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Leadership? Who Needs Leadership?

February 8, 2011

Several of my colleagues have criticized me ( perhaps more gently than I deserve) for the enthusiasm with which I embraced an early list of proposed “Constitutional reformers”, calling them a “dream team.”

Salma Sameh, professor of Arabic literature at Rutgers, complained on Facebook about my characterization of the protester’s dream team: “Sawiris, Ghazali Harb, Moussa and MF Abdel-Nour ARE the regime. Who are these people kidding? I haven’t heard anything from any of the various groups out in Tahrir about support for these people.”

Between us, my wife and I encountered this list by tweet, Facebook and e-mail three times, so we figured it must enjoy fairly wide circulation. It was subsequently published in al-Masry al-Youm—a valuable news source but certainly one with its own political axes to grind (as do they all).

Since her critique, I’ve seen this crowd again and again referred to derisively in news media and in social media as the “committee of wise men”. Sometimes the authors add “self-appointed” as a prefix. Just yesterday an editorial in al-Mesryoon accused “the wise” of acting from their own homes, old men speaking for a youth revolution of which they are not part.”

But there is support—and strong support—for many of the wise.

When Amr Moussa went out to meet with the protesters, a crowd of at least a few hundred began chanting “We want you for president.”

Ash-Sharq al-Awsat carried a story today lauding Ahmed Zewail and even coyly suggesting he might run for president once there are free and fair elections.

A surprising number of people seem to be willing to accept Mubarak’s resignation and let the military and security branches of the regime of which he is figurehead continue to run the country. Rebab, a professor of literature at Ain Shams wrote an angry e-mail to a friend of mine about her belief that the 25 January protest—which she supported—has been hijacked by people with political agendas and wishes the protesters would go home and wait for the reforms.

Even popular blogger Sandmonkey, who has been beaten by security police bringing medical supplies to Tahrir, seems in some of his interviews willing to take a chance Umar Suleiman.

The protests have been largely spontaneous, with planners but without clear leaders. This has been a tremendous strength—a movement without leaders cannot have its head chopped off. But this also means that people can be put forward, or put themselves forward.

And the quest for a leadership that can speak on behalf of the protesters continues. Today al-Masry al-Youm reports that activist Ziad al-Alimy told reporters that a coalition has emerged, including the 6 April protest movement, the Muslim Brotherhood’s youth wing, the Mohamed ElBaradei Support Group, the Young Freedom and Justice Movement and the Democratic Front Party’s youth wing. He said these groups have not yet accepted to meet with the new vice president.

But perhaps nothing so far represents the protesters as much as the traumatized face and strained, rapid-fire voice of Wael Ghonim, released today after 12 days in custody. speaking in an interview on Dream TV just hours after his release, insisting that he is no hero, that he is no leader, that it is the people in the street who planned and carried out the protests, the people cleaning up the garbage and preventing violence who are the real leaders of the Egyptian uprising.

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