Protest Movements Don't Need a Spearhead to Be Successful

Article excerpt


'The unstoppable power of leaderless organisations" - that single phrase has been running through my mind as I have watched the popular revolt in Tunisia. It comes from a treatise about management of all things, The Starfish and the Spider by Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom, published in 2006. Forget about the spider for the time being. The thing about starfish is that they don't have brains in the normal sense, though they do have rather complex nervous systems. If you cut an arm off a starfish, it grows a new one. Some can replicate themselves from just a single limb. Leaderless organisations are like starfish.

The protest movement in Tunisia has the same features. When bullets and beatings cut off one participant, another comes forward. Does it have a brain? Is somebody in charge? I have looked carefully to see whether a single person or some small group has been leading the revolution. I cannot find any evidence. On the internet I have read Tunisia's French language newspapers now free to publish without censorship. There is no mention of a controlling mind. I have likewise read the blogs (try Nothing. Students and professional people have led the way, but the movement has been essentially leaderless. There is no Lech Walesa figure, the Polish trades union leader who used strikes in the late 1980s to bring about free parliamentary elections and the elimination of the Communist dictatorship.

Is there a headquarters? No, the Tunisian revolution is where the people are. Can you count the participants? Counting the members of starfish organisations is usually an impossible task. Who knows in this case? At least tens of thousands I guess. Are knowledge and power concentrated or distributed? That is always an interesting question. Until the former president fled the country, knowledge was tightly held. State TV promoted the image of the president as a competent, successful and progressive leader. Almost half of daily evening news programmes were devoted to anodyne accounts of his meetings, initiatives and engagements. Newspapers reported uncritically on government policies.

In 2004, however, the age of small personal computers and mobile phones arrived. The social media such as Facebook followed. And there they remained unexploited for political purposes for a full six years until 17 December last year, when Mohamed Bouazizi wrote a Facebook message to his mother hours before setting himself on fire. Mr Bouazizi was just another former student who did what he could to survive. Despite his academic achievements, he was selling fruit and vegetables on the streets of Sidi Bouzid. When the police confiscated his cart for not having the appropriate permits, Mr Bouazizi tried to file a complaint with the local authorities, but it was rejected. For Mr Bouazizi, that was it: he left a Facebook message for his mother begging for her forgiveness, bought a can of petrol, doused himself in front of a government building, and set himself on fire. What sparked the revolution was this suicide note posted on Facebook.

So Tunisians call their protests the Facebook revolution. "During the day we are on the streets; at night we are in front of the screen," a 41-year-old teacher was quoted as saying. Equal access to information is a characteristic of leaderless organisations. …