By H.A. Hellyer
13 May 2014
“If we’ve learned nothing else, we’ve learned this: revolutions invariably make things worse.”
“This so-called ‘Arab Spring’ just turned a bad situation for all these Arabs into a truly terrible one.”
And so on. That is the newly received wisdom in many quarters of the Western and Arab intelligentsias. Collectively, we all appear to have gone from an outstanding optimism in the early weeks and months of 2011, to a prodigious pessimism three years later. It is not simply that we believe the revolutions “failed” – it is that we begin to question whether or not they were a good idea in the first place. Some of the more honest do not obscure their real beliefs – perhaps what they believed all along – that, indeed, the revolutions were an awful idea.
It is an attractive idea. Looking throughout the Arab world, the situation appears far bleaker than it did a few years ago. Tunisia is the exception, and the jury is still out. Protests in Bahrain have not led to particularly much in the way of positive change. Yemen seems almost immune to change, for its own reasons. Libya is increasingly ungovernable. Syria has been all but destroyed, and the damage to it will be imprinted on future generations for years to come.
And Egypt… oh, Egypt. Egyptians ought to be grateful that their country does not look like Syria or Libya after the last three years before they complain effusively… but Egypt was – and remains – a tragic case. Three years after Tahrir Square and millions of Egyptians erupted, the demands of the January 25 revolution seem further away than ever.
Did The January 25 Revolution Succeed?
Ironically, many who support the new arrangement insist that actually, the January 25 revolution succeeded. From their perspective, they’re entirely correct. Within much of the pro-military camp, for example, that revolution was an event that had really only two aims – to enable the removal of Mubarak from office and to ensure that his apparent plans for succession were disrupted. Well, the removal happened – incidentally, in a military coup with hugely popular support, though no-one called it as such at the time – and the succession of Gamal Mubarak has been dashed.
But while it is an attractive narrative, none of this is, actually, true. The revolutions were not about the transfer of power from one individual to another – or to disrupt an existing transfer from one individual to another. Not in Egypt or elsewhere. They were, as the protesters made very clear, about the conversion of the social contract in these countries. When they went to streets, they wanted a more equitable society – not simply one that wasn’t run by a tyrant, autocrat or dictator. They never would have even taken to the streets in the way that they did, had those in power shown them the slightest bit of respect. Instead, those in power showed them guns, bullets and bombs.
Something of A Myth
It’s something of a myth to suggest that these uprisings were a “bad idea,” because it implies they were choices. Popular revolutions are seldom “choices,” especially those that happen rather unexpectedly. They happen precisely because the element of choice is absent – hence why the uprising takes place. If a “choice” had been present, then, in all likelihood, no uprising would have been deemed to be necessary. The protesters of all these countries would have far preferred options that were less damaging to themselves (remember the loss of life) and their societies. But that wasn’t their choice. They never had the power to choose.
Worse than the absence of choice was the use of violence – and that too is what happened to scores of Arabs in the last few years. When one implies, for example, the Syrian revolution was a bad idea, and blames the protesters for starting one – how utterly perverse in the reversal of roles. If there is blame to be placed upon anyone for starting a revolution, it must be placed upon those who made revolution necessary, and who had the power to stop it before it led to unpredictable and unwanted consequences.
Bizarre also is the notion that those revolutions were singular “events.” A coup is a singular event – it happens when full executive power moves from a presidency to a serving military officer in control of the country’s armed forces. When it happens, it’s done. A revolution, on the other hand, good or bad in its impetus, is a lot more complex than that. And the forces of revolution within these countries have not been spent yet. In truth, it’s not clear they will be spent any time soon – because the demographic challenges of this region indicate that the situation is unsustainable. This region’s populations are young – and they will demand a new reality. The only question is when, and how.
Where does that then leave those who believed in those revolutionary ideals of 2011? Well, probably in the same place it left them on the day they began believing in those ideas, whether in 2011 or otherwise. Those who believe in working for progressive, positive change will always find themselves up against those that do not. That’s nothing new. And at every point, when they think they have achieved a modicum of success, there will be a counter (revolution) that will seek to push them back. That’s almost a rule of nature.
They, of the counter-revolution, come in many shapes and forms – they may even cloak themselves in the garb of revolution for populist purposes. Whether they don the mantle of “traders in religion” or “traders in patriotism,” they will always do their worst. And the revolutionaries working for progressive change, whether in a reformative or a revolutionary manner, will do their best. That’s the only choice they have – to continue to work, and to build. Time is a difficult thing to rely on – but it’s actually incredibly reliable. And the good news is, it’s on the side of the young.
Dr. H.A. Hellyer, non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution, the Royal United Services Institute, and the Harvard University Kennedy School, previously held senior posts at Gallup and Warwick University.