My beautiful city of Belgrade probably isn’t on your list of the top ten places to visit before you die. Some neigh- borhoods can be rough, and we Serbs have a reputation for being troublemakers, which is why we named a major street after Gavrilo Princip, the man accused of setting World War I in motion, and another after his band of revolutionaries. And then there’s the memory of our former dictator Slobodan Miloševic ́, the maniac who introduced “ethnic cleansing” to the world, started four disastrous wars with his neighbors in the 1990s, and brought on a slew of NATO bombings that ravaged the city. But none of that mattered to a group of fif- teen Egyptians who visited Belgrade in June 2009. That’s because they weren’t looking for a relaxing summer getaway. They were coming to plan a revolution.
Given their particular agenda, the first place I wanted to show them is the last place I would have recommended to any other visitor: Republic Square. To get an idea of what this dirty and misshapen part of town looks like, imagine that someone took Times Square, made it much smaller, sucked out all the energy, removed the neon, and left only the traffic and the grime. The Egyptians, however, didn’t mind it at all— they were hoping to bring down their own dictator, Hosni Mubarak, and for them Republic Square wasn’t just a tourist trap but ground zero for a nonviolent movement that was started by a bunch of ordinary youngsters and grew into a massive political force that did the unthinkable and toppled Miloševic ́. I was part of that movement’s leadership, and my Egyptian friends came to visit hoping that there was some- thing they could learn from us Serbs.
I led the group to a quiet corner, far away from the bustling cafés with their overworked waiters, and began my short talk. Once upon a time, I told them, pointing at the clusters of luxury shops—Armani, Burberry, Max Mara—that dotted Republic Square, Serbia’s inflation was so bad that the price for two pounds of potatoes skyrocketed from four thousand dinars to seventeen billion in just one year. If that wasn’t enough, we were also at war with neighboring Croatia. And if you tried to speak out against the disastrous policies that led our economy to collapse and our security to wither away, you were arrested and beaten or worse. In 1992, I was a freshman biology student, and the future for us young Serbs looked very, very bleak.
“Yeah,” one of the Egyptians responded with a laugh, “we know how that feels!”
The Egyptians continued to nod in understanding as I went on with my story. Faced with Miloševic ́’s terrors, I told them, the natural response, at least at first, was apathy. After all, my friends and I were not the type of people who could even imagine one day starting a movement. We weren’t aspiring politicians. We were college kids, and we shared the same passions as college kids all over the world: staying up late, drinking a lot, and trying to get a date. If you’d asked me back in those days what could get me out of the house and out to Republic Square, I wouldn’t have said a protest—I would have said a rock concert.
From my spot on the square’s sidelines, I tried to explain to my Egyptian friends why I loved Rimtutituki, a band whose musical-sounding name, freely translated, means “I put a dick in you,” hoping that the three or four women in the group who were wearing the hijab, the traditional headdress of ob- servant Muslim women, wouldn’t be too mortified. In 1992, the band was the coolest thing in town, a bunch of rowdy guys who played fast guitars and were known for their rowdy lyrics. When they announced a rare free concert, my friends and I all promptly skipped class and filed into Republic Square to see our idols in action.
What happened next shocked us. Rather than give another of their fun-filled performances, the members of Rimtutituki rode into the square on the top of a flatbed truck, looking more like conquering generals than punk musicians. Then, with their truck driving around in circles, they sang a selection of their best-known songs, the words making such declara- tions as “If I shoot, then I won’t have time to fuck” and “There is no brain under the helmet.” You didn’t have to be a genius to understand what was going on: with the war still raging, Belgrade was filled with soldiers and tanks en route to the front, and here were the boys in the punk band mocking all this militarism, speaking out against the war, advocating a normal and happy life. And this in a dictatorship, where spit- ting out such slogans in public could get you in a lot of trouble.
As I ran after the truck, cheering on my favorite musicians, I had a series of epiphanies. I understood that activism didn’t have to be boring; in fact, it was probably more effective in the form of a cool punk show than as a stodgy demonstration. I understood that it was possible, even under the most seemingly dire conditions, to get people to care. And I under- stood that when enough people cared, and enough of them got together to do something about it, change was imminent. Of course, I didn’t really understand any of these things, at least not yet. It would take me years to think through the feel- ings I had that afternoon in Republic Square, to make sense of my insights and convert them to actions. But once I’d witnessed the possibility of successful and attractive nonviolent action, it was impossible to go back to my previous state of apathy. My friends and I now felt we had to do something to bring down Miloševic ́.