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Students from the University of Helwan in Cairo decorate the walls of the arts academy to mark the revolution that overthrew the former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, in March 2011. Access to information was the key that brought down leaders such as Mubarak, says the writer. Manoocher Deghati / AP Photo
Manoocher Deghati STF
Students from the University of Helwan in Cairo decorate the walls of the arts academy to mark the revolution that overthrew the former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, in March 2011. Access to information was the key that brought down leaders such as Mubarak, says the writer. Manoocher Deghati / AP Photo

In age of the tweet, leadership reinvented

Individuals armed with unprecedented access to information are upending conventional hierarchies and changing the very shape of the political landscape.

In considering today's global uncertainties - and, indeed, in listening to many lament about the world - I am struck by the wistful search for "leadership". Yet, the dearth of leadership in our era is easily explained: there are fewer and fewer followers.

In fact, one of the principal, if largely unnoticed, effects of the new communications technologies and the resulting expansion of popular access to information has been the dramatic decline in the number of people who are prepared to defer to those who claim authority on traditional grounds, whether divine right, historical entitlement, coercive power or even putative expertise.

Just as the citizen journalist has reorganised the dissemination of information, uploading videos of raging battles and surreptitious bribes, or tweeting political summits and street protests, so, too, are political subjects being transformed into empowered citizens.

From the halls of the US Congress to the streets of Cairo, people armed with unprecedented access to information are challenging received wisdom, upending conventional hierarchies and, very often, obstructing the conduct of normal politics.

If we concede that "knowledge is power", we must also acknowledge, however, that "a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing". Many of the newly incorporated citizens and their political representatives are neither seasoned analysts nor practised political actors, and they often make up for lack of experience with little more than enthusiasm. But whether they are protesting tyranny, corruption or austerity in the Middle East or what many see as the imperialism of international institutions and actors, they are reshaping both the style and the substance of global and regional politics.

Deference to leadership of "great powers" and their proxy regimes is waning fast in the Arab world and in the next decade there will be a profound rewriting of regional history, as the 20th century's tattered narrative of "modernisation" under the guise of European and then Cold War tutelage is finally and definitively abandoned. Instead, political debates about the meaning and purpose of power, community, rights and citizenship will rage sometimes violently as the legacies of European imperialism and Cold War strategy fade into the twilight of history.

Already we have seen once ostensibly impregnable Arab governments toppled and seemingly invincible political figures killed, exiled or jailed. Why should we not expect some of the apparently unassailable states to crumble, their borders redrawn in bloody battles among people who refuse to follow local, regional or global "leaders" whom they believe have patronised and betrayed them?

The contemporary map of the Middle East is a recent invention, imposed and sustained by the "great powers" and "indispensable nations" of their time. There is nothing sacred about that map. Indeed, for many in the region, especially those newly introduced to the alternative narratives of history proposed by Islamist movements in website after website, it is far more likely to be an insult and a provocation.

For the rulers of those states, and for the global community that depends on the trade and transit in the region or that advocates human rights, accountability and transparency in government the prospect of sustained leaderless protest, loosely networked regional anarchist, nihilist or terrorist groups and brutal civil wars between competing citizen militias is not appealing.

But it is plausible. There is very little that those both inside and beyond the region who aspire to a leadership role can do, short of acknowledging that the nature of leadership itself is changing dramatically. Patience, humility, awe and sustained engagement will be rewarded; remote-control intervention, whether in the bullying of sanctions, the stealth of drone wars or the hypocrisy of preferential humanitarian treatment, will not.

Lisa Anderson is the president of the American University in Cairo, and a member of the Global Agenda Council on the United States. This opinion piece is part of a series in advance of the launch of the Outlook on the Global Agenda in Arabic, which will be released at the World Economic Forum on the Middle East and North Africa May 24-26 at the Dead Sea, Jordan.

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