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The revolution will be organised

2 Jul 2012 By Hugo Dixon

This piece first appeared in Reuters Magazine

Is it possible that rebel leaders are overrated? In the wake of the Arab Spring, the Occupy Wall Street movement, and other populist uprisings around the world against autocracy and corruption, geopolitical analysts are asking fundamental questions about what leadership means in such struggles. What sort of leadership is needed in nonviolent uprisings? And in this digital age, do rebellions even need leaders?

The romanticised answer is that nonviolent struggles no longer require a charismatic leader – they can emerge spontaneously as oppressed people rise up and communicate through Facebook and Twitter. This lack of organisation or hierarchy is said to be well suited to the goals of such movements. Where insurgents are fighting for democratic rule, it is appropriate that nobody is bossing anybody around. What’s more, this alleged lack of leadership has a side benefit in that it precludes the authorities from destroying a movement by rounding up the ringleaders. You can’t lop off the head if there is no head.

A year ago, in the stirring aftermath of the Egyptian revolution, that paradigm had resonance. But the Arab Spring has run into trouble. It took a long and bloody struggle in Libya to depose Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, and Syria is being inexorably sucked into a civil war. Even Egypt no longer looks like a clear victory for the Facebook revolutionaries: The Muslim Brotherhood, which has a more traditional hierarchy and respect for authority, is poised to scoop up the fruits of the populist occupation of Tahrir Square.


“This is a war by other means,” says Robert Helvey, a former U.S. army colonel who has devoted himself to studying nonviolent combat and trains activists in its methods. “If you are going to wage a struggle, everybody needs to be on the same sheet of paper.” The savviest analysts of the recent nonviolent movements never believed they had much chance unless they had leadership, unity, and strategy.

Start with the most basic tenet: No movement is likely to topple an entrenched regime unless it has a strategy. This involves systematically analysing the opponent’s weaknesses, devising a plan for undermining them, and anticipating how the struggle is likely to unfold. To forge such a strategy, a movement needs leadership. And to follow such a strategy through the hard times ahead – during which nonviolent protests may be met with violence – it will need unity. Srdja Popovic, a leader of Otpor, the Serbian student group that helped bring down Slobodan Milosevic’s dictatorship in 2000, now advises activists on how to organise similar movements. He stresses the importance of unity, and tells them one of the main reasons Otpor succeeded against Milosevic was because it banged together the heads of a bickering group of politicians and got them all to support one candidate.

Leadership is required to plan the different stages of a conflict. Helvey says there are usually three: removing a regime; installing a democratic government, maybe a transitional one; and then defending that new government against coups. He points out that while the Egyptian students brought down Hosni Mubarak, they didn’t have a follow-up plan, which allowed the Muslim Brotherhood to step in and take control. They won an important battle, but had their prize snatched from their hands.

The problem in Egypt was getting beyond regime change, but most movements struggle to get even that far. Again, that’s usually due to a lack of effective leadership. Gene Sharp, a Boston-based academic who has studied nonviolent struggle for over 60 years, says it’s foolhardy to think you don’t need leaders. History supports this argument; few, if any, leaderless nonviolent struggles have been successful, according to Adam Roberts, emeritus professor of international relations at Oxford University. The Occupy Wall Street movement may be a case in point. It was a public relations sensation early on, but the participants didn’t appear to have any strategy beyond pitching tents in public spaces, and public interest fizzled. The ongoing Syrian revolution is another example of the perils of revolt without sound strategy. The activists there didn’t seem to have any plan for what to do when President Bashar al-Assad’s regime fought back with torture, detention, and mass killings – even though that brutal response was predictable.

The Syrian activists made another strategic error: They initially placed too much emphasis on demonstrations against the regime, and while public protests are crucial in revolutionary movements, they expose the participants to brutality. Alternative tactics, such as boycotts and strikes, can be a better way to challenge the regime while keeping your casualties low. It takes leadership to coordinate that kind of strategy. To be fair, the activists in Syria can’t organise or even communicate effectively with anything larger than small cells because as soon as they put their heads above the parapet, they are arrested, tortured or killed. After months of being bludgeoned by the regime, the Syrian activists have increasingly turned to violence themselves.


What sort of leadership is required to sustain a nonviolent revolution? Since headless social-media revolutions appear to be doomed, the temptation is to flip to the opposite extreme – a powerful, charismatic leader. History seems to have smiled upon this tactic: India’s independence movement had Mohandas Gandhi; the U.S. civil rights movement had Martin Luther King; the anti-apartheid movement had Nelson Mandela. More recently, Aung San Suu Kyi has been the face of Burma’s struggle against dictatorship, and Anna Hazare the leader of India’s anti-corruption crusade. Inspirational leaders, all.

“Charismatic leadership makes all the difference in the world when you are running a revolution,” says Helvey. It’s good to have a strong leader who can knock heads together and get everybody to stick to a plan. “You can’t have a democracy to run a war,” he explains. “Once a decision has been made, everybody has to get on with it.”

Still, it would be wrong to jump to the conclusion that successful leadership has to come from a dominant figure. A leadership team has multiple advantages: It will survive if any single leader is captured or killed; it can stop a leader from getting too egotistical or even turning into a new dictator; and it may lead to more innovation, because having an excessively powerful leader can prevent new ideas from percolating.

What’s more, not all of those movements we think of as fronted by charismatic leaders were one-man (or one-woman) bands. Often there were several inspirational leaders. Think of the combination of Jawaharlal Nehru and Gandhi in India; or Viktor Yushchenko and Yulia Tymoshenko in Ukraine’s Orange Revolution in 2004-2005. Even when there is a single strong leader, that person is unlikely to possess all the qualities required to bring a struggle to a successful conclusion. Movements require both brilliant propagandists and shrewd strategists. In very few cases – such as that of Gandhi, who was both a messianic leader and an intuitive strategist – are both qualities found in one person.

The opposite is more typical. For example, Martin Luther King’s brilliant oratory was married to Bayard Rustin’s tactical genius, according to Roberts. Rustin, who had travelled to India in 1948 to learn the lessons of Gandhi’s campaign, taught King a lot of what he knew about nonviolent struggle. (One of his mottos: Never do the same thing twice.)


Is it possible to teach people how to run a nonviolent revolution? For traditional warfare, there are military academies – such as West Point in the United States and Sandhurst in Britain – dedicated to teaching the strategies of engagement. After training at such a college, young officers then get an apprenticeship working on military campaigns for senior leaders. There is no nonviolent equivalent of Sandhurst, but there have been attempts to train leaders for nonviolent struggles. During the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, young leaders were trained at Gandhi’s old Phoenix Settlement near Durban. Sharp’s Albert Einstein Institution has run workshops for some resistance struggles, as has Popovic – his new Centre for Applied Non-Violent Action and Strategies (CANVAS) has trained activists in several countries, including Egypt, Ukraine, and Georgia.

There are also a few academic courses. One is a graduate program on the strategies and methods of nonviolent social change started by CANVAS at the University of Belgrade. Another is the Fletcher Summer Institute for the Advanced Study of Nonviolent Conflict, held at Tufts University in Boston.

More and more academics are also studying the field. Their books and articles are filtering down to activists on the ground, and what those books are telling them is this: To win a nonviolent struggle you must have leadership and solid strategy. Over time, such initiatives will get the relevant know-how to more and more emerging leaders and make them better nonviolent fighters. And that sharing of knowledge makes it more likely that the next nonviolent uprising will not just overthrow a dictator, but will replace him with a viable democratic government.


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