11 years ago, I almost fell off of the couch in surprise as I watched Serbians peacefully overthrow Slobodan Milosevic behind a branded student movement called Otpor! (resistance!)

No one really expected a rag tag group of media savvy students wearing branded Otpor! t-shirts to galvanize people & rapidly spread a freedom movement across Serbian society.   Surely this outsider group conducting hilarious anti Milosevic “guerilla-esque marketing stunts” in the street would never be taken seriously by the entire country, right? Wrong.

Recently, several credible sources (Foreign policyAloVesti Online have indicated that former Serbian Otpor activists trained key Egyptian dissenters on how to translate online rebellion into effective offline non-violent action in the street–helping drive the Egyptian Lotus revolution into full gear in Jan/Feb 2011.

Revolution University for Egyptians:  Purpose, discipline & marketing

While the 2011 protests in Egypt have been incredibly effective, it took some time and planning for this level of dissent to spill over to the masses.

According to Tina Rosenberg, back in 2008, irritated Egyptian workers at a textile factory announced that they were going on strike to protest high food prices and low wages. They caught the attention of a group of tech-savvy youngsters in Cairo, who started a Facebook group to organize protests and strikes on April 6. To everyone’s surprise, the page garnered 70,000 followers (it has almost 100,000 followers today).

The easy acquisition of followers online in 2008 did not translate to a well coordinated movement with a clear purpose offline, however.  According to Rosenberg, the 2008 protests turned violent and ultimately failed:

The young protesters learned a great deal about the limits of social networking as a tool of democratic revolution. Facebook could bring together thousands of sympathizers online, but it couldn’t organize them once they went offline.

Facebook was a useful communication tool to call people to action, but everything broke down as people spilled into the streets without a plan in 2008.  So, the young Egyptians decided to go to Revolution class–in Belgrade.

Belgrade, Serbia is the home to the Center for Applied NonViolent Action and Strategies (CANVAS).  Online I found a couple of .pdf files that provide a snapshot of CANVAS curriculum.

Interestingly the CANVAS playbook draws heavily from private sector thinking (strategic planning, project management, branding & marketing communication) while fusing security/military like focus and discipline. This training may have been very helpful for the Egyptian activists as they plotted their comeback in 2011.

Integrated uprisings in a Wikileaks World…

Gaddafi, Ahmadinejad, etc…they are all sweating now.   We are living in an incredibly connected, Wikileaks world.  Student protesters can no longer be written off as “rag tag idealists.”  Revolutionaries today have the free tools and integrated strategic thinking to take them much farther, much faster than ever before.  Sure, hard core dictatorships (North Korea, Burma) will be very hard to crack…but the world is continuing to open up and these are exciting times.

Coming to an economy near us, too?

Of course, we often discount the idea that Otpor/Lotus-like uprisings could happen here.  However, we need to be careful.  For people in the west and the US, real prosperity has been flat for decades and people are starting to take notice.  As Umair Haque notes:

Now, at a macroeconomic level, our current economic institutions simply transfer prosperity upwards, to the richest 10% –> 1% –> 0.1% –> 0.01% and so on. This is what I call a global “ponziconomy” — a titanic, gleaming whirling, wealth transfer machine. And we can’t fix it with the same tools we used to build it. That’s why it’s never been more vital for us — we, the people — to challenge the institutions of yesteryear

Rising inequality and failing institutions that don’t deliver what the people on the street really want (jobs, security, a measure of prosperity) can ultimately lead to protest and uprising–even in the west.  Companies and executives that hoard cash, governments that don’t get macroeconomic policies right and people like us who don’t use our creativity to help others, might look back with misery on our failure to build a strong, equitable, sustainable and innovative society.

I agree with Umair that we need to continually challenge our institutions (and ourselves) to ensure that we aren’t creating an “oligarchy-like” society that shuts off opportunity for people and concentrates real wealth and power into the hands of only a few.