This article is excerpted from William J. Dobson’s book, The Dictator’s Learning Curve: Inside the Global Battle for Democracy.
The workshop takes place at a rundown seaside hotel five minutes from the airport. Outside, vacationers relax on plastic lounge chairs lining the beach. Faux thatch umbrellas shield them from the summer sun as they drink dark bottles of beer and stare out at the Mediterranean. The beach is close enough to the airport to be on the flight path for incoming planes. Every 20 minutes children yell and wave their hands toward the sky as another jet makes its approach. Besides a few palm trees, the landscape is dreary. A string of fish restaurants and tired hotels, generously described as two stars, dot a sun-baked road that hugs the water’s edge, leading to the city center. Many of the lots are abandoned or unkempt. The salmon-colored building next door advertises “Beachside Apartments,” but the only residents appear to be feral cats and the hundreds of pigeons that roost on the balconies with closed doors. The island boasts posh resorts and fine beaches. But they are not here. This stretch is a vacationland for locals and a handful of European budget travelers. It gets no mention in Fodor’s.
We meet on the hotel’s second-floor. Twenty people—13 men and seven women—make their way into a conference room and take their seats around tables that have been arranged in a horseshoe. They are from their mid-20s to early-40s in age, although they all dress like students. A lecturer addresses the group, occasionally pointing to the Power Point presentation projected on the wall behind him.
The hotel has designated its second floor for meetings and events, and with the help of partitions and dividers, it can host a couple of functions at the same time. On this particular afternoon, a local weight-loss group akin to Weight Watchers is in the room next door. We must pass through their meeting, nodding to a group of 30 or 40 heavy-set older women to attend our workshop.
Every few minutes, we hear the sound of shouts and clapping as one of the participants reports how much weight she has lost since their last get-together. At one point, it gets loud enough that the lecturer in our room has to repeat himself, raising his voice over the din outside. “If your movement grows too rapidly, it’s very dangerous. You won’t have the necessary structures in place. You won’t have the discipline. You risk a Libya,” he says, referring to Col. Muammar Gaddafi’s massacre of demonstrators several months earlier. The slide behind him lists the “pillars of support” for an authoritarian regime.
Faintly, a woman is heard saying, “9 kilos!” The words are met by a round of applause.
In this shabby hotel, in a nondescript corner of a Mediterranean island, 20 activists had come to attend a clandestine meeting on revolution: specifically, how to start one. Their instructors in this weeklong course were two former members of the Serbian youth group Otpor, which ousted the dictator Slobodan Milošević in 2000. Today, they work as trainers for an organization called the Centre for Applied NonViolent Action and Strategies, otherwise known as CANVAS. The Belgrade-based organization, staffed with veterans from nonviolent democratic struggles in Serbia, Georgia, Lebanon, the Philippines, and South Africa, is one of the leading groups training democratic political movements around the world. In the past nine years, this outfit has advised movements in more than 50 countries. The list reads like a global field manual for the battle between dictators and democrats: Belarus, Bolivia, Burma, Egypt, Georgia, Guatemala, Iran, the Maldives, Tibet, Venezuela, Vietnam, West Sahara, and Zimbabwe. The trainers running this seminar are two of CANVAS’s most experienced instructors; they have run more than 70 workshops between them, in dozens of countries.
The workshop’s 20 students are all members of a democratic movement from a country in the Middle East. (In order to attend this weeklong seminar, I had to agree to ground rules to preserve the security of those involved. Namely, I could not reveal the location of the meeting, the country the activists call home, or the identity of any of the participants.) They came with many questions: How could they build support for their cause? How could they counter a regime that was becoming more draconian? What protest actions might shake people from their apathy? They wanted to be more effective as an organization, to make the leap from a protest group to a resistance movement. But, after 18 months, they had hit a wall. They feared that they had become reactive, predictable. “We always feel in a state of emergency. It blocks our thinking,” says one of the activists. “We continue doing what we already know how to do.”
For the group’s leadership, the workshop is more than a lesson in tactics and methods; it’s a crossroads. The movement, which can reliably call out several hundred people to the streets, grew faster than anyone anticipated. Much of this growth came from activists who engaged in direct actions, and then joined forces to make common cause. But the leadership, a core of roughly five or six people, want to take the movement in a more professional, calculated, and strategic direction. The trouble is they know that some of the group’s lieutenants, a second-tier leadership of say 20 to 30 people, are split on their objectives. Some fully share their more professionalized goals. Others, they fear, almost enjoy protesting for protesting’s sake. These members would be quick to call a more pragmatic campaign a sellout of the movement’s purest revolutionary goals. The group’s top leaders are prepared for this division or disagreement to come out into the open, and they almost seek it. Because, although it may thin their ranks temporarily, they suspect they will require a unity of purpose if they are to be successful and become a more sophisticated and potent political force. So they have come to CANVAS, in part, to provoke this discussion, win over some of their colleagues, and perhaps leave some realizing they are on the fringe. “We are not thinking through what we gain from our actions. We need to agree on clear objectives,” one of the leaders told me. “If that means we are fewer, at least for a little while, then so be it.”
The CANVAS trainers have seen this dynamic within a movement countless times. They are happy if the seminar proves to be a provocation for the group, if it gives them “the critical distance to view their own struggle,” as one of the trainers explains to me. What they will not do is draft them a plan or blueprint to oust a dictator. They follow two simple and strict rules: They will only work with groups with no history of violence, and they refuse to tell them what to do. “I don’t want that responsibility,” says one of the Serbian trainers. “I wasn’t born and raised there, so I can’t decide for them.”