Headless Movements Rising in Egypt, Turkey, and Brazil

Decentralized protests baffle centralized states.


Yesterday and today, millions of Egyptians have marched against Mohamed Morsi's government. Time reports that the number of demonstrators yesterday "equaled and possibly exceeded some of the highest peaks of the original revolution against deposed dictator Hosni Mubarak," adding that "Tahrir Square, on the edge of downtown Cairo, was packed to the point where crowds extended all the way across two bridges to the other bank of the Nile. And the crowds in Heliopolis were equally massive—completely covering the district."

Today five ministers resigned from Morsi's cabinet, and the military has threatened to step in on the opposition's bahalf. On the bright side, that suggests that Morsi won't be able to count on the armed forces to crack down on the protests. On the not-so-bright side, it means the military might try to coopt this surge of people power, perhaps even using it as a cover for a coup.

Meanwhile, the mass protests in Turkey have not ceased, and another people-power movement is burning in Brazil, where some protesters have taken to chanting "Turkey is here!" Tactics can be contagious: These movements have different roots, are appearing in different contexts, and will no doubt arrive at different outcomes, but they're all watching and learning from each other, and from the other grassroots protests that have flared around the globe over the last few years.

According to the Financial Times, Turkey's ruler has mistaken that mutual awareness for a centralized conspiracy:

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey's prime minister, has suggested that the same outside forces are behind protests in both his own country and Brazil, as Turkish authorities continue their crackdown on overwhelmingly peaceful protesters….

"The same game is being played in Brazil," Mr Erdogan told a large rally of his supporters in the town of Samsun on [June 22]. "There are the same symbols, the same posters. Twitter, Facebook is the same, so are international media. They are controlled from the same centre. They are doing their best to achieve in Brazil what they could not achieve in Turkey. It is the same game, the same trap, the same goal."

In fact, far from being centrally controlled, these movements are notably resistant to control. They are, in the Brazilian sociologist Giuseppe Cocco's phrase, "self-convening marches that nobody manages to represent, not even the organizations that found themselves in the epicenter of the first call." But people in authority have a hard time comprehending that sort of loose, decentralized action. As Moisés Naím wrote last week,

The protests—informal, spontaneous, collective, often chaotic—are baffling to governments organized along hierarchical lines of authority. In Brazil, for example, a survey found that 81 percent of those who participated in one of the massive rallies simply learned about it via Facebook or Twitter and decided to join. In these cases, with whom should a government negotiate to restore order?

The leaderless, spontaneous nature of the protests also makes it difficult for the government to find someone to blame—or to decide whom to arrest in the hope of weakening the movement by cutting off its head. There is no head.

Governments misunderstand that at their own peril.

Related: "If This Is a New Cold War, Who's the Enemy Supposed to Be?"