Who’s in charge here? - Monocolumn | Monocle


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4 July 2013

The uprisings in Egypt, the protests in Istanbul and Rio, the Occupy demonstrations in New York and London. There is one thing which links them all, one thing which has guaranteed their failure. They have no leaders.

The leaderless rebellion has been a hallmark of the wave of protests witnessed across the world over the past few years. There have been organising committees and trade unions, Facebook groups and youth organisations. But no leaders, no faces, no individuals to passionately rally support at demonstrations or articulately make a case on television talk shows.

The lack of leaders is, some argue, very much a good thing. It means they are more democratic, more in tune with the grassroots they come from and belong to. The Occupy movement, for example, may claim that the egalitarian nature of its organisation, complete with silent wavy-hand gestures to indicate support or opposition at their large public meetings, was true democracy in action. The Occupy movement may also care to remember that it failed. Despite raising consciousness about the failings of capitalism, absolutely nothing has changed. The tents have gone; the titans have not.

If the Occupy movement had a leader, or even a handful of leaders, it would still have a voice. He or she would be invited onto talk shows and panels and be the critical voice the next time a bank was found guilty of money laundering or fixing rates.

The Egyptian crisis is the more heartbreaking failure. With no leader, the revolution effectively handed over control of their uprising in 2011 to a grateful military. Even when they had the opportunity to win power for themselves through elections, they failed abysmally to turn their undoubted fervour into widespread support. There was no leading figure to rally around and no idea of how to organise a campaign that involved more than chanting in a square or being passionate in a tweet.

And now, while they may have managed to bring Mohammed Morsi to the brink, the end result is the same: military rule, however some may try to dress it up. If elections are held again, there is little chance of a leaderless movement winning much support.

The leaderless rebellion exists in Europe, too. Anti-austerity movements in Ireland, Greece, Spain, Portugal and Italy have all brought tens of thousands, sometimes hundreds of thousands onto the streets. Those countries all still have austerity.

A leaderless rebellion can make a huge difference: oust dictators, transform conventional wisdom, articulate popular anger. But they cannot win. For that, they need leaders.

Steve Bloomfield is foreign editor for Monocle.


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