The FP Top 100 Global Thinkers: The Revolutionaries

The 14 brave individuals who tied for the top spot on our 2011 Global Thinkers list.

By , a former deputy managing editor at Foreign Policy.

All revolutionaries want their stories told to the world, and no one has conveyed the hopes and dreams of Egyptians more vividly than Alaa Al Aswany. The dentist turned author rose to fame with his 2002 novel, The Yacoubian Building, which charted Egypt’s cultural upheaval and gradual dilapidation since throwing off its colonial shackles. Aswany used his prominence to help found the Kefaya political movement, which first articulated the demands that would energize the youth in Tahrir Square: an end to corruption, a rejection of hereditary rule, and the establishment of a true democratic culture. For his political activism, Aswany was blacklisted by Egypt’s state-owned publishing houses, and security officials harassed the owner of the cafe where he met with young writers.

How times change. Aswany was a fixture in Tahrir Square during Egypt’s uprising — he was almost killed three times, he said, during the running battles between demonstrators and pro-Mubarak thugs. And he has tried to keep the revolution’s spirit alive since, pressing the country’s ruling military junta to remove the vestiges of Hosni Mubarak’s regime and assailing Egypt’s Islamists for their willingness to sacrifice the movement’s principles for a taste of power. In the process, Aswany has given voice to a people silenced for too long. “Revolution is like a love story,” he said in February. “When you are in love, you become a much better person. And when you are in revolution, you become a much better person.”

The best muse for these times: The millions of Egyptians on Feb. 11 who were gathered when Mubarak decided to leave.
Stimulus or austerity? Both are a very good idea.
America or China? America. I had an American education and lived in Chicago. The American experience is an important part of my life.
Reading list:Vanka,” by Anton Chekhov; The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky; The Old Man and the Sea, by Ernest Hemingway.


The bespectacled lawyer and the Google marketing guru may not look the part of revolutionaries. But Mohamed ElBaradei and Wael Ghonim have done more than any other figures to put the political demands of Egypt’s citizens on a global stage.

After a celebrated career as International Atomic Energy Agency director-general that won him the Nobel Peace Prize, ElBaradei returned to Cairo last year to offer a political alternative to the stagnant rule of President Hosni Mubarak. And though he was one of the few to believe change could come — and quickly — to Egypt (“I see a decaying temple, almost collapsing,” he was quoted as saying in last year’s Global Thinkers issue), the rapid pace of change in Egypt since has exceeded his wildest expectations. Less than a year after his return, Mubarak was ousted — and ElBaradei had established himself as one of the most prominent voices for pushing the revolution ever further.

Ghonim became the global face of that revolution not long after it started, vaulted to fame after giving a tearful TV interview upon emerging from Mubarak’s prisons (where he was thrown after helping spark the protests by creating a popular anti-Mubarak Facebook page). He has since teamed up with ElBaradei to criticize Egypt’s ruling military junta for failing to lay out a clear road map for a transfer of power to civilian rule and for using military trials to silence protesters. As Egypt’s Islamists continue to gain influence, the two leaders’ work in pushing for a secular, democratic Egypt is more urgent than ever. Ghonim is now planning to form an Egyptian NGO focused on local innovation, while ElBaradei is running for president, harnessing the tools that Ghonim mastered — Facebook and Twitter — to communicate with Egyptians. It has freed him, he says, to take a fearless, big-picture view of the events in Egypt over the past year: “If all the young people feel [the revolution] is being derailed, they know a way back to the street — but it will be ugly.”

Muse: Mohamed Bouazizi.
Stimulus or austerity? Stimulus.
America or China? America.
Arab Spring or Arab Winter? Arab Spring.
Reading list: 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism, by Ha-Joon Chang; Al-Khubz Al-Hafi (For Bread Alone), by Mohamed Choukri; To the Lighthouse, by Virginia Woolf.
Best idea of 2011: Social networking as a tool to defeat tyranny.
Worst idea of 2011: Ignoring my wife’s advice to retire and spend more time with her.


Ali Ferzat has been irritating Syria’s heavy-handed powers for four decades with his biting political cartoons, evincing a razor-sharp wit and a withering eye for hypocrisy. When President Bashar al-Assad initially took power, Ferzat was allowed to start an officially sanctioned satirical magazine as part of what was supposed to be a new era of openness, but it was swiftly shut down. Emboldened by this year’s uprising, Ferzat broke with his past practice of avoiding caricatures of actual people to defiantly portray Assad as a Napoleonic madman with delusions of omnipotence. His response to the regime he has infuriated is simple: “You ask me why I air your dirty laundry, but you don’t ask yourself why you soil it in the first place.” A cartoon showing the president trying to hitch a ride in Muammar al-Qaddafi’s getaway car evidently pushed things too far, and in August Ferzat was seized by security force members who beat him, broke his hands, and left him by the side of the road. The magazine he published his cartoons in has been shut down, though he now reaches a wider audience abroad.

If Ferzat embodies the Syrian uprising’s defiant soul, Razan Zaitouneh represents its beating heart. The 34-year-old attorney has been active in Syria’s opposition since founding the Human Rights Association of Syria in 2001; and her website, providing up-to-date information on casualties and abuses by security forces, has been an essential resource for journalists locked out of Syria by its bloodthirsty government during this year’s uprising. Zaitouneh has been in hiding since security forces accused her of being a foreign agent, and her husband was reportedly arrested and tortured for three months before being released in July. In October, the international advocacy group Reach All Women in War gave Zaitouneh its Anna Politkovskaya Award, named for the murdered Russian journalist in honor of female human rights defenders who put their safety at risk. In accepting it, Zaitouneh said the Syrian people “deserve much more than complicit silence, or timid criticism from those who have failed to refer this regime to the International Criminal Court despite acknowledging its crimes.”

Muse: Syrian protesters.
Stimulus or austerity? Stimulus.
America or China? Syria.
Arab Spring or Arab Winter? Democracy in all seasons.
Reading list: Books? No place or time for books in the revolution.
Best idea: One revolution is not enough.
Worst idea: Toppling Assad would lead to civil war.

MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images; Peter James Field/

The world cheered when peaceful pro-democracy movements overthrew autocratic governments in Tunisia and Egypt this year, but old fears that long-banned Islamist movements in both countries would rise to prominence, endangering the rights of women and minorities and fostering violent extremism, quickly resurfaced. So too, however, did leaders of those movements who seem determined to say all the right things when it comes to Islamism and democracy.

“We have continuously defended the right of women and men to choose their own lifestyle, and we are against the imposition of the headscarf in the name of Islam,” said Rached Ghannouchi, the 70-year-old former socialist turned Islamist leader of Tunisia’s al-Nahda (Renaissance) party who returned home in January after 22 years of exile in London, where he’d fled after a decade of torture and imprisonment in his home country. After winning a plurality of 40 percent in Tunisia’s first-ever democratic elections, Ghannouchi’s party is a major power broker in the new government.

Khairat El Shater, the top financier of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, spent a dozen years in prison under Hosni Mubarak before being released after the revolution. He also sought to reassure the West, writing in the Guardian, “The success of the Muslim Brotherhood should not frighten anybody: we respect the rights of all religious and political groups.” The leadership of the now-legal Muslim Brotherhood is very much up for grabs, and Shater is seen as a leading candidate to head the party and perhaps, one day, the country: a media-savvy engineer who became prosperous as a textile and furniture trader, developing a knack for working with foreign investors.

Given the audiences these leaders command, there’s little hope for democracy unless they are on board. So far, they seem to be playing a mostly productive role. Let’s hope it stays that way.

Stimulus or austerity? Stimulus.
Arab Spring or Arab Winter? Arab Spring.
Reading list: Borj Roumi, by Samir Sassi; History of Tunisia, by Hedi Timoumi.


As military leaders and tribal chieftains hijack Yemen’s revolution to settle long-running scores, it’s easy to forget that the original uprising was guided by the same peaceful principles that motivated protesters across the Middle East. The day after demonstrators toppled Tunisian despot Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in January, Tawakkol Karman, a 32-year-old mother of three who runs an organization to protect freedom of expression and human rights, rallied a few of her friends outside Sanaa University to cheer the Tunisians’ success — the first sign that the Arab Spring had reached Yemen.

As the protests gained momentum, Karman improbably stepped to the forefront of this deeply patriarchal society, articulating a nonviolent spirit and democratic principles to define the revolution. President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s regime, unable to deter this bothersome activist with threats, finally ordered her arrest in a nighttime raid, a misstep that turned her into a cause célèbre and only added to the ranks of the protesters. Her eventual release did nothing to temper her resolve. “This is not the victory I seek,” she said. “I was ready to stay in jail if the demonstrations would have toppled Ali Abdullah Saleh.” But though Karman has been celebrated worldwide for her bravery — and shared the Nobel Peace Prize for her audacity in helping launch the Arab Spring — Yemen remains in turmoil, and the political paralysis in Sanaa has left the country defenseless against religious extremism and economic decline.


As the world watched Egyptians throng Tahrir Square to call for the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak’s regime, they turned their TVs to the Qatar-owned Al Jazeera. And Wadah Khanfar, the channel’s top executive for eight years before he stepped down this past September, is the one responsible for transforming the pan-Arab satellite network into the most influential media source in the Middle East and a revolutionary inspiration in its own right, giving voice to the long-suppressed aspirations of a new generation of Arab citizens.

Whether the United States, Iran, or pre-revolutionary Egypt, Al Jazeera’s coverage has long been a target of unhappy governments. In 2004, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld excoriated the channel’s coverage of the Iraq war as “vicious, inaccurate, and inexcusable,” and Mubarak’s goons attacked the station’s Cairo bureau and arrested its reporters during the height of this year’s uprising. But Khanfar brought the network into its own during this year of Arab revolt, providing granular detail and a level of cultural understanding that was simply unmatched by its competitors and getting millions of viewers around the world addicted to its online live feeds from Tahrir Square. During the height of the Arab Spring, Al Jazeera witnessed a whopping 2,000 percent increase in visits to its English-language website, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton praised the network for delivering “real news” from the region.

Khanfar’s allies have bedeviled him as much as his enemies: Qatar’s ownership of the network led to persistent questions of objectivity, and diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks that showed him altering Al Jazeera’s coverage under U.S. pressure may have hastened his departure. Nevertheless, Khanfar’s decision to focus on the stories of Arab citizens, and not their brutal, venal rulers, has been vindicated. As he put it, “It is the growing periphery of the Arab world — the masses at its margins, not its feeble and decaying center — that is shaping the future of the region.”

Muse: The youth.
Stimulus or austerity? A bit of both. Austerity should focus on defense and foreign interventions, and stimulus to create jobs.
America or China? America.
Arab Spring or Arab Winter? Arab Awakening.
Reading list: A Peace to End All Peace, by David Fromkin; Secret Channels, by Mohamed Heikal; Reset: Iran, Turkey, and America’s Future, by Stephen Kinzer.
Best idea: Trust the choice of people in defining their destiny.
Worst idea: Becoming subservient to the centers of power.

John Ritter

In May, a video appeared on YouTube featuring Manal al-Sharif, a Saudi computer consultant and longtime women’s rights activist, driving her car in the city of Khobar. In Saudi Arabia, the only country on Earth where women are prohibited from driving, the video, quickly blocked by Saudi authorities, became a viral sensation. Later, Sharif encouraged Saudi women to take part in a nationwide day of driving to protest the ban, which is widely enforced but not actually written in Saudi law.

The clip — and Sharif’s later imprisonment — sparked a movement. Dozens of videos of Saudi women driving in defiance of the ban have continued to appear on the Internet, the first major challenge in more than a decade to Saudi Arabia’s restrictive rules targeting women, the harshest in the world. Meanwhile, though the Saudi government has now granted women the right to vote in the 2015 elections — with permission from a male relative, of course — a woman was recently sentenced to flogging for being caught in the driver’s seat (the sentence was later commuted). Part of the reason women are increasingly defying this harsh treatment is Eman Al Nafjan, author of Saudiwoman’s Weblog, one of the most influential English-language blogs on Saudi Arabia, as well as a postgraduate student in Riyadh and mother of three. She not only amplified the driving videos and the protest on her blog, but called out Saudi authorities for setting up a fake Twitter feed to discredit Sharif. Saudi Arabia may not have seen the upheavals experienced elsewhere in the Arab world this year, but Nafjan thinks the driving protest is a sign of things to come. “There’s no denying that the country is fertile ground for a revolution,” she writes.

Muse: Gandhi.
Stimulus or austerity? Reasonable austerity.
America or China? Both and neither.
Arab Spring or Arab Winter? Arab Spring all the way.
Reading list: Inside the Kingdom, by Robert Lacey; Deaf Sentence, by David Lodge; The Evolution of God, by Robert Wright.
Best idea: A two-state solution for the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
Worst idea: Sarah Palin for president.

Muse: Peaceful demonstrators bringing down dictatorships.
Stimulus or austerity? A middle ground: more safety nets.
America or China? America.
Arab Spring or Arab Winter? Arab Spring.
Reading list: The Women Who Broke All the Rules, by Susan Evans and Joan Avis; Inside the Kingdom, by Robert Lacey; Rosa Parks: My Story, by Rosa Parks.

Abdul Jalil al-Nasser

It was poetic justice that Muammar al-Qaddafi’s regime, which collapsed under the weight of its crimes this year, was brought low by a man who called the Libyan government to account for one of its worst atrocities. Fathi Terbil, a 39-year-old Libyan human rights lawyer, had bravely taken up the case of the estimated 1,200 people massacred in a 1996 uprising at the notorious Abu Salim prison. When Qaddafi’s security forces, panicking at the first rumblings of dissent, arrested him in Benghazi in February, he assumed a central role in the origin story of the Libyan uprising.

The first people to gather outside the prison to demand Terbil’s release were the families of the victims of the Abu Salim massacre. (Terbil himself was one of them — his brother was killed there too.) Thousands more soon joined them, igniting the protest movement that eventually snowballed into a full-blown revolution. As the revolt gained momentum, Terbil’s iconic black-and-white checkered kaffiyeh and New York Yankees cap became symbolic of the diverse, youth-driven spirit of the Libyan revolt. Now, as a member of the council at the heart of Libya’s new interim government, representing the youth movements, Terbil is trying not only to bring justice to victims of past crimes, but to build a government under which such crimes cannot happen again. It’s no easy task: The utter destruction of any independent organization over four decades of Qaddafi’s Libya meant, in Terbil’s words, that the erstwhile rebels were starting “as if we had just been born today.”

David Degner

Gene Sharp, an 83-year-old Boston-based academic, was not on the ground in Tunis or Cairo, but his tactics certainly were. For more than half a century, Sharp has been working to turn the philosophies of nonviolent protest devised by Henry David Thoreau and Mohandas Gandhi into a blueprint that can be put into practice by activists around the world.

Over the last few decades, his handbook for peaceful revolt — the 1973 classic The Politics of Nonviolent Action, which covers everything from “camouflaged meetings of protest” to “disclosing identities of secret agents” — has been deployed by protesters from Burma to Zimbabwe to the “color revolutions” that swept through the former communist world. In 2005, Sharp, often called the Clausewitz of nonviolence, was discovered yet again by the April 6 Youth Movement, a youth activist group that became one of the central organizers of the protests that this year brought down Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak.

April 6 also took inspiration and practical instruction from the Center for Applied NonViolent Action and Strategies (CANVAS), a group led by Srdja Popovic, a onetime marine biology student turned revolutionary, and composed of other veterans of Otpor (“Enough” in Serbian), the youth movement that organized the 1990s student uprisings that ultimately toppled Slobodan Milosevic. Today, Popovic’s goal is to help spread Otpor’s model around the world, and arguably he has succeeded. His group inspired the Arab Spring protesters directly and indirectly, from the Otpor fist that made it into the logo of the April 6 movement to Arabic-subtitled copies of the Otpor documentary Bringing Down a Dictator.

Of course, both Popovic and Sharp are quick to note that the real architects of the Egyptian revolution were the masses who thronged Tahrir Square. “There are two things you need to avoid if you don’t want your movement to be doomed: One is violence; the other is taking advice from foreigners,” Popovic said this year. But even if they didn’t carry revolution in a suitcase to the Middle East, it is undeniable that these bold global proselytizers of nonviolence have helped change the world in a very real way this year.

Muse: Desmond Tutu.
Stimulus or austerity? Unity — only united American leaders can overcome the economic and political crisis the United States is facing.
America or China? America, as the ideals of freedom, human rights, democracy, and private entrepreneurship, at least for me, still stand stronger and more important as opposed to marvelous Chinese achievements of economic growth, discipline, and stability.
Arab Spring or Arab Winter? Arab Spring, with its prospects for democracy for millions, is a definite fact. And whether this winter or next spring will be limited only to the Arab world and countries like Syria, Bahrain, and Iran — or pose a challenge to other non-Arab autocrats in places like Belarus, Zimbabwe, or Burma — is yet to be seen.
Reading list: Small Acts of Resistance, by Steve Crawshaw and John Jackson; The Autumn of the Patriarch, by Gabriel García Márquez; Join the Club, by Tina Rosenberg.
Best idea: The Maldives as the first carbon-neutral country.
Worst idea: That Arabs are “too immature for democracy.”

Darko Vojinovic; Orjan F. Ellingvag/Dagens Naeringsliv/Corbis

Cara Parks is a former deputy managing editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @caraparks

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