Category Archives: Tunisia

The Leaderless Need Leaders, and Leaders Need the Leaderless

What started as the “Arab Spring” has transitioned and transformed – like seasons– to the “American Autumn”, and now perhaps something else entirely. Countless pundits, experts, and academics have opined on what it is, whether it is good or bad, successful or unsuccessful, or something unique or a continuation of the past. But every article, blog, TV plug, or radio interview seem unable to explain this global protest phenomenon with certainty and in its entirety. It may be because that participants in these movements are experimenting with new ways to organize, though they may not be aware of it themselves. But for these movements to be successful, they will need a little help from their friends (pun intended)—practitioners in the field of conflict.

What mainstream media did cover about these new social movements is the seemingly unorganized demonstration over a very palpable frustration. Such movements in the past, though having participants from a large number of “unaffiliated”, had activists that were part of formally structured and hierarchical organizations to provide a voice for the voiceless and organize their communities to become active, in which they would articulate demands through various communication mediums.

Social media and mobile telephony – unlike communication tools in the past like TV/Radio, cassette tapes, and, yes, the internet (we are that old) – in new social movements has for the most part freed the rigid categories of producer and consumer of media and information.  The past required formally structured organizations and/or groups with clear roles and strategies to get the information out for consumption to the public, but today anybody can be a producer and consumer of information. This loosens (though does not dismiss) the need for formal organizations to provide a voice for the voiceless.

The leaderless Occupy movements that are taking place around the world is this theory manifested. Individual active participants in the movement become the producer, interpreter, filter, and consumer of information, and exchange ideas – in an antiquated Athenian democracy sort of way – to come up with the demands they want to protest for. However, articulating and deciding how a proper economic system should function is a lot harder than demanding the ouster of a leader like their Arab counterparts.

Demanding a leader to step down is not nuanced, nor is it subject to statistics, figures, or theory. It is clear and emotional enough to bring many groups together. In fact, demanding a leader to step down requires less (not none) organizational or community development to drive it in comparison to more abstract concepts such as economic policy or system design. However, even in cases were the demands were clear, like the case in Tunisia and Egypt, the less formally organized students – in comparison to their elite or Islamist counterparts –lost out to the quick turnaround in elections that followed.

What this means for the conflict community is that now, more than ever, community and organizational development through techniques and/or skills in facilitation, dialogue, and problem solving in conflict practice are needed. The advantage of formal organizations is that the leaders formulate and articulate demands, but in leaderless movements that is just moot. With proper training in dialogue and conflict management, participants of leaderless movements can remain “leaderless”, while making adequate progress in formulating and articulating demands.

I do not suggest that remaining leaderless is better than being formally organized or vice versa, but perhaps they reinforce each other in a truly positive direction. In other words, the unaffiliated – usually the common denizen – have been unable to contribute, and has caused societies to simply take down one leader for a formally organized other. Therefore, the leaderless need leaders, and leaders need the leaderless.

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“The Meek Shall Inherit the Earth”

As Ben Ali and Mubarak eventually conceded to “their people” with reverberations being felt in other Arab countries, Iran swelled with courage and excitement to join in the democratic wave after its own momentum had abated since a year and a half ago. Pro-Democracy Iranians took to the streets to co-opt the anniversary of the Iranian Revolution to make their grievances heard. The diaspora flooded the various waves of technology to show support and make viral the pictures and videos that document the oppression and injustice the Iranian people are subjected to. However, while I do not like to be a “debbie downer”, the Iranian people do not face an oppressor like the one’s found in Tunisia, Egypt, or many other Arab countries in upheaval. They face something worse.

This might seem to be a “duh” thing to say, but what I want to point out is that the Iranian people are fighting a very, very different beast. Iranians face an oppressor on two fronts. One front includes the formal institutions of the Islamic Republic that include the President, the Majlis (Parliament), the Velayat-e-Faqih (Supreme Leader), Guardian Council, you know what, just see this picture here. The other front is the zealots, which include the Basij whom blend in with the general Iranian society and “tip off” authorities on opposition members and use indiscriminate violence to keep the Iranian people “in check”.

Unlike Iran, the governments of Ben Ali and Mubarak (and most of the other Arab countries) ruled their countries through a strong, organized, and vicious security apparatus. The strength of its power relied upon a swift cracking down upon dissidents and relied very little on having “popular support”. Sure it has the well-to-do, and they put up a fight as the pro-Mubarak forces did alongside the military, but they were egregiously outnumbered and have a lot more to lose should they get injured—most pro-Mubarak demonstrators/supporters hail from the upper classes of Egyptian society. Therefore, in every sense of the phrase, they did not have popular support.

Iran on the other hand has one too many experiences with “revolution”. In fact, you could say that the current Iranian regime wrote the handbook on modern revolutions. The key players that brought the Islamic government into power knew all too well that if they wanted to dethrone the more financially and militarily powerful Shah, they would need every man, even the most mendicant. Not to say that joining forces with the poor was a novel idea, as the French have immortalized, but Islam being built on the foundation of helping the poor, encouraging an austere lifestyle, and equality before God regardless of class produced a much greater symbiotic relationship that the poor could rally behind.

This relationship not only brought the Islamic government into power, but it has maintained their power through the Basij–a volunteer paramilitary organization used to intimidate, abuse, and rape dissidents, with their downtime hobbies including study of the Qur’an and various recreational activities like soccer, cards, and slapping each other in the face.

The Basij are primarily comprised of the poorer demographics of Iranian society, where many of them receive financial support and health services through membership (akin to how the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt operates). I want to clarify by saying that all those who are poor are NOT Basij, for many who are poor are on the side of the opposition. Instead, those who are members and receive benefits from the system find they have a lot to lose if the Islamic regime were to go. Their very identity lies with the organization, the Islamic Republic, which results in them laying their lives down for the Supreme Leader.

This is not to say that the Iranian people don’t stand a chance. They will emancipate themselves for the regime cannot sustain its current discourse not only politically and socially, but also economically. Yet, I believe that “emancipation” will come at the heavy price of going through years of protracted conflict. While the demonstrations after the 2009 presidential election were nonviolent and peaceful (on the opposition’s side of course), this time around the opposition is fighting back. As the government further cracks down on the opposition, it systematically radicalizes the opposition to take more extreme and potentially violent means in acquiring their rights. You add that to the resolve of the Iranian regime and the Basij who readily accept martyrdom, the conflict can escalate into something that would make Francisco Franco nostalgic.

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