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Guide to the "Revolutionary" Perplexed

23 February 2011

By Yisarel Ne'eman

Recently there is much instability in the Arab World, a continuing process which should not be expected to suddenly abate in the near future.  Many commentators are referring to these events as "revolutions" which at least at this moment, they are not.  They are shifts in power, the possible beginnings of revolution but certainly no culmination of a revolutionary process.  For a good preliminary understanding of this process one of the best books written on the topic was by Prof. Crane Brinton in his famous work The Anatomy of Revolution.  Brinton explores the English, French, American and Russian Revolutions and discovers that for the most part although as perceived as very different they do share many common denominators.  Other scholars over the years have investigated socio-economic and political upheavals elsewhere throughout the world.  Much of Brinton's analysis has stood the test of time and provides us with a useful guideline for understanding the instability in the Arab world.  Are we facing revolution or evolution?  And what formulates a full revolution?  Can societies "halt" at a certain point and if so how could we define that process?

Below are the major stages set out by Brinton when discussing revolution.  As said there are other thinkers as well.  National leaders are expected to follow and anticipate the stages below in order to ensure coherent policy response – in short, to know what to look for and how to react.  I used this once before when discussing the Hamas overthrow of Fatah in Gaza (Palestinian Islamic Revolution on the March, June 2007).

Stage 1 – the collapse of the old regime as a result of financial, political, social and moral corruption leading to a loss of legitimacy recognized by those in power and exploited by the revolutionaries.

Stage 2 – is a transition period.  The old regime is neither resolute in its declarations or actions and there is no police or military enforcement to keep the old order in power.  Shifting loyalties and a loss of purpose eliminate the will to fight and die for “the cause” since there is none.

Stage 3 – involves the rule of the moderates.  Generally idealists and realists they offer compromise and attempt to behave morally while simultaneously speaking in revolutionary terms.  They move to consolidate power without being absolutist.

Stage 4 – here the revolution crests with the rise of the extremists.  A small self-appointed power elite institutes a dictatorship (often using violence to do so).  Elections and plebiscites are banned and the ruling clique monopolizes and dominates the media.  There is an army of the disciplined who are dedicated to the purity of ideas who act on the orders given by the new elite of “philosopher killers” who justify their actions in the name of absolute ideals, secular or religious.  All are expected to surrender themselves to the revolutionary ideology and to die for its implementation.  The height of revolution devolves into a reign of terror.

Stage 5 – is what is called “Thermidor”.  Overheated, the revolution calms down and is either abandoned or overthrown as “the people” cannot live the ideological euphoria/frenzy forced on them by the radical leadership.  A non-ideological dictatorship can impose its will as long as the people are allowed to return to a more normal routine.  Call it an institutionalization of what had been a revolution.

These are the overall guidelines.  To judge from what is transpiring Tunisia is in Stage 2, the "transition period," what is left of the old power elite is not seen as legitimate and is being forced out.  Overthrown Pres. Ben Ali depended on an internal security apparatus to stay in power; the army was not his basis of support.  We should expect some form of moderate stage which even as the result of elections could take radical steps, but this remains to be seen.

In Egypt it is not clear if there has been a revolution at all since the army has removed only Mubarak and a few of his close associates, the very tip of the pyramid and filled the void more directly themselves.  Internal security and the police are terribly discredited as in Tunisia.  So far the people have forced a "coup".  As mentioned last week the same power elite remains in command and there are those doubting the sincerity of declarations coming from what is considered to be a transition regime.  Will there be free and open democratic elections?  Will the supposedly fractured Muslim Brotherhood unify and become a leading revolutionary force (no one ever said revolution must end in democracy).

Libya is on the brink of civil war, should Qadaffi win there will be more oppression.  This does not appear likely and it is not even clear whether Libya will remain a single entity due to its tribal make-up and regional interests.  Despite what is being injected by democracy advocates, this may be more about tribal rights and identity and less about individual human rights.  There may be multiple regional responses should the Libyan state break down, democracy emerging in some regions, tribalism in others and resurgent Islam elsewhere.  The country might also hold together but for this to be so there needs to be coercion by an armed force and at the moment both the police and army are discredited for their parts in violently repressing the demonstrations.  In Libya the old regime is not yet finished.

A brief comparison with the Iranian revolution (1979) shows that the Shah lost legitimacy through corruption and oppression and was forced to flee in the end.  There was a short transitional period of five weeks led by Shapour Bakhtiar who was forced out with the return of the Ayatollah Khomeini in February.  By 1981 the broad coalition of anti-Shah forces, many of whom were democratically inclined, were destroyed by the Khomeinist Shiite extremists ending any rule of moderation.  Khomeini's first PM Mehdi Bazargan believed in democracy but was forced from power by November 1979 as a result of the hostage crisis in the US embassy.  In the early to mid-1980s a reign of terror led by the extremists ensued cleansing out any of those not loyal to the revolution as solely defined by themselves.  Much of this draconian revolutionary fervor only subsided by the late 1980s in the aftermath of the Iran-Iraq War.  By the early 1990s many were alienated by the revolution. 

To consolidate gains the Khomeinists established the Revolutionary Guards within the army and the basij paramilitary militia often acting as a repressive police force.  Together the two groups number over 200,000 men with supporters going into the millions.  Today these institutionalized revolutionaries are the state enforcement authority and the hand of oppression. 

It can be added that a re-catalyzation of the revolution is often attempted and at times is successful in rallying the people to its original ideals.  This works best when there is a true or perceived outside enemy.  As for Iran and the Middle East (Sunnis included) radical Islam with its demands for martyrdom and the eternal rewards for dying in the name of Allah are a different revolutionary element as opposed to revolutions in the more secular Western societies studied more often.  As mentioned in the 2007 article concerning the Hamas victory, "Viewing history as linear and leading to a Messianic Endtime 'World Jihad' becomes the means to a final end and vindication of all true believers, especially those who died for the cause." 

Whether the Arab and Muslim world is on the threshold of becoming truly democratic with regime change initiated through the ballot box is not certain.  There appear to be two major competing forces at the moment, the democracy movement and a resurgent Islam.  Furthermore, any revolution taking place presently is only in its very initial stages and only time will tell if such upheavals will translate into revolutions.