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No matter what he says, Wael Ghonim is a leader: Social Movement Leadership and the Egyptian ‘Revolution’

There has been a steady stream of thought-provoking remarks about the role of leadership (or lack thereof) in the activist movements that coordinated via social network sites to overthrow the Mubarak regime in Egypt. Most recently, Clint Watts wrote a thoughtful post on the subject at his blog, Selected Wisdom. His comments were sparked by a Steve Inskeep interview with Wael Ghonim, the Egyptian activist and Google executive who played a significant role in the uprising. The occasion of the interview was the release of Ghonim’s new book, Revolution 2.0, which I blogged briefly about the other day.

Ghonim insists he is not a leader.

The question of leadership is an old one in social movement studies and the larger discipline of sociology (dating back to Weber). As a disciple of both who is beginning a PhD this year on the dynamics of social movements in the Muslim world and Egypt more specifically, I am keenly interested in the questions raised by the ‘Arab Spring’ and, more specifically, Clint’s arguments about leadership in ‘leaderless’ movements.

Ghomin told Inskeep that “[T]his revolution has no leader, has no face to it. And the collective effort of all the Egyptians is what mattered at the end of the day.” Similarly, he told Newsweek that, “What you don’t understand, and it seems what you don’t want to understand, is that this protest doesn’t have real organizers. It’s a protest without a leader.”

Inskeep himself expressed his skepticism, asking Ghonim:

I wonder if you’re not giving yourself enough credit, because you describe yourself putting up Facebook pages, sending out statements, writing quite dramatically on behalf of causes, doing things that leaders do, and organizing protests, getting this revolution going.

In response, Ghonim insisted: “I think this is not leadership. When I say a leader, it means that directs the revolution, where it should be going.” This is something Ghonim refuses to do.

Should we take Ghonim’s claim of non-leadership seriously? Of course not.

Whether or not Ghonim wants to acknowledge it, he is a leader, although he was a more important one than he is now, having been overcome by the superior “organizational weapon” of the Muslim Brotherhood political machine and others who are not so shy about their status as leaders.

Things that social movement leaders do:

•    Inspire commitment
•    Mobilize resources
•    Create and recognize opportunities
•    Devise strategies
•    Frame demands
•    Influence outcomes

Although he seems happy to take a backseat now (like his former patron, Mohammad El Baradei), Ghonim did all of these things. Scholars Aldon D. Morris of Northwestern University and Suzanne Staggenborg of McGill University define movement leaders as “strategic decision-makers who inspire and organize others to participate in social movements” (pdf). No matter what Ghonim says, he fits this definition.

The cycle of contention that led to Mubarak’s downfall was sparked by the torture and death of 28-year old Khaled Said in June 2010 at the hands of Egyptian police. In his book, Ghonim explains:

Together, we wanted justice for Khaled Said and we wanted to put an end to torture. And social networking offered us an easy means to meet as the proactive, critical youth that we were. It also enabled us to defy the fears associated with voicing opposition. The virtual world seemed further from the oppressive reach of the regime, and therefore many were encouraged to speak up. (p. 66)

Ghonim then did something many of us have done: he started a Facebook group. But whereas the Facebook groups most of us have founded were related to sports teams, celebrities, or – in my case – photos of jack-o-lanterns vomiting (I wish I could say it was due to my relative youth, but I still think they are funny), his was called “We are all Khaled Said” and its aim was – as Ghonim (who adopted the pseudonym Al Shaheed, or “the martyr”) noted – to stop torture in Egypt. It attracted thousands, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands. It became a key node for activists to organise and coordinate the massive street demonstrations that eventually toppled the regime.

This wasn’t Ghonim’s first dance. This marketing guru previously ran Mohammad El Baradei’s official Facebook group and social media campaign. A Newsweek article quotes Ghonim as saying of his El Baradei’s period, “In the morning I lead a 1m budget [at Google]. At night, I am a video editor at YouTube.” I recommend reading the whole article and Ghonim’s book for the rest of the story.

Popularly viewed as the standard-bearer of secular, left-wing virtual activism, Ghonim refuses to express the slightest hint of concern about the Brotherhood’s political ascendency (And one of the many interesting details in his book is that he was a sometimes-participant in Brotherhood activism while in university, but this sort of flirtation is not uncommon for young, politically-interested Egyptians).

Clint Watts argues that the “Twitter uprisings” have two crucial weaknesses: (1) Internet-based activists are happy to coordinate effective anti-regime protests, but have reluctant “to collaboratively and physically discuss, compete and compromise as an organization around a central agenda and stated long-run objectives” since Mubarak fell. And (2), they are averse to “developing, appointing and following leaders.” Watts explains:

Notions of leaderless movements are the rage on social media platforms and corporate America loves talking about flat organizations.  But, those structures work well only in certain situations where motivations and values are shared equally amongst the organization’s members and objectives are clearly defined.  Revolutions are conflicts and during the fog of war, sustaining the organization’s values, the motivation of the troops and keeping actions in line with objectives requires leadership.

As such, Ghonim’s aversion to accepting the leader role, while admired by some as humbleness, is the biggest weakness of the most visible, vocal, and largely left-wing activists responsible for Mubarak’s fall. And, as Watts notes, the Brotherhood who played an equally important, but much quieter role in the revolution, has reaped the electoral gains along with the Salafi Nour Party.

If he refuses to accept this role and use his popularity to take the next logical steps of old-fashioned party-building and political organisation, that is his prerogative, but it may come at the cost of seeing the ideals he and others in Tahrir stood for, wither on the vine while other (more religious) vineyards flourish. It is not the first time that those heavily involved in the early period of a revolution remained out of power when things settled down (examples here, here, and here).

He is just one man, but with Mohammad El Baradei out of the running, there are few figures more admired by the secular(ish)* left in Egypt than Ghonim.

But I am still going to call him a leader. Deal with it, Wael (if I may).

And you can read more about my thoughts on the Egyptian revolution in my forthcoming (Febuary-ish) review of Performative Revolution in Egypt: An Essay in Cultural Power by Jeffrey C. Alexander for the blog, British Politics and Policy at LSE (Spoiler Alert: It’s good and short so you should read it).

*The democratic activists of Tahrir Square deployed religious idioms more often than was reported in the Western press.