‘The game isn’t over yet’
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.
In many places — Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen — the Arab revolutionaries had startlingly quick successes at first, just like the French, German and Italian revolutionaries did in Europe’s «Springtime of the Peoples.»
For a time, in both cases, 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 — Napoleon’s nephew in one case, and a Muslim Brotherhood leader 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 most 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 to apply to the Arab world, 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 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 Chenoweth, 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 per cent of the time, whereas non-violent campaigns succeed almost 60 per cent of the time. By that standard, the Arab world is certainly underperforming.
But the most relevant statistic from the study by Chenoweth and Stephan 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 per cent chance of becoming a democracy five years after a conflict’s end.”
The game isn’t over yet.
Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.