrade, our movement started with a prank: we took an oil barrel, painted a picture of Milošević on it, and set it up in the middle of Belgrade’s largest shopping district. Next to it we placed a baseball bat. Then we stood aside, inconspicuously. Before long, shoppers were standing in line to take a swing at the barrel and express their feelings for the president. The police arrived, but could do nothing but drag the Milošević barrel away. Pictures of the incident spread. Otpor! became a household name.

Of course, pushing a warmongering autocrat out of power is different from defending democracy in places in which it is meant to have taken root but has come under threat. When seeking to put an end to dictatorship, the task is to erode the tools and institutions that serve the regime and its strongman – indeed, the goal is to shake up the status quo entirely. Defending democracy, however, means finding ways to defend democratic institutions and principles from those who want to undermine them, even if they’re elected officials. It means creating leverage to block governments or political forces that seek to dismantle such pillars of democracy as an independent judiciary, parliamentary oversight, minority rights, or press freedom.

I’ve spent the last 12 years heading Canvas, an NGO that helps pro-democracy activists in Asia, Latin America, the Middle East and also parts of the former Soviet Union. It is no small paradox that Europe today has become a region where democracy needs to be protected in new, vigorous ways. Democratic backsliding is of course particularly worrisome in countries that are relative newcomers to the EU (Poland and Hungary joined in 2004). But the spread of illiberalism is a major concern in many established “traditional” democracies as well.

Campaigners can be successful if they have vision, unity and a plan of action. Most of all, they must stick to the principles of nonviolence. When we launched Otpor! as a civil resistance movement, the situation in my country was desperate. The vast majority had turned their backs on politics. Yet a tiny group of students managed to grow into a movement of 70,000 people which ultimately defeated Milošević. Otpor! was successful where others had failed. One explanation is that our strategy made use of the political vacuum between existing power structures and public dissatisfaction. Today in Europe, the vacuum between political elites and disgruntled voters is being exploited by populists – people who offer anger, not hope. But calling out populism will only go so far if citizens aren’t encouraged to take action.

Grassroots movements can be leaderless. They can sprout up outside traditional party structures and they can transcend those dividing lines. In Poland, after the Law and Justice party gained power in 2015, a civil society movement called the Committee for the Defence of Democracy rallied opposition to it across partisan lines.

In Romania last year, huge crowds of up to half a million people repeatedly took to the streets to say no to government plans to shield corrupt officials from prosecution. The movement reached beyond the urban, educated classes and capitalised on widespread public frustration with corruption. Romania has the largest number of officials prosecuted for corruption in Europe. People wanted to keep up the pressure. In the face of their protests, the government was forced to backtrack on plans to push through changes by emergency decree.

Combining protests and symbolic gestures of civil disobedience is important. In Poland, women have taken to the streets to fight for their rights. Law and Justice seeks to enforce traditionalist religious values across public life. Resisting this is hard, but one tipping point was reached in 2016, when 250,000 women forced the government to withdraw its initial plan for an almost total ban on abortion. Not only did they protest in large numbers across some 150 cities and towns, they also initiated a one-day strike – which forced businesses and political elites to sit up and pay attention. In Hungary, where elections are due in April, a group of NGOs recently launched a movement called Country for All, which seeks amendment to an electoral law that threatens the democratic process.

Laughter is a potent weapon. In Romania, protesters carried large cardboard cut-outs representing the country’s leaders dressed as convicts, in black-and-white striped prison shirts. In Germany, people in the town of Wunsiedel mocked the regular marches held by rightwing extremists. Local residents and businesses made pledges to donate €10 to an anti-extremism organisation for every metre the far-right crowd marched. In Finland, people came out dressed as clowns holding acrobat hoops to counter a white supremacist group that organised street patrols against immigrants. Humour can be a powerful tool against absurd, hateful attitudes.

To stand up to populism, Europeans need to reinvent a democratic narrative. Two things keep democracy and freedom alive: strong institutions and active citizens. It is a two-way street: institutions are there to deliver to citizens, and citizens must in turn defend democratic institutions from abuse. Europeans may have taken democracy for granted for too long. Those of us who have taken part in civil resistance movements in the past know all too well that apathy is what authoritarians count on to get their way.

A whole toolbox for campaigning can be put to use against illiberal forces. Sharing your experiences helps to inspire others and sharpen their strategies. The bottom line is that democracy is simply too serious a matter to be left to politicians or parties alone. And grassroots campaigning is more effective when it’s also fun. Populists, just like autocrats, are weakened when they become objects of derision.

• Srđa Popović was one of the founders of the Serbian student movement Otpor!