Gwynne Dyer: The Arab Spring three years on


It has taken a little longer than it did after the 1848 revolutions in Europe, but on the third anniversary of the Egyptian revolution we can definitely say that the “Arab Spring” is finished. The popular, mostly non-violent revolutions that tried to overthrow the single-party dictatorships and absolute monarchies of the Arab world had their moments of glory, but the party is over and the bosses are back.

People in the Middle East hate having their triumphs and tragedies treated as a second-hand version of European history, but the parallels with Europe in 1848 are hard to resist. The Arab tyrants had been in power for just as long, the revolutions were fuelled by the same mixture of democratic idealism and frustrated nationalism, and once again the trigger for the revolutions (if you had to highlight just one factor) was soaring food prices.

In many places the Arab revolutionaries had startlingly quick successes at first— Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen—just like the French, German, and Italian revolutionaries did in Europe’s “Springtime of the Peoples”. For a time it looked like everything would change. Then came the counter-revolutions and it all fell apart, leaving only a few countries permanently changed for the better—like Denmark then, or Tunisia in today’s Arab world.

The disheartening parallels are particularly strong between Egypt, by far the biggest country in the Arab world, and France, which was Europe’s most important and populous country in 1848. In both cases, the revolutions at first brought free media, civil rights, and free elections, but also a great deal of social turmoil and disorientation.

In both France and Egypt, the newly enfranchised masses then elected presidents whose background alarmed much of the population: a nephew of Napoleon in one case, a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood in the other. And here the stories diverge for a time—but the ending, alas, does not.

In France, President Louis Napoleon launched a coup against his own presidency, and re-emerged in 1852 as Emperor Napoleon III. It had been a turbulent few years, and by then a large majority of the French were willing to vote for him because he represented authority, stability and tradition. They threw away their own democracy.

In Egypt last year, the army allied itself with former revolutionaries to overthrow the elected president, Mohamed Morsi—and within a few months, after an election which will genuinely represent the wish of most Egyptians to trade their new democracy for authority, stability, and tradition, Field Marshal Abdel Fatah al-Sisi will duly assume the presidency. The counter-revolution is as popular in Egypt now as it was in France then.

And if you fear that this analogy is really relevant, then here’s the worst of it. After the defeat of the 1848 revolutions, there were no further democratic revolutions in Europe for 20 years. If that timetable were also to apply to the Arab world, then the next round of democratic revolutions would only be due around 2035. But it probably doesn’t apply.

There is one key difference between the European revolutions of 1848 and the Arab revolutions of 2011. The 1848 revolutions were violent explosions of popular anger that succeeded in hours or days, while those of 2010-11 were largely non-violent, more calculated struggles that took much longer to win. Non-violent revolutions give millions of people time to think about why they are taking these risks and what they hope to get out of it.

They may still lose focus, take wrong turns, even throw all their gains away. Mistakes are human, and so is failure. But once people have participated in a non-violent revolution they are permanently politicised, and in the long run they are quite likely to remember what they came for.

The most promising candidate to succeed Gene Sharp as the world authority on non-violent revolutions is Erica Chernoweth, a young American academic who co-wrote the study “Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Non-Violent Conflict” with diplomat Maria Stephan. A lot of their book is about why non-violent revolution succeeds or fails, but most interesting of all are their statistics about how often it succeeds.

Their headline statistic is that violent revolutionary struggles succeed in overthrowing an oppressive regime only 30 percent of the time, whereas non-violent campaigns succeed almost 60 percent of the time. By that standard, the Arab world is certainly under-performing.

There have been only two relative successes among the Arab countries, Tunisia and Morocco (where the change came so quickly that hardly anybody noticed). There were two no-score draws: Yemen and Jordan. And there were three abject failures: Bahrain, Egypt, and Syria, the latter ending up in a full-scale civil war. (Libya doesn’t count, as it was a violent revolution with large foreign participation right from the start.) So far, not so good.

But the most relevant statistic from Chernoweth and Stephan’s work for the future of the Arab world is this: “Holding all other variables constant, the average country with a failed non-violent campaign has over a 35 percent chance of becoming a democracy five years after a conflict’s end.” The game isn’t over yet.

Comments (4) Add New Comment
The Key Difference
"There is one key difference between the European revolutions of 1848 and the Arab revolutions of 2011."

The key difference is huge interference by foreign powers in the Arab Spring. There is too much at stake for western powers to let the middle east become democratic. One only has to remember the middle east in the post-World War II years when democracy in that region started to flourish and was ruthlessly quenched by foreign interference.
Rating: +1
For all practical purposes, Democracy is dead these days, having been superseded by Corporatocracy throughout the industrialized world.

The world is run for the benefit of multi-national corporations, in case you haven't noticed. Corporations don't care about or answer to the populace, nor do they care about or answer to nation-states. They only care about and answer to themselves.
Rating: +4
I Chandler
"Libya doesn’t count, as it was a violent revolution with large foreign participation right from the start."

The “Arab Spring” also had large foreign participation - starting decades ago. Confessions of a Contra describes start of a more comparable and recent "Spring". The Contra War was waged from 1981-1990:

"The Americans were CIA agents They wanted to make sure we said the right things in our first joint public appearance...Feldman introduced two lawyers who briefed us on the Neutrality Act, the American law prohibiting private citizens from waging war on another country from U.S. territory. Feldman was worried we were going to tell the press that we were trying to overthrow the Sandinistas, which, of course, is exactly what we wanted to do. He emphasized that we should say instead that we were trying to "create conditions for democracy." After the briefing we asked each other the questions we were likely to face in the morning.
"Where have you been getting money?" someone asked.

"Say your sources want to remain confidential," Feldman advised—a truthful and very clever answer.

"Have you had any contact with U.S. government officials?"

The CIA men agreed there was no way to finesse this one. We simply had to lie and say, "No." We practiced like this for three hours.
Rating: +2
Ilan Hersht
I'm always slightly skeptical about Gwynne Dyer's comparison to European revolutionary movements. Eastern Europe at least had a model to compare to an emulate, Western Europe and it allowed them to have clear demands and alternatives.

The Arab countries do not have a model they feel close enough to to emulate. 'Like Europe' will not succeed as a reform slogan. They are also developing very dangerous religious habits, not conducive to democracy. The democratic choice for Egyptians was Mohamed Morsi and a coalition of theocrats. That is exactly the schoolboy paradox of elected nondemocrats, the Achilles heel of aspiring democracies.
Rating: -3
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