End of the Leaderless Revolution

egyptcambfollow-bannerCihan Tuğal

Berkeley Journal of Sociology

7 October 2014

When revolutionaries do not produce ideology, demands, and leaders, does this mean that the revolt will have no ideology, demands, and leaders? Cihan Tuğal discusses the limits and traps of Egypt’s “leaderless revolution” in light of the nation’s current military rule.

In June 2013, millions of Egyptians mobilized against a clumsy autocrat, the elected dictator Morsi. The rallying cry was “a second revolution,” referring back to the toppling of Mubarak as the first one. However, the revolution—neither the first, nor the second—never arrived. And it is dubious that a revolution can ever take place in the absence of a leadership. In fact, the leaderless revolution bore its bitter fruits as soon as July.

The June mobilization ultimately led to a military-judiciary seizure of power, with the support of centrist politicians and clerics. Call this what you like: coup d’état, elegant coup, or people’s power (these were the labels in circulation in the second half of 2013). None of these labels change the nature of the intervention[1] and its aftermath: popularly supported military rule, by more or less the same military-police-judicial-business elements who were in power during Mubarak’s reign and who had struck a (shaky and incomplete) coalition deal with Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood (MB).

The Tunisian and Egyptian revolts of recent years sparked the imagination of many activists around the globe as “leaderless revolutions.” Yet, the strange amalgam of revolution, restoration, coup, democratization, and authoritarianism that persisted throughout the Egyptian process hints that different lessons need to be drawn from the Egyptian situation.

From a people’s campaign to the reassertion of elite rule

Tamarod, an unprecedented people’s campaign, collected millions of signatures and called for the downfall of president Morsi. Huge crowds gathered all around Egypt on June 30, 2013 in order to enforce the campaign’s call. Millions of people took to the streets, making this presumably the biggest rebellion in Egyptian history.

Ironically, the main sentiment among the protesters was pro-military. There were even groups that openly called for a military intervention.[2] Among the protesters were not only pro-Mubarak civilians, but also thugs and Mubarak era security personnel who came to the square in their uniforms. Actually, during the month of June, it had become increasingly clear that the military intended to use the rebellion as an opportunity to intervene and moreover some politicians, who had previously made fierce statements against military rule, now welcomed the possibility in roundabout ways.

There were also other hegemonic forces bent on capitalizing on the protests and reinforcing their domination. For instance, Gulf intellectuals rejoiced in the troubles of the Brotherhood. They wanted a real Erdoğan as Egypt’s leader, not a “Taiwanese” version: they embraced the Turkish conservative leader as an alleged model of development and democracy, while mocking the Egyptian conservative autocrat as a bad imitation (of the original, and back then US-endorsed, commodity).[3] They chose to ignore that their criticisms of Morsi (power-grabbing, ultra-centralization, authoritarianism, etc.) applied equally to their favorite Muslim leader. Regional hegemons thus suggested that the only way out of the Egyptian crisis could be another established path—rather than a truly revolutionary one.

There were calls for a general strike during the protests of June 30, alongside the louder calls for military involvement. In fact, the national situation that set the scene for Tamarod had a class dimension, though this was not articulated firmly as a part of its platform.[4] Moreover, some groups in Tahrir such as April 6, Strong Egypt Party, and Revolutionary Socialists openly protested against the military, not just the Brotherhood.[5]

None of this, however, culminated in a roadmap that delineated the way out of the Brotherhood-military coalition (leaving the military and its new allies as the only actors capable of dictating the famous roadmap).

The uprising’s immediate result was the resignation of six ministers.[6] Had a revolutionary political will crystallized in Egypt during the last two and a half years, it could have capitalized on this opening and declared an early victory; that is, it would have intervened before the Kornilovs of Egypt transformed it into their own victory.

When the military intervened, the few anti-coup speeches and slogans were drowned by the overall pro-military atmosphere in Tahrir. The unfounded optimism that anti-militarist forces would remain in the square until the military left[7] did not change the main dynamics. Nobody mobilized Tahrir to fight their erstwhile torturers. Millions came back only in order to prevent the square from the Brotherhood.

Ultimately, July 2013 witnessed not only the removal of an unpopular president, but the making of a full-fledged dictatorial regime: A hasty crackdown rounded up hundreds of MB and non-MB Islamists. Many television channels were closed down. And most important of all, the military appointed an old regime judiciary figure to replace the president. The massacres that followed were the necessary ingredients that accompanied any military takeover.


Most of the initial responses to the military intervention missed the crucial point: Under the Brotherhood-military coalition, Egypt was quickly moving from popularly supported authoritarian rule to popularly supported totalitarian rule. Tahrir activists had the radicalism and the will to slow down this transformation, but did not have the tools to stop it without the military’s pernicious “aid.” Procedure-focused liberal critics of the military intervention completely ignored that under certain conditions, an elected president can help build a totalitarian regime that will render all future elections simple plebiscites. The street needed to act to defend the Egyptian revolution and perhaps even to recall the president. Liberal accounts, with their pronounced fear of the mob,[8] ruled out not only such risky moves, but all other forms of participatory democracy.

Just as dangerous were the (perhaps well-intentioned) accounts that listed the abuses of the Brotherhood-military regime, but stopped short of discussing the calamities a non-Brotherhood military regime could produce. Those who called the military coup a “second revolution” quickly pointed out all the autocratic moves of the Muslim Brotherhood regime.[9] But they did not explain in what sense the regime that would replace it had the potential of becoming a democracy. (A broader circle of pro-Tamarod intellectuals focused on the illegitimate moves of the toppled president, without going into whether and how these legitimized the moves of the military and judiciary after he was deposed.)[10]

The assertion, frequently seen in both English and Arabic,[11] that “all the factors that render January 25 a revolution also legitimize calling June 30 the second revolution” ignored one blatant fact (among many others): 2013 was not 2011. Over the course of two years, the social and political possibilities dramatically shifted. During these two years, the priority could have been organizing popular power, alternative institutions, and revolutionary leadership in order to prevent (or at least slow down) the increasing authoritarianism of elected powerholders, rather than toppling them to open the way for the old enemies of the revolution.

In July 2013, some commentators still insisted that neither the military nor the National Salvation Front (the coalition of anti-Brotherhood centrist politicians) represented the masses in Tahrir, whose real demand was democracy and early elections. This disclaimer on behalf of the apparently pro-military millions does not alter one of the rules of thumb of politics: Those who cannot represent themselves will be represented.

The fruits of the ideology-less “revolution”

This old statement regarding the French peasantry warns us against the idealization of non-organized masses, a romanticization now in high fashion. Multiple anti-representation theses from rival ideological corners (anarchist, liberal, autonomist, postmodernist, etc.) all boil down to the following assumption: when there is no meta-discourse and no leadership, plurality will win. This might be true in the short-run. Indeed, in the case of Egypt, the anonymity of Tamarod’s spokespersons initially helped[12]: the spokespersons (who are not leaders, it is held) could not be vilified, demonized as partisan populists. Moreover, thanks to uniting people only through its negative identity (being anti-Brotherhood), as well as to its innovative tactics, Tamarod mobilized people of all kinds. Still, the mobilized people fell prey to the only existing option: the old regime!

When the revolutionaries do not produce ideology, demands, and leaders, this does not mean that the revolt will have no ideology, demands, and leaders. In fact, Tamarod’s spontaneous ideology turned out to be militarist nationalism, its demand a postmodern coup, its leader the feloul (remnants of the old regime). This is the danger that awaits any allegedly leaderless[13] revolt: appropriation by the main institutional alternatives of the institutions they are fighting against.

It is time to globalize the lessons from the global wave of 2009-2013. Let’s start with the U.S. and Egypt. What we learn from this case is that when movements don’t have (or claim not to have) ideologies, agendas, demands, and leaders, they can go in two directions: they can dissipate (as did the American Occupy), or serve the agendas of others.

We are living in interesting times. Unlike the depressing three decades that stretched from 1980 to 2010, “the people want the system to fall,” as the Arab slogan goes. And the system is very likely to fall, not just in Egypt but in many other places throughout the world. If we keep in mind how reactionary and reform-averse the current leaders and elites—all the way from the White House to the colonies—are: they simply do not want, or are incapable of imagining, New Deal-type frameworks, which could in fact absorb the revolt.

Yet, it is not sufficient for the system to fall. What will replace it? We have been avoiding an answer—for meta-narratives are allegedly dead; well, all meta-narratives but liberalism. We now have to wake up and realize that if we do not develop solid alternatives (and organizations and institutions that will implement them), the downfall of the system will not mean the making of a better world.

Leaderful revolutions

What happened since July 2013? The Egyptian military perpetrated its pro-American and pro-Israel foreign policy, its time-tested authoritarianism, and (albeit more timidly) Mubarak and Morsi’s neoliberalism. Many sectors of the left already expect nothing from the military; they need no conversion on this issue. But just like the Muslim Brotherhood quickly alienated millions of people in one year of rule, the “new” military regime (which has refurbished itself through appropriating a revolutionary uprising) is already showing its real face to those who have supported the coup with naïvely democratic expectations. The democratically backed authoritarian “new” regime the military has been constructing could very well pave the road for a third revolutionary uprising. The Left (including not only socialists, anarchists, communists and feminists, but also the left-liberals and left-wing Islamists) needs to use the intervening time to organize the inescapable dissatisfaction with military rule. It has to construct solid alternatives to military democracy and conservative-totalitarian democracy. Based on its experiences throughout the last three years, it should build the leadership, the institutions, and organs of popular power that can implement its alternative vision. In short, this time around, the Left needs to be ready.


The end of the leaderless revolution does not mean the end of the Egyptian revolutionary process. But it spells the end of the fallacy that “people’s power” can result from a scene without an agenda, an alternative platform, an ideology, and leaders. The leaderless revolution has turned out to be the wrong substitute for the status quo and revolutions that end up in a cult of the leader. Centralized leadership, we know, robs people of their power. Yet leaderless revolt quickly dissipates or loses its direction; disorganization runs rampant and is even reproduced by activists through a cult of leaderlessness. What we need is leaderful rather than leaderless revolutions.

Activists need to build flexible and democratic leadership structures. A new form of leadership for a sustainable post-neoliberal transformation will require an ability to learn from the grassroots, a willingness to interact with popular energy, institutionalized checks and balances, and constant immersion in alternative institutions and co-education. The global revolutionary wave of 1905 had put its stamp on history through the consolidation of a new organizational form—the centralized revolutionary party—which is now “history” with its successes, failures, and sins (which provide treasures to learn from, rather than a model to adapt or reject). We may look back at the global wave of uprising that kicked off circa 2009 as helping to bring about a new (more democratic, yet still efficient) form of revolutionary organization. The nuclei of such a new form might already be under construction. Efforts to build—or uncover and further develop—the 21st Century model of leadership will nourish the revolution much more profoundly than romantic illusions about leaderlessness.

A version of this article first appeared at Counterpunch.org

Cihan Tugal is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author of Passive Revolution: Absorbing the Islamic Challenge to Capitalism.

References and Footnotes

  1. For an early and lucid diagnosis, see Amru al-Shalaqani, “An al-Khalfiyyat al-Shaabiyya li al-Inqilab al-Asqariyya,” http://www.shorouknews.com, July 6, 2013. 
  2. “Army is the only answer, say MOD protesters,” www.madamasr.com, Sunday, June 30, 2013. 
  3. “Morsi: Erdoghan Muqallid,” al-Sharq al-Awsat, July 2, 2013. 
  4. The first half of 2013 had witnessed countless strikes and now worker-led, now multi-class civil disobedience. The reasons why this activity could not be transformed into a political platform will be analyzed elsewhere, though this too was partially related to the lack of nationwide leadership. 
  5. “Anti-military revolutionaries take part in protests,” http://www.madamasr.com, July 2, 2013. 
  6. “Mohamed Morsi clings to office in Egypt,” http://www.theguardian.com, July 2, 2013. 
  7. Reem Abou-El-Fadl, “Three Days of History: Making It and Waiting For It,” http://www.jadaliyya.com, July 3, 2013. 
  8. Noah Feldman, “Democracy Loses in Egypt and Beyond,” http://www.bloombergview.com, July 3, 2013. 
  9. Hani Shukrallah, “Egypt’s second revolution: Questions of legitimacy,” http://english.ahram.org.eg, Jul 4, 2013. 
  10. Khaled Fahmi, “al-Shariyya wa al-Thawra,” http://www.shorouknews.com/, Jul 5, 2013. 
  11. Ahmad al-Sawi, “Thawratan aw Inqilaban,” http://www.shorouknews.com, Jul 5, 2013. 
  12. Adel Iskandar, “Tamarod: Egypt’s Revolution Hones its Skills,” http://www.jadaliyya.com, June 30, 2013. 
  13. It is questionable that the Egyptian revolts of 2011-2013 were really leaderless. E.g. see the discussion in Cihan Tugal, “Egypt’s Emergent Passive Revolution,” http://www.jadaliyya.com, June 20, 2012.