Training Future Changemakers is Democracy’s Best Investment

By: Srdja Popović

While reading through the numerous articles about the uprisings in Algeria and Sudan this Spring, it became clear that many of the journalists reporting were taken by surprise as the protests unfolded, despite the fact that these movements had been building for a long time. Their surprise was perplexing given the fact that Algeria and Sudan had been ruled for decades by dictators and that uprisings had taken place in 2011 to protest similarly oppressive regimes in Egypt, Libya, and Syria.

When the protests began, Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika and Sudanese President and war criminal Omar al-Bashir, both of whom have since been removed from power, tried every trick from the dictator’s playbook to counter the surprisingly wide and diverse protests, which were mostly led by students and professional associations. After trying to simply ignore the protests for a while, the dictators made surface-level concessions by promising elections, dissolving unfavorable parts of the governments, and scrapping ideas to change their respective constitutions. They then escalated their efforts to stop the protests by detaining and using tear gas on protesters in Algeria and arresting many of the protesters and killing at least 70 of them in Sudan. Sudanese forces elevated generals to high-ranking government positions, and they even invited Russian firms to advise the regime on generating and spreading fake news that weakened opposition and portrayed pro-democracy protesters as terrorists who deserved public executions.

Clearly, these tactics didn’t work. Bouteflika resigned and al-Bashir remains in the same high-security prison he used to devote to jailing and torturing pro-democracy activists.

The preparation, organization, strategy, and nonviolent discipline these two movements exhibited allow us to study and emulate an impressive learning curve. In short, the skills you bring into the conflict are more important than the conditions you find there.

The Algerian and Sudanese movements showed sophistication not only in their mobilizing on the ground, but in their consciously working to unite members of the diaspora. Organizers devised training sessions and established channels to share information that spanned the diverse ethnic and geographic demographics of their movements.

When my movement, Otpor!, was demonstrating against strongman and then-president of Serbia Slobodan Milosevic in 1999, we began by developing a training program that replicated the skills and structure of the movement’s central units to branches across Serbia, a strategy we explored in our manual for working with activists. Since 2004, my new organization, the Centre For Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies (CANVAS), has worked with activists from more than 50 countries to provide them with a “method toolbox” to encourage successful social uprisings. One lesson we have learned from the past two decades is that education works. Because the driving force of the Algerian People Power movement is its own members — or the “people” themselves — it is crucial to recognize the importance of investing in individual people’s skills and knowledge; this is the most powerful way to fight for human rights and democracy.

Benjamin Franklin once said: “There are three types of people: those unmovable, those movable, and those who move.” This quote brings us to the Oslo Freedom Forum, the world’s largest assembly of troublemakers, dissidents, and movers brought together by the Human Rights Foundation (HRF), an organization I have admired for years.

Last year, CANVAS and HRF teamed up to start a one-of-a-kind initiative that uplifts pro-democracy movers worldwide: the Freedom Fellowship. Shaped by years of collaboration between activist heroes, donors, and educational groups, the Freedom Fellowship program unites, trains, and provides exposure to prominent activists living in authoritarian regimes. This program provides resources to enable these activists to more effectively mobilize, strategize, build their numbers, fundraise, communicate, and combat oppression. The initiative has and will continue to create lasting opportunities — not just for the fellows but for the organizations they represent.

Perhaps the most important opportunity the Fellowship provides is the chance to learn horizontally from a network of activists. While the problems that the suppressed LGBTQ+ community in Uganda face might seem different than the challenges of pro-democracy activists operating under the military juntas in Thailand or Sudan, all oppressors fear the same thing: popular, well organized, strategic nonviolent movements.

Helping these changemakers is the most promising investment in building a just and democratic world for future generations.

Srdja Popović is the executive director of the Centre for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies. Named one of Foreign Policy’s Top 100 Global Thinkers, and the author of Blueprint for Revolution, he was previously a founder of Otpor!, the Serbian youth movement that toppled Slobodan Milosevic. Since 2018. He serves as 53rd Rector of St. Andrews University in U.K.

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