Among the enduring tropes that have been associated with the 2011 Egyptian revolution is the notion that it was spontaneous and leaderless. But are these descriptors accurate? Or are they reductive? Do they in fact obscure more than they reveal about what was actually happening on the ground with the revolutionaries? This paper makes the case for the latter. It complicates the discussion on leadership and leaderlessness in the Egyptian revolution, through a study of the organized youth who were some of the revolution’s main protagonists. Specifically, it follows the trajectory of the movement from its inception through its defeat from the perspective of the Revolutionary Youth Coalition (I’tilaf Shabab al-Thawra/RYC), the first and arguably most significant front born of the nationwide revolt. Forged in Tahrir Square during the eighteen-day uprising, the RYC comprised the political youth groups who were most active before January 25 and whose collaboration had begun long before. Together, they strategized for January 25 and continued to help drive the revolutionary movement that ensued, especially as it unfolded in Tahrir Square and Cairo, the movement’s ground zero. Drawing on social movement theories related to leadership and the classical Marxist literature on revolutionary organizing to illuminate their experience, the paper examines the horizontal leadership and organizing processes they engaged in—first as an informal network, then formally as the RYC—as they tried to direct and sustain the movement, with special attention to the internal and external challenges they faced along the way. It argues that, as the closest thing the revolution had to a vanguard organization, the RYC deserves our attention for the lessons it offers in revolutionary leadership and the viability of participatory democratic practice as its praxis, for revolutionary movements in the Arab region and across the world. The presentation will reflect on the implications of these empirical insights for future theorization on leadership in movements and for imagining new modes of revolutionary organizing for the 21st century. This paper is based on in-depth interviews and extensive ethnographic fieldwork with activists in Cairo during the height of the uprising in 2011, as well as additional interviews with them during the years of revolutionary upheaval that followed.
All Middle East