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The Arab world delivered a surprising message this year. Revolts across the region revealed a generation willing to use non-violent protests to oust unpopular leaders. But that did not surprise Srdja Popovic, a campaigner for non-violent strategies. He was the student leader of a movement that toppled Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic in 2000. He also helped train Arab revolutionaries.

NPR's Deborah Amos caught up with Popovic in New York, nearly a year after the Arab revolts began.

SRDJA POPOVIC: Okay, no problem. It's nice meeting you.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Yes.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: He seems an unlikely international trouble maker, a lanky biologist from Belgrade, Srdja Popovic preaches the gospel of non-violent struggle to a class at Columbia University in New York.

POPOVIC: I spent about seven years of my life working with activists throughout the world, and there is this big thing called Arab Spring. And everybody...

AMOS: He is passionate about the success of young Arab revolutionaries who came to learn from him in Belgrade.

POPOVIC: The history really proves that there are fair chances that most of the Arab world will end up in some kind of democracy.

AMOS: How do you see your role in what happened in the Middle East?

POPOVIC: We equip these people with the tools to plan their struggle. We never tell them do this or do that. Because we, as Serbs, don't know what will work in Egypt. This is the trick. They need to discover for themselves.

AMOS: Egyptians arrived in Belgrade in 2009. Even then, they were planning for a democratic transition. But Popovic says they lost their unity after Hosni Mubarak was toppled and the Egyptian generals took charge.

POPOVIC: Which is the last authority you would ever give the transition - I mean, this is like giving the goat your cabbage to keep. The military is not designed to do the transitions, but definitely there is a lesson learned.

AMOS: Another lesson he repeats in every speech: Social media, Facebook and Twitter, play only a limited role in a successful non-violent revolt.

POPOVIC: And it is about people in the street who need to win the struggle. The struggle is won on the street.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

AMOS: As the Arab Spring becom1es a more violent and uncertain season, Popovic pins his hopes in the millions of Arabs who went to those streets. It changes people from passive to active citizens, he says.

POPOVIC: Once this spirit has been released from the bottle, it changes the way that people see themselves. When you get a million people engaged in the struggle, they become the shareholders of the victory.

AMOS: The best outcome so far is in Tunisia, with an 86 percent turnout for the first free election in October. But in other parts of the region, challenges are mounting because of tribal and sectarian divisions. Long years of autocratic rule have corrupted institutions and divided civil society.

POPOVIC: My biggest depression came when I saw what happened in Libya. The combination of violent uprising with tribal conflicts, a bunch of civil victims absolutely unnecessary foreign military intervention, and the slaughtery(ph) of Gadhafi in front of the camera was the worst case scenario.

AMOS: It's the eventual outcome that concerns him most. Based on his experience in Serbia as well as academic studies, research shows non-violent movements are three times more likely to become democracies than violent struggles, which have a five percent chance. This is why Popovic is alarmed by events in Syria. After months of peaceful protest, a brutal government crackdown has provoked some activists to call for armed rebellion.

POPOVIC: When bullets start whistling, everybody stays home and this is very huge dangers and I hope the Syrians understand this.

AMOS: He understands these movements have launched a long process. In Serbia, his struggle took more than a decade. Arabs are just getting started in a transition that he helped to promote. His role has been recognized. He lectures all over the world. He's opened a peace university in the Maldives. And he's one Foreign Policy magazine's top 100 global thinkers.

POPOVIC: We don't consider ourselves the thinkers. We are young people. We are still learning a lot about the struggle. Working with those who are ready to take risk and maybe lose life for freedom, there is absolutely nothing to match. That's the most rewarding job in the world.

AMOS: Deborah Amos, NPR News.

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