Learning from Otpor in Iran

By Jonathan Bartley
June 15, 2009

In the context of the current protests in Iran, it is quite surprising that no one in the mainstream media has mentioned the example of the Otpor actions (Serbian for resistance) featuring many students, which successfully undermined and dispatched Slobadan Milosevic in Serbia.

It may be that the obvious parallels to draw are with Iran's revolution of 1979. But there are a number of differences - not least that the Iranian revolution was a conservative backlash against the westernising and secularising efforts of the western-backed Shah. But also that half Iran's population is now under 25.

This may be a situation where more youthful, western examples are applicable. The media has acknowledged the use of Twitter in the co-ordination of protests, but as yet, not the tactics and philosophy that might be employed, as demonstrated in Serbia.

Using many of the methods advocated by non-violent specialist Gene Sharpe, Otpor launched a “Gotov je” (meaning “he’s finished”) campaign, undermining and subverting Milosovic’s various pillars of support including the judiciary and the police.

There are similarities with the current situation in Iran: the origins of Otpor were in the street protests, featuring students, in 1996 and 1997 after Milosevic refused to recognize the results of elections in the areas where he lost.

Many people feel that protests such as the ones we are currently seeing in Iran are just spontaneous and lack little method. This may be true, but it need not be the case, nor need it be the end of the matter, as the Otpor students showed. And neither is violence the desirable approach.

Gene Sharpe lists several hundred specific nonviolent methods and tactics of protest and resistance which have been used by resistance movements around the world (you can find them in our bookshop here: http://books.ekklesia.co.uk/advanced_search_result.php?keywords=gene+sharp )

The basic philosophy is that any power that a leader may have, is given to it by a population and if the support of the population can be removed, a tipping point may be reached and power enabled to change hands without violence. Since states have particular ways of maintaining control and keeping power (these may be cultural as well as institutional) it is a matter of targeting those deliberately.

Sharp's writings were also used by the Latvian, Lithuanian and Estonian governments during their separation from the Soviet Union in 1991.

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