People across the Arab World insist on calling their uprisings ‘revolutions’. But history teaches us that revolutions have been disappointing and labels do not count much.
Photo: Jonathan Rashad
Since the spring of last year, people of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya have been very proud to call their success in changing the ruling political systems ‘revolutions’. Even still now, while countries like Syria and Yemen are trembling in the face of a sweeping change wave, many debate whether we can declare their case a revolution or not. The label ‘revolution’ seems to have a ‘romantic symbolism’, but wrongly so.
Obviously, there is a lot of politics involved in the label debate. If Syria’s uprising were to be acknowledged as a revolution, this would mean a point of no return in some degree. The hope is to declare it a revolution and this inevitably makes the necessity of change manifest – because we are here talking about a big thing happening, a revolution!
While we are keen on having revolutions, these, historically, did not bring genuine or immediate change people hoped for. Abrupt political change does not mean a lot, and the examples are plenty.
The French Revolution is maybe the most idealized of all others. It started with a boom, the storming of the Bastille on July 14, 1789, and the political system changed overnight. The Declaration of the Rights of Man (Declaration Des Droits De L’Homme) is the only immediate game-changer.
A period of revenge against the clergy and monarchs began and culminated in the so-called of the Reign of Terror by Robespierre from 1793 till 1794. Around 40.000 were executed, a huge number for a population which was then comparable with the size of Syria today. The majority of those executed were from lower classes. What happened later is well-known. Napoleon Bonaparte would rule France from 1799 till 1814 and the dictatorship of the King was replaced by a dictatorship of the Emperor.
This story from the 18th century is very illustrative for the unholiness of revolutions. The turn of the French Revolution has been criticized by many conservative philosophers like the German Friedrich Schiller or the Irish Edmund Burke in his Reflections on the Revolution in France. The latter talked of “perverse effects” of the French case. Revolutions often “devour their children” as the French statesman Georges Danton once said as he was laid to the guillotine for execution.
The history of the Russian revolution can be told in a similar way. The civil disorder that followed and the rise of Stalin’s dictatorship is another reminder that one sudden eruption of emotions and hope is not that meaningful. When, in a post-revolutionary stage, dictatorships of men are replaced by dictatorships of bureaucracies while the same ruling elite and the same inequality remain, revolutions are betrayed, as the famous Russian Revolutionary Leon Trotsky later concluded while in exile.
In reality, the overthrow of political systems through grass-root revolutions punctuates the political aspect of a long process of social change, a ‘real revolution’, if you like.
When the ruling political system cannot anymore absorb the underlying changes in society, it can be replaced in an unpredicted moment. The long-run result of this change will depend on many things and does not have to correspond to the spirit of that revolutionary moment.
Revolutions can be neither started nor stopped at discretion, as Napoleon once said. This is indeed true as revolutions often develop their own dynamics. While many can predict a revolution by looking at the basic changes a society is going through, revolutions can be delayed or preempted by adapting the political system or accelerated by holding on to power or resorting to repression.
When a revolutionary eruption takes place, revolutionaries start to search for persons and values to idealize in order to build the ‘holy symbols’ of the revolution. This leads to the inevitable post-revolutionary conflicts and the black and white politics of revolutions. When dust settles, a large part of the old discredited bureaucracy will still be needed to rebuild the country. People starts to realize that the key for change is not merely political.
Once social conflicts reach a boiling point, the basic changes in the technological, social and economic spheres are hijacked by a dominant political interpretation of problems in the course of a revolution. The result of this is the manifestation of a firmly held belief that, in post-revolutionary times, for all societal problems to be solved, we only need a radical change of the political system.
But actually, it does not now matter that much ‘who’ will rule Egypt or Tunisia for example. The revolutions highlighted the irreversibility of political change in these countries. Even if Mubarak or Bin Ali had managed to stay in power, they would be for sure moved to change their ways of governing.
In comparison to colonial revolutions such as the American Revolution, social revolutions like the French and Russian Revolutions resulted from inner societal conflicts, according to 20th century sociologist Pitirim Sorokin. While such social revolutions are still held dear by many and glorified in textbooks, the promises of social revolutions can remain far-fetched for the immediate reality.
What was really revolutionary in the Middle East, both on the immediate and long-run term, was the discovery of the cultivation of food-crops and animals around 10.000 years BC, the so-called Neolithic Revolution. Similarly, the Industrial Revolution that took place in the Western part of the World was a genuine example of revolutionary change.
In our times, the real revolution is technological. The information age, where the availability and access to free information is easier than any time before, forces political systems to open up. Consequently, the easy access to information has changed Arab societies in many aspects and now led to the current ‘political change’.
Arab people started lately to compare themselves with other countries and decided to overthrow their political systems in search for more participation. It is not because they suddenly believed in democratic ideologies, but because they reached an informed conclusion that democracy can better deliver for them economically and socially.
Nowadays still, many Arab people struggling to change their political systems – Syria or Bahrain – regard a full-fledged revolution with a complete turnout of the political system as the ultimate prize. Yet, after each revolution, the revolutionary spree tricks people into thinking that they arrived at the final stage of their political aspiration. And they then start to aggrandize their achievement.
Post-revolutionary Arab countries prove that it does not take long until we start to realize some basic facts about revoultions. Social revolutions are difficult and often dissappointing, and change does not hinge on a particular moment of emotional eruption. Seeking the recognition as a revolution might serve political aims on the short-run, but, certainly, there is no reason to glorify this labeling and then be disappointed from believing in our own deception.
Written by Mohammad Al-Saidi