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 romanticized 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 organization 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 analyzing 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 organize 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.