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The Godfather of Middle Eastern Protest

[Guest post by Ezra Deutsch-Feldman.]

With the sudden success of nonviolent revolution in Egypt, attention has turned to the seemingly ubiquitous influence of Peter Ackerman, a former investment banker who became something of an intellectual godfather to the Middle Eastern protest movements. His group, the International Center for Nonviolent Conflict, produced instructional videos for leaders of nonviolent revolutions, held conferences where would-be revolutionaries could meet and swap tactics, and even financed a video game meant to help organizers plan and practice grassroots uprisings. In 2005, our current editor-at-large Franklin Foer profiled Ackerman for TNR:

The State Department has begun paying attention to Ackerman for a good reason: His tactics are suited to the current political climate. The wars against Saddam Hussein and the Taliban have exhausted the U.S. appetite for forcible regime change. At the same time, the goal of promoting democracy in the Middle East and Central Asia remains. To be sure, there is a slew of NGOs that advise and finance democratic activists, but they specialize in working with movements as they approach full bloom—especially as elections near. In places like Iran, however, there are few vibrant movements to foster. That’s where Ackerman has found his niche.
Of all Ackerman’s whiz-bang ideas, he’s most enamored with the development of a video game named after A Force More Powerful that allows players to practice their dictator-toppling skills virtually. On a winter morning, I went to a suburban Baltimore office park to play a beta version. Ackerman has spent $3 million outsourcing the project to a company called BreakAway Games, which helped produce the popular Civilization series. Its offices were creepily quiet. ... To provide insights into the mind of the dictator, Ackerman sent Otpor veterans to consult with BreakAway, and you could see their influence in the game’s Serb flair. The opening screen showed a map of a generic Balkan country with towns named after Darko Milicic and other Serbian NBA players. I clicked on a town, providing an overhead view of buildings and streets. A message informed me that a student leader of my movement had been imprisoned. My immediate task, the game told me, was to free him.
More recently Ackerman has stepped up his involvement. He worked with Bob Helvey to train Iranian-Americans, many of whom worked for Reza Pahlavi, the son of the deposed shah. Azar Nafisi has introduced him to the Iranian human rights community. And the ICNC has made some preliminary contacts with the referendum movement—the most broad-based and promising of the opposition coalitions, uniting monarchists, communists, and Islamists behind a simple demand for a vote on the regime’s future. According to his friends, Ackerman and his circle have begun to kick around creative ideas for challenging the mullahs. What if every Iranian withdrew money from the ATMs at once, overwhelming the country’s financial system? What if they boycotted state-run industries? Ultimately, he envisions events unfolding as they did in Serbia, with a small, well-trained, nonviolent vanguard introducing the idea of resistance to the masses.

Read the rest here.