Andreas Whittam Smith: Protest movements don't need a spearhead to be successful

Just like the Tea Party, those on the streets of Tunis must ask: can we remain as a protest group of watchful citizens, or must we mutate from protest into power?
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The Independent Online

"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. The social media have even been used to organise street cleaning with tractors at night to make up for the absence of public services during the day. Indeed people say it is more risky to walk the streets with a laptop computer under one's arm than a Molotov cocktail.

We should not assume, however, that leaderless organisations couldn't function without mobile phones and laptops. Two examples that long pre-date the internet are the Quakers and Alcoholics Anonymous. The Quakers, whose formal title is the Religious Society of Friends, put their emphasis upon directly experiencing God. Quaker communal worship consists of silent waiting, with participants contributing as the spirit moves them. Quakers don't put their trust in a hierarchy for they hold that all believers can minister to one another. The Quakers were founded in the 17th-century and today, 350 years later, there are about 210,000 of them across the world. In Britain there are 17,000 Quakers and 400 Quaker meetings taking place each week.

Alcoholics Anonymous was founded in the USA in 1935. It describes itself as a "fellowship of men and women who share their experience, strength and hopes with each other that they may solve their common problem and help others to recover from alcoholism". The only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking. It now has nearly two million members spread among more than one hundred groups. A member who accepts a service position or an organising role is a "trusted servant" with terms rotating and limited, typically lasting three months to two years and determined by group vote and the nature of the position. Each group is a self-governing entity. No single person, or board of directors or of trustees "runs" Alcoholics Anonymous. Nobody controls the Quaker movement. Yet they are strong, long lasting and effective organisations.

Shall we be able to say the same about the two leaderless political organisations currently holding the world's attention – the Tea Party movement in the United States and the street protests in Tunisia? The Tea Party movement does not have, and may never have, an organisation. It is a loose collection of dozens, even hundreds, of groups. There does not appear to be strong impetus to form a third political party. It has no formal figurehead. So we must ask the same question of the Tea Party movement and of the protesters in Tunis: can they maintain themselves as permanent protest groups, or at the very least as organisations of concerned, watchful citizens, or must they mutate from protest into power?

In other words, will they become like spiders, to use the terminology of the management text referred to above? As a spider runs round on its eight legs, a tiny head with four pairs of eyes controls its movements. But cut off its head and it immediately collapses. There is no more spider. It's dead. The former government of Tunisia was like a spider both in its power and then in its vulnerability. Once the president, Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, had been driven out of the country, suddenly there was no more government. It had been mortally wounded. Tunisia truly has been the story of the starfish and the spider.