The Arab Revolts: A Wide-Angle View
The Arab insurrections of 2011 constitute the 21st century’s most momentous political episode to date. Not since the events of 1989-91 that brought the Soviet Union down and swept new regimes to power across East Europe and Eurasia has the world experienced such dramatic—and potentially liberating—upheaval. The January 2011 rebellion that deposed the dictator of Tunisia, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, was swiftly followed by the overthrow of the Egyptian strongman, Hosni Mubarak. A powerful uprising scorched Bahrain, whose monarchy was rescued only by troops from neighboring Saudi Arabia. Revolts still rage in Libya, Syria, and Yemen.
It is too early to call the events revolutions. The men who control the guns, surveillance equipment, and cement-walled detention centers continue to hold state power, however tenuously. The uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt drove dictators from their perches, but popularly elected officials do not yet command the military, police, and auxiliary agencies of coercion. If and when elections for the top offices are held, moreover, it remains to be seen whether the military and the police will follow the post-Suharto Indonesian model of yielding to elected officials or acquire the Pakistani armed forces’ habit of sabotaging civilian rule even after ostensibly returning to the barracks.
Still, the Arab revolts may contain the seeds of revolution. How might we grasp the uprisings’ nature and meaning?
The Essence of the Revolts: National and Popular
Crucially, the uprisings have been national in scope. They have targeted national governments and invoked national symbols, particularly the national flag. They do not seek special privileges for particular regions or peoples or succession from the national territory. With the partial exception of Yemen, protestors have not pursued separatism. Tribalism played no part in the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings. In Libya, rebels succeeded quickly in the eastern part of the country while Muammar Qaddafi has continued to hold much of the west. But even in Libya national concerns have shaped the revolt. Brandishing the old, pre-Qaddafi national flag of Libya, the rebels headquartered in the eastern city of Benghazi fight not for succession but rather for uniting Libya under anti-Qaddafi forces. Tripoli, the national capital located in the west, was one of the first cities to revolt, and Qaddafi quelled the rebellion there only by imposing a reign of terror. The movement in Bahrain also has a national basis. To be sure, the revolt against the ruling Al Khalifa family, which adheres to Sunni Islam, was carried out largely by Shi’i Bahrainis. But Shia make up two-thirds of the country’s population. They seek to assert the right of the majority to a share in power, and their revolt was quashed only by the intervention of Saudi troops. The national character of the protests in Bahrain—and the antinational essence of the regime—could hardly be more evident.
Just as the rebellions have not been subnational, neither have they been supranational. No entity broader than the national state has been the object or theme of the revolts. “The Arab nation,” “the Muslim world,” and “the global poor” are invoked by observers, but these supranational categories have been of little relevance on the ground. People have revolted not as Arabs, Muslims, Christians, professionals, workers, or poor people, but rather as Egyptians, Tunisians, Libyans, and Bahrainis. To the extent that demonstrators have expressed solidarity with one another across countries, they have not appealed to uniting Arab lands, promoting transnational Islamism, or escaping the clutches of global capitalism. They have appealed instead to the shared goal of discarding dictatorships in their countries.
This common aim points to the second facet of the revolts: They are popular in character. Broad swaths of Arab populations have participated in their countries’ revolts, and countless numbers of people from all walks of life have sacrificed their safety in order to destroy dictatorships. What is more, they have demonstrated tenacity and sophistication. With no aid from state authorities, Egypt’s largely peaceful insurgents planned their revolt methodically and patiently over several years. Once they launched their demonstrations, they braved bullets and police truncheons for 19 grueling days in order to force Mubarak’s resignation. Following his departure, they have returned to the streets frequently and massively to demand his prosecution and to remind the military that they expect a full-blown transition to self-rule, not tutelage by Mubarak’s men without Mubarak. The Tunisian drama has been broadly similar. In none of the Arab revolts did ruling elites provide the impetus for change.
In the popularity of their cast, the Arab revolts surpass the movements against communist party domination that swept East Europe and the Soviet Union two decades ago. The postcommunist revolts were at least in part initiated by governing elites who had lost confidence in their own governing principles and decided that they could get a better deal for themselves under a different form of regime. Without minimizing the sacrifices made by ordinary people, one can fairly say that Mikhail Gorbachev, the last general secretary of the Communist Party of the USSR, actually initiated—even if unwittingly—the revolutions himself. Most Soviet bloc rulers folded their tents without a fight. In no case, with the possible exception of Poland, did the masses play as indispensable a role as they have in the Arab uprisings. Nowhere did the people demonstrate—nor did they need to demonstrate—the steadfastness and spirit of sacrifice we have witnessed in Sidi Bouzid, Tunis, Cairo, Suez, Benghazi, Misrata, Tripoli, Manama, and countless other places in the Arab world during 2011.
The Arab revolts are popular in another sense as well. Not only are the revolts the product of mass action, but the masses are acting above all on behalf of the right to rule themselves. To the surprise of many observers, the protestors seek rule neither by clerics nor by technocrats nor by soldiers. They demand self-government. The specter of Iran in 1979, with protestors pressing for rule by religious guides, has been conspicuous by its absence in 2011. The dazzling failure of the Iranian revolution to deliver rule by righteous men who fear God and respect the Islamic principles of consensus and consultation is not lost on Arab publics.
Will the People Get What They Fought For?
The national scope and popular cast of the uprisings provide a good start for movement toward popular rule. National-level movements are more readily accommodated by modern electoral politics than are separatist, successionist, regionalist, and sectarian movements. Furthermore, the thoroughly popular nature of the uprisings and the centrality of self-government in their demands lend them a pro-democratic spirit.
What, then, are the main obstacles to democratization? Among many political leaders and commentators in the West, the possible triumph of Islamists in forthcoming elections is seen as the greatest threat to democracy. Many commentators have simply assumed that the Muslim Brotherhood is headed for crushing victory in Egypt. Such observers draw succor from the Brotherhood’s decisions not to field its “own” candidate in presidential elections and to run candidates in only half or fewer of the constituencies for the national legislature. The Brotherhood of course has an interest in characterizing its decisions in precisely the way they are perceived in the West: as acts of self-limitation aimed at calming secularists, the military, and the United States. After all, like any political force, the Islamists would like to portray themselves as both popular and magnanimous—so popular, in fact, that they have the luxury of choosing how much power they will take for themselves, and so magnanimous that they graciously chooseto allow their opponents a place at the table. Such a picture also serves the interests of Mubarak-era holdovers, who spent decades proclaiming that rule by Islamists was the only alternative to Mubarak’s militarized dictatorship.
But is not yet clear that the Muslim Brotherhood is actually so invincible. Its popular appeal has never really been put to test. We do not yet know whether young Egyptians regard it with enthusiasm. What is more, the Brotherhood is internally diverse. Theocratic, intolerant strains endure, but some leaders may favor what has been dubbed “Muslim democracy”—a pro-pluralist, tolerant, religiously-inspired commitment to representative government.
The Islamists are not actually the greatest threat to self-government. More mundane in appearance but more menacing in fact is a key institutional problem: the debility of legislatures.
Matthew Kroenig of Georgetown University and I recently coauthored a study that rates the power of national legislatures in every major country in the world. Using the data we generated, we have found that countries with strong legislatures have a much better chance of achieving self-rule than countries that do not.
The reasons for the correlation are straightforward. Over the past century, overweening executives have been democracy’s most consistent foe. Presidents in fledgling democracies are ever tempted to abuse their power. Unless they encounter resistance from a potent legislature, they often turn highhanded. Even those who started with reputations as democrats are susceptible to arrogance in power. Russia’s Boris Yeltsin, Kyrgyzstan’s Askar Akaev, and Zambia’s Frederick Chiluba are examples. Notably, each of these presidents served in a country with a weak national legislature, which created permissive conditions for executive mischief. Where executives are constrained by muscular legislatures, the prospects for preserving pluralism are better. In Indonesia, South Korea, and Mongolia, for example, postauthoritarian constitutions vested substantial power in national legislatures, which have resisted executive self-aggrandizement and thereby helped protect popular rule. The legislature also serves as a forum in which sectarian, regional, and class disputes can be aired and negotiated. If the legislature is a site of real power, rival groups in society may entrust the business of defending their interests to their advocates in parliament rather than reflexively resorting to confrontation. Presidencies and monarchies, as unitary actors, are less capable than legislatures of representing the spectrum of societal interests and of deliberating, bargaining, and forging compromise. What is more, legislatures, by virtue of the multiplicity of actors in their ranks, are often harder for the military to capture and manipulate than presidents are.
Unfortunately, legislatures in Arab lands are weak. The People’s Assembly of Egypt and the National Parliament of Tunisia each ranks in the bottom fifth of the world’s parliaments in their overall capacity. They lack the powers that legislatures should possess in an open polity, including the rights to investigate the executive, oversee the armed forces and police, and approve or reject the president’s ministerial appointments.
Constitutional change aimed at empowering the legislature is afoot in Tunisia and is possible in the future in Egypt. Such changes are imperative if self-rule is to have a chance. As currently structured, the legislatures will never be capable of checking the next president. Whoever those presidents are—and no matter how “democratic” their credentials or how free the contest that brings them to power—they cannot be trusted to secure popular rule. Rules on the division of power provide less colorful copy than do the actions and political performance of Islamist parties. But they will have more influence over whether the legions of intrepid protestors get what they fought for.
What Do the Uprisings Teach Us?
The revolts convey lessons. Above all they show that the impulse to freedom and self-government is universal. Observers have tended to regard Arabs as immune from democracy’s charms. Muslims, and especially Arab Muslims, are often seen as partisans of justice but not freedom. Analysts have held that devotion to political freedom is foreign to Arab or Muslim culture, much the way some argue that it is alien to Chinese culture.
The Arab revolts, even if they fail to beget robust democracies, discredit this idea. Resentment of privation and corruption helped spark the uprisings, but freedom—more than bread, jobs, or justice—has been the masses’ central demand. Food and fairness are of paramount concern to Arabs, as they are to everyone. But Arabs, having known more than their fair share of tyranny, have shown that they esteem freedom as much as anyone else does. So too have they revealed their belief that economic security and social justice are more likely had with liberty and self-government than without them. Observers who continue to characterize political freedom as a “Western value” and doubt its allure to Arabs, Persians, Slavs, Chinese, or anyone else, take notice: The fallacy of your conceit is growing ever more palpable.
The revolts also show that no autocracy is safe. Tunisia and Egypt were among the world’s sturdiest dictatorships. The impressive rates of growth and development that Tunisia experienced over the past two decades led many observers to assume that Tunisians must be content with Ben Ali. Egypt’s economic performance under Mubarak was not as good, but it was solid and steady. Not only were there reasons to suppose that Tunisians and Egyptians were satisfied; there were also ample grounds for assuming that, whatever their level of contentment, they were too scared to challenge their rulers. In its pervasiveness and brutality, Tunisia’s secret police under Ben Ali rivaled the USSR’s KGB. Many observers regarded Mubarak’s security apparatus as exceptionally proficient and firmly entrenched. Until just weeks before his fall, Mubarak was widely considered one of the world’s wiliest and least assailable political survivors. If Ben Ali and Mubarak can be toppled, anyone can.
The reactions of the world’s autocrats to the Arab revolts show that they richly appreciate this fact. Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, claimed that the uprisings were the work of foreign forces (as always in Ahmadinejad’s mythology, Americans and Zionists). Russia’s strongman, Vladimir Putin, turned up his nose at the Arab revolts—while seeing to it that the Russian press gave those events only the most perfunctory attention. Central Asia’s autocrats, including Uzbekistan’s Islam Karimov, responded similarly. China’s rulers reacted with what can only be described as panic, censoring web searches that contained the word “Egypt” during the revolts and following with a harsh, sustained crackdown on dissidents at home.
No particular ideological or personal affinity ties Mubarak and Ben Ali to Ahmadinejad, Putin, Karimov, and the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party. The only thing these figures share is a commitment to evading accountability to their own people and an aversion to granting their people elementary rights. For this reason alone, they feel each other’s pain. There is no honor among thieves, but there may be sympathy. After all, those left standing feel less secure when one of their own is toppled. The chilling thought occurs to each that he might be next.
And one of them is bound to be right.
For more than 10 years, Fair Observer has been free, fair and independent. No billionaire owns us, no advertisers control us. We are a reader-supported nonprofit. Unlike many other publications, we keep our content free for readers regardless of where they live or whether they can afford to pay. We have no paywalls and no ads.
In the post-truth era of fake news, echo chambers and filter bubbles, we publish a plurality of perspectives from around the world. Anyone can publish with us, but everyone goes through a rigorous editorial process. So, you get fact-checked, well-reasoned content instead of noise.
We publish 2,500+ voices from 90+ countries. We also conduct education and training programs on subjects ranging from digital media and journalism to writing and critical thinking. This doesn’t come cheap. Servers, editors, trainers and web developers cost money. Please consider supporting us on a regular basis as a recurring donor or a sustaining member.