Who Is the Egyptian Mandela?

It is too early to know if Egypt's peaceful revolution will end as well as it has begun. But so far it presents to the world new, inspiring testimony to the power of non-violence. In the face of injustice, anger is natural and violence often the first resort. But the result of violence is, typically, more violence. Where non-violence prevails, the result can be transformation: not just the situation is changed, the society is changed.

As I listened to coverage of the jubilant celebrations today, though, a question kept occurring to me: Who is the leader who set the example of non-violence for the Egyptians? Who is their Mandela, their Gandhi, their Martin Luther King?

In the past, in order for non-violence to win out over rage and retribution, it has required a single hero, someone willing to take on the enormous personal risk of responding to violence with vulnerability, and possessed of enough powerful charisma to convince oppressed multitudes to do the same.

No one such figure has been identified in the case of Egypt, at least not yet. Mohamed ElBaradei is of course seen as a leader of the uprising, but not the leader. It appears clear that it would have happened without him.

Some have suggested that's because this was an example of a whole new form of social movement, driven by social media -- a "Twitter Revolution". Others, citing the relatively low penetration of social media in Egypt, have suggested this view is just an example of first world chauvinism, a assumption that all good things must flow from us, and our technology. I'd say we don't know yet -- while noting that, knowing what we do about network effects, a little Twitter can go a long way.

Another thing most of us in the West don't know is all that much about Egyptian culture. I hope in the coming days we'll learn more about what in that culture served to produce so many brave people.

And I hope we, and people around the world, will learn from their example.

As President Obama said in his statement today, paraphrasing King, "It was the moral force of non-violence... that bent the arc of history towards justice once more."

UPDATE, Feb 13, 2011:

Several commenters have challenged my statement that non-violent movements have usually required "a single hero", and on reflection I would temper it. Often there is more than one leader of a movement, and I don't think of a leader as the sole embodiment of courage. My question "Who Is the Egyptian Mandela?" is of course intended as a tribute to the thousands of Egyptians who took that responsibility on themselves.

But I don't think that in looking at history there's a binary choice between the "great man" theory and one that emphasizes the importance of the society at large -- in my opinion neither is complete. Traditionally, change has required many people working together to change systems, and it has also required leaders to take the risks involved in moving first. You could wait a long time for a leaderless crowd to do anything useful, or a crowdless leader.

I disagree that King and Gandhi are the "two exceptions" as important leaders of non-violent movements. It seems to me there have been others, including Cesar Chavez, Aung San Suu Kyi and the Dalai Lama. And in any movement, no matter how egalitarian, I think we'd be likely to find leaders of some sort, even in cases where they took pains to distribute responsibility.

There does seem to be a trend towards more widely distributed responsibility, as in the case of Egypt so far, and I think it has exciting potential. I expect the line between individual and shared responsibility to remain blurry, though, and the idea of no leadership at all still sounds unrealistic to me.

Regarding Mandela and violence, Mandela did defend the use of limited violence under extreme circumstances. But he advocated non-violence when at all possible, as he wrote in a profile of Gandhi for Time magazine:

"The Gandhian influence dominated freedom struggles on the African continent right up to the 1960s because of the power it generated and the unity it forged among the apparently powerless. Nonviolence was the official stance of all major African coalitions, and the South African A.N.C. remained implacably opposed to violence for most of its existence.

"Gandhi remained committed to nonviolence; I followed the Gandhian strategy for as long as I could, but then there came a point in our struggle when the brute force of the oppressor could no longer be countered through passive resistance alone. We founded Unkhonto we Sizwe and added a military dimension to our struggle. Even then, we chose sabotage because it did not involve the loss of life, and it offered the best hope for future race relations."