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TEDxKrakow

Srdja Popovic: How to topple a dictator

Filmed:

2011 was a year of people-powered resistance, starting with Arab Spring and spreading across the world. How did it work? Srdja Popovic (who led the nonviolent movement that took down Milosevic in Serbia in 2000) lays out the plans, skills and tools each movement needs -- from nonviolent tactics to a sense of humor. (Filmed at TEDxKrakow.)

- Organizer
Srdja Popovic was a founder and leader of the student movement that brought down the Milosovic regime. Now, he helps other nonviolent movements learn and grow. Full bio

Good afternoon. I am proud to be here at TEDxKrakow.
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I'll try to speak a little bit today about a phenomenon
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which can and is actually changing the world,
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and whose name is people power.
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I'll start with the anecdote, or for those of you
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who are Monty Python lovers, a Monty Python type of sketch.
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Here it is. It is December 15, 2010.
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Somebody gives you a bet. You will look at a crystal ball
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and you will see the future. The future will be accurate.
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But you need to share it with the world. Okay?
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Curiosity killed the cat. You take the bet.
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You look at the crystal ball. One hour later,
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you are sitting in a building on the national TV
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in a talkshow, and you tell the story.
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"Before the end of 2011, Ben Ali and Mubarak
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and Gaddafi will be down and prosecuted.
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Saleh of Yemen and Assad of Syria
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would be either challenged or already on their knees.
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Osama bin Laden will be dead,
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and Ratko Mladic will be in the Hague."
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Now, the anchor watches you with a strange gaze on his face,
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and then on the top of it you add,
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"And thousands of the young people from Athens, Madrid
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and New York will demonstrate for social justice,
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claiming that they are inspired with Arabs."
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Next thing you know, two guys in white appear.
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They give you the strange t-shirt,
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take you to the nearest mental institution.
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So I would like to speak a little bit about the phenomenon
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which is behind what already seems to be the very bad year
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for bad guys, and this phenomenon is called people power.
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Well, people power has been there for a while.
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It helped Gandhi kick the Brits from India.
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It helped Martin Luther King win a historic racial struggle.
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It helped local Lech Walesa to kick out
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one million Soviet troops from Poland
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and beginning the end of the Soviet Union as we know it.
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So what's new in it? What seems to be very new,
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which is the idea I would like to share with you today,
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that there is a set of rules and skills which can be learned
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and taught in order to perform successful nonviolent struggle.
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If this is true, we can help these movements.
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Well, first one, analytic skills.
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I'll try where it all started in the Middle East,
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and for so many years we were living with completely the wrong
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perception of the Middle East.
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It was looking like the frozen region, literally a refrigerator,
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and there are only two types of meals there:
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steak, which stands for a Mubarak, Ben Ali-type of
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military police dictatorship, or a potato,
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which stands for Tehran types of theocracies.
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And everybody was amazed when the refrigerator opened
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and millions of young, mainly secular people step out
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to do the change. Guess what? They didn't watch the demographics.
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What is the average age of Egyptians? 24.
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How long was Mubarak in power? 31.
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So this system: just obsolete. They expired,
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and young people of the Arab World have awakened
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one morning and understood that power lies in their hands.
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The rest is the year in front of us. And guess what?
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The same Generation Epsilon with their rules,
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with their tools, with their games and with their language,
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which sounds a little bit strange to me. I am 38 now.
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And can you look at the age of the people on the streets of Europe?
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It seems that Generation Epsilon is coming.
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Now let me set another example.
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I'm meeting different people throughout the world,
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and they are, you know, academics and professors
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and doctors, and they will always talk conditions.
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They will say, "People power will work only if the regime is not too oppressive."
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They will say, "People power will work if the annual income
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of the country is between X and Z."
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They will say, "People power will work only if there is a foreign pressure."
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They will say, "People power will work only if there is no oil."
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And, I mean, there is a set of conditions.
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Well, the news here is that your skills [that you] bring in the conflict
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seem to be more important than the conditions,
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namely skills of unity, planning,
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and maintaining nonviolent discipline.
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Let me give you the example.
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I am coming from a country called Serbia.
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It took us 10 years to unite 18 opposition party leaders,
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with their big egos, behind one single candidate
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against Balkan dictator Slobodan Milosevic.
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Guess what? That was the day of his defeat.
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You look at the Egyptians, they fire on Tahrir Square,
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they get rid of their individual symbols.
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They appear on the street only with the flag of Egypt.
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I will give you a counter-example.
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You see nine presidential candidates running against Lukashenko.
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You will know the outcome.
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So unity is a big thing, and this can be achieved.
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Same with planning. Somebody has lied to you
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about the successful and spontaneous nonviolent revolution?
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That thing doesn't exist in the world.
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Whenever you see young people in front of the road
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trying to fraternize with the police or military,
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somebody was thinking about it before.
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Now, at the end, nonviolent discipline,
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and this is probably the game-changer.
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If you maintain nonviolent discipline, you will exclusively win.
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You have 100,000 people in a nonviolent march,
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and one idiot or agent provocateur is throwing stones,
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guess what takes all the cameras? That one guy.
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One single act of violence can literally
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destroy your movement.
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Now let me move to another place.
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It's selection of strategies and tactics.
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There are certain rules in nonviolent struggle you may follow.
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First, you start small.
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Second, you pick the battles you can win.
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It's only 200 of us in this room.
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We won't call for the March of Millions.
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But what if we organize spraying graffiti throughout the night
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all over Krakow city? The city will know.
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So we pick the tactics which accommodates to the event,
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especially this thing we call the small tactics of dispersion.
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They're very useful in a violent oppression.
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We are actually witnessing the picture
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of one of the best tactics ever used.
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It was on Tahrir Square, where the international community
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was constantly frightened that the Islamists
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will overtake the revolution. Well, they've organized
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Christians protecting Muslims, who are there praying,
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Coptic wedding cheered by thousands of Muslims.
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The world has just changed the picture,
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but somebody was thinking about this previously.
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So there are so many things you can do instead of
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getting into one place, shouting and
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showing off in front of the security forces.
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Now there is also another very important dynamic,
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and this is a dynamic normally analytics don't see.
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This is dynamics between fear and apathy on one side
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and enthusiasm and humor on another side.
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So it works like in a video game.
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You have a fear high, you have status quo.
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You have enthusiasm higher, you see fear starting to melt.
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Day two, you see people running towards police
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instead of from the police.
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In Egypt, you can tell that something is happening there.
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And then it's about humor. Humor is such a powerful
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game-changer, and of course it was very big in Poland.
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And you know, we were just a small group of crazy students
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in Serbia when we made this big skit.
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We put the big petrol barrel with a
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portrait picture of Mr. President on it
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in the middle of the Main Street. There was a hole on the top
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so you could literally come, put a coin in,
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get a baseball bat, and pow, hit his face.
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Sounds loud. And within the minutes, we were sitting
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in a nearby cafe having coffee, and there was
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a queue of people waiting to do this lovely thing.
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Well, that's just the beginning of the show.
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The real show starts when the police appears.
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What will they do? Arrest us? We are nowhere to be seen.
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We are three blocks away observing it from our espresso bar.
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Arrest the shoppers with kids? Doesn't make sense.
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Of course, you could bet they have done the most stupid thing:
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They arrested the barrel. And now the picture
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of the smashed face on the barrel with the policeman
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dragging them to the police car, that was the best day
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for the photographers from newspapers that they ever will have.
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So, I mean, these are the things you can do,
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and you can always use the humor.
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There is also one big thing about the humor: It really hurts,
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because these guys really are taking themselves too seriously.
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When you start to mock them, it hurts.
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Now, everybody is talking about His Majesty, the Internet,
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and it is also a very useful skill, but don't rush
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to label things like Facebook Revolution, Twitter Revolution.
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Don't mix tools with the substance.
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It is true that the Internet and new media are very useful
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in making things faster and cheaper.
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They make it also a bit safer for the participants
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because they give the part of anonymity.
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We are watching the great example of something else the Internet can do.
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It can put the price tag of state-sponsored violence over nonviolent protesters.
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This is a famous group, We are all Khaled Said,
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made by Wael Ghonim in Egypt and his friend.
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This is the mutilated face of the guy who was beaten by the police.
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This is how he became the public, and this is what probably
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became the straw which broke the camel's back.
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But here is also the bad news.
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The nonviolent struggle is won in the real world,
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in the streets. You will never change your society
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towards democracy or economics
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if you sit down and click.
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There are risks to be taken and there are living people
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who are winning the struggle.
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Well, million dollar question: What will happen in the Arab World?
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And though young people from the Arab World
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were pretty successful in bringing down three dictators,
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shaking the region, kind of persuading clever kings
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from Jordan and Morocco doing substantial reforms,
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it is yet to be seen what will be the outcome,
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whether the Egyptians and Tunisians will make it through the transition
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or this will end in bloody ethnic and religious conflict,
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whether the Syrians will maintain nonviolent discipline,
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faced with the brutal daily violence
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which kills thousands already,
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or they will slip into violent struggle
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and make ugly civil war.
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Will these revolutions be whole like through the transitions
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to democracy or be overtaken by military
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or extremists of all kinds? We cannot tell.
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Same works for the Western sector, where you can see
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all of these excited young people protesting around the world,
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occupying this, occupying that.
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Are they going to become the world wave?
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Are they going to find their skills, their enthusiasm,
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and their strategy to find what they really want
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and push for the reform, or will they just stay
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complaining about the endless list of the things they hate?
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This is the difference between two towns.
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Now, what [do] the statistics have?
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My friend's book, Maria Stephan's book,
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talks a lot about violent and nonviolent struggle,
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and there are some shocking data.
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If you look at the last 35 years
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and different social transitions from dictatorship to democracy,
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you will see that out of 67 different cases,
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in 50 of these cases it was nonviolent struggle
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which was the key power.
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This is one more reason to look at this phenomenon.
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This is one more reason to look at the Generation Epsilon,
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enough for me to give them credit and hope
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that they will find their skills and their courage
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to use the nonviolent struggle
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and thus fix at least a part of the mess
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our generation is making in this world.
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Thank you. (Applause)
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Translated by Joseph Geni
Reviewed by Morton Bast

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About the Speaker:

Srdja Popovic - Organizer
Srdja Popovic was a founder and leader of the student movement that brought down the Milosovic regime. Now, he helps other nonviolent movements learn and grow.

Why you should listen

Srdja Popovic was one of the founders and key organizers of the Serbian nonviolent resistance group Otpor! Otpor!’s campaign to unseat Serbian president Slobodan Milosovic found success in October 2000 when hundreds of thousands of protestors converged upon and took over the Serbian Parliament, effectively ending Milosevic’s rule. After the revolution, Popovic served a term as a member of the Serbian National Assembly 2000-2003.

In 2003, Popovic and other ex-Otpor! activists started the nonprofit educational institution the Centre for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies (CANVAS) (www.canvasopedia.org). CANVAS has worked with people from 37 countries, including Zimbabwe, Burma, Iran and Venezuela, spreading knowledge on nonviolent strategies and tactics that was used by the Serbian pro-democracy movement to other non-democratic countries. CANVAS has worked with the activists responsible for successful movements such as the Georgian “Rose Revolution” of 2003 and the Ukrainian “Orange Revolution” of 2004-2005. It also transferred knowledge to Lebanese activists in 2004 to address the crisis after the assassination of Prime Minister Harriri, and assisted participants in the Maldives’ revolution in 2008. Recently CANVAS has worked with April 6th, a key group in the Egyptian nonviolent uprising, as well as other groups from the Middle East.

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

More profile about the speaker
Srdja Popovic | Speaker | TED.com