Leadership in the Leaderless Uprisings

tahrir,al jazeera,flag,egypt

I was reading Evgeny Morozov’s essay in Bookforum, “How Much Did Social Media contribute to Revolution in the Middle East.” In it, he says the following as regards an argument Malcolm Gladwell had made.

“To refute ([his argument] that the Internet can be an effective tool for political change when used by grassroots organizations as opposed to atomized individuals), cyber-utopians would need to establish that there was no coordination of these protests by networks of grassroots activists—with leaders and hierarchies—who have forged strong ties (online or offline or both) prior to the protests.”

Now, I think it’s clear that there was some organization by some parties prior to the Jasmine Revolution, in Egypt, at any rate. Wael Ghonim set up the We Are all Khaled Said Facebook account which directed some of the protests and was responsible for a lot of information exchange during the #jan25 uprising in that country.

However, I think that most of the organization was not deeply hierarchical and long-planned. Instead, I think most of the planning was agile (in the general sense of the word). It was more like jazz than classical music. The general melodic and rhythmic options were known to all and those who, in any given situation, extended the most energy tended to move the song. That song having been performed, it became part of the songbook of the uprising as a whole (to labor the metaphor a bit).

At any rate, the thing that Morozov’s argument sparked in me, once I thought out the likely way that leadership was expressed on the fly in Tunisia and Egypt, was a memory of reading the Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset‘s book, “The Revolt of the Masses.”

In it, Ortega y Gasset asserts that a modern human’s default setting is as part of the “mass.” He is an undifferentiated blob amid a larger undifferentiated blob – morally, spiritually, intellectually and politically. Only when he challenges himself (or herself) does he become an individual. And once he becomes an invididual, that is what he is until his dying day. Also, he is an individual at the moment he challenges himself, regardless of whether or not he succeeds in whatever challenge he has issued himself.

Even among the leadership in these uprisings that was a result of prior planning and agreement among a sub-group involved in the protests, the leadership that happened there was analogous the the individuality created at the moment of challenge in Ortega y Gassett’s argument. In other words, each time one of the tens of thousands – perhaps hundreds of thousands – of men and women who expressed a moment of leadership, whether it was leading a group of protesters into a square full of cops or passing out brooms to people in a sidestreet, those people went from being members of a passive mass and became the new leaders of their countries.

Take Egypt as an example. Today, instead of one leader and 80 million subjects, the country has tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands, of leaders. And all who have not pulled themselves out of the mass to become a leader now knows someone who has. It’s no longer Mubarak who controls the fate of – and has the responsibility for – Egypt’s people. It is not Britain, or the U.S., or Israel, who control the dumb mass of Egyptians with its lines of historical force. Now, every Egyptian has either been a leader – and in that moment took full responsibility for his or her country – or knows that it is possible to be one – and with that understands he has a choice between claiming or ceding leadership. But at least, for the first time, it actually is a choice that an individual can, and must, make.

Photo from Al Jazeera

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