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 of the Arab world had their moments of glory.
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 fueled 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, does not.
After the defeat of the 1848 revolutions, there were no further democratic revolutions in Europe for twenty 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, and 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 politicized, 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.
There have been only two relative successes among the Arab countries, Tunisia and Morocco (where the change came so quickly that hardly anybody noticed).
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.
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