The Arab Spring and the Art of Revolution
This article was originally published in Ynet News.
The Arab spring is certainly one of the most stunning developments of our age. In Egypt, the regime fell after three weeks of popular protest. In Yemen it crumbled after ten months of bloody confrontations, and in Syria Bashar al-Assad still clings to power in defiance of the world and the ongoing resistance. Now, in retrospect, it is interesting to ask some questions. What is the difference between these different uprisings? Are there some rules for a successful rebellion? Or in other words, how can one define the “art of revolution”?
The Arab spring reached its climax in the winter, or in February 2011, to be more exact. Coincidently, I was travelling in Egypt in January, just two weeks before it all began. From countless conversations with taxi drivers, students, café goers, hotel owners, vendors and other people I have met randomly, it was not difficult to fathom that Hosni Mubarak’s rule is far from being popular. However, I have to admit that the Egyptian regime seemed to me, back then, as a relatively stable one. Grim looking pictures of Mubarak starred on passers-by from every corner, armed policemen stood vigilantly everywhere, and the secret police even found the time to constantly monitor me and my friends as we traveled around. The touristic sites, cafés, restaurants and falafel stands were bustling with customers, both local and foreign. Only a very sharp observer, much sharper than me, could have noticed that something is going to explode, and very soon. “You cannot imagine”, told me a young café owner in Alexandria, “how much we want a popular revolution, just like in Tunisia.” He was quick to add that he has no problem, not at all, with Mubarak’s foreign policy and the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty, but he had enough of Mubarak’s corrupted bureaucracy, nepotism, dictatorship and faulty economic policy.
Secret Police in the Streets, Political talk in the Café
More than the content, what was striking for me was the tone of his speech. The young café owner criticized Mubarak loudly, in a crowded, public place, and it did not seem to me that he was afraid of anything or anyone. How can it be? I thought to myself. How could he speak like that, with all of these plaincloth policemen lurking all around? However, I did not give it much thought at that moment.
In January 30, Egypt was burning. Mubarak, however, was still able to find time to have a phone conversation with his old friend, the Israeli politician Binyamin (Fuad) Ben Eliezer. Mubarak, according to Ben Eliezer’s testimony, was resolute to keep on ruling. Notwithstanding the demonstrations, he still believed that he will be able to overcome the crisis. A few days later, the army forced him to resign. The massive demonstrations in Tahrir Square broke him and the Egyptian regime, which was regarded by many observers as one of the most rigid and stable in the Middle East.
Why was the Egyptian regime overthrown so quickly, and with relatively little carnage? How can we cope with the fact, that in Libya Gaddafi had survived much longer, and the rebels were able to uproot him only after a prolonged civil war and foreign intervention by NATO forces? Why the demonstrations in Syria had transformed into a horrendous civil war, replete with government-directed mass slaughter, but Assad is still unable to break the resistance? Why did the demonstrations in Iran fail regardless of their initial dynamism? In order to find the answer, one has to take a step back from actual politics, and to examine three basic rules underlying popular revolutions throughout modern history: the defective army rule, the rule of centrality, and the rule of revolutionary inertia.
The Defective Army Rule
Katherine Chorley, in her classic study Armies and the Art of Revolution, notes that in the modern era, no popular rebellion can resist a well-organized army on the long run. Such rebellions can succeed, she argues, only when the army suffers from a substantial defect which prevents it from exercising the full extent of its power. In Egypt, for example, the army was compromised by the ethnic, religious affinity between its soldiers and the demonstrators. Just like the demonstrators, conscripted Egyptian soldiers hailed from all over the country. Given such circumstances, the army commanders presumed that an order to shoot on the crowd can engender mass disobedience. After all, the possibility that a soldier can encounter neighbors, friends and even family members in the crowd was far from being negligible.
Indeed, many authoritarian regimes are well aware of this problem, and therefore tend to employ soldiers from religious and ethnic minorities (The Sikhs in British India), peasants from backward regions who feel no affinity with urban demonstrators (Northeastern soldiers during the Tiananmen protests in China), or an ideological special force which is committed heart and soul to the regime. The SS in Nazi Germany, as well as the Basij and Revolutionary Guards in Iran, are examples for such forces. Indeed, the presence of such an ideological special force in Iran helped the regime to brutally quell the post-elections protests in 2009.
In Egypt, however, the Mubarak regime did not enjoy the benefits of such a special force, and was therefore forced to rely on the regular army. It is perfectly reasonable that a resolute military action could have dispersed the demonstrators, at the price of a horrendous massacre. However, from the point of view of the army leadership, this was a gamble that they did not wish to take. Instead, they preferred to avoid the dilemma, and to preserve their enormous economic privileges, by giving Mubarak’s head on a platter to the angry crowds.
The rebels in Libya were saved by International Intervention
Just like the Egyptian army, the Libyan armed forces could not use the full extent of their power against the demonstrators in Benghazi. The Libyan army was weakened by desertions, but still, at the moment when Gaddafi gave the order to open fire on the protestors, they were doomed to be crashed sooner or later. The only thing that saved them and turned the tide was the intervention of NATO, that is- a formidable foreign power. Syria, in a way, is a similar case. Assad’s order to slaughter the demonstrators had triggered mass desertions from the army, but even here it is difficult to see how the rebels could have held so long without the backing of foreign powers such as Turkey, Jordan, Qatar and the west.
However, if we would like to understand why the Egyptian revolution succeeded relatively quickly, while in Libya and Syria protracted civil wars erupted, we have to also consider the “rule of centrality”, another iron law in the elusive art of revolution.
The Rule of Centrality
In his fascinating yet highly disturbing book, Coup D’etat – A Practical Handbook, the historian and intelligence operative Edward Luttwak, writes that revolutionaries have to promptly storm their country’s center of political gravity. If this center, however, is out of their reach, they have a very serious problem, and their chances to succeed are slim. Based on Luttwak’s theory, the American diplomat Bruce Farcau argued that revolutions tend to succeed if they begin in the capital.
In a vast and crowded city such as Cairo, the power center of the Egyptian regime, the demonstrators were able to push the government out of balance and to quickly draw enormous international attention. The architectural structure of Tahrir Square was crucial in this undertaking. Tahrir, as anyone who traveled or lived in Cairo knows full well, is a big and accessible square in mid-town which can easily accommodate vast crowds. It is also adjacent to the American University of Cairo (AUC) and surrounded by hotel towers. These hotels, which quickly turned into hubs for journalists and photographers, were used to photograph the crowds in a bird’s-eye view. Such a view created an impression of mass human waves, and greatly enhanced the media impact of the demonstrations. In Libya and Syria, by contrast, the protests did not begin in the capital cities but rather in the provincial towns of Benghazi and Daraa. In Libya, Tripoli remained a Gaddafi fortress right until the end, and in Syria the demonstrators reached central Damascus only recently. The failure of the rebels to act at the center made it possible for the government to concentrate its forces and to deal with the problem of desertions. The result, in both cases, was a lengthy, bloody civil war.
Tahrir Square, right at the center of Cairo. The impact of the crowds was enhanced by the bird’s-eye view
The Rule of Revolutionary Inertia
Popular demonstrations, wrote Friedrich Engels in his famous essay on barricade fighting, are based on a large number of volunteers. Therefore, they depend on the good will of tens of thousands of people, who have to leave home and to risk their life day after day . No one can force them to do so. Therefore, writes Engels, the revolutionaries have to constantly keep their inertia in order to inflame and increase their momentum. Stagnation and dilly-dallying will result in defeat.
Al Jazeera: The Motor of Revolutionary Inertia
And indeed, in Egypt we have heard about a revolutionary achievement almost every day. “The army refuses to shoot the people”, shouted the headlines. “Omar Sharif is with us,” demonstrators told each other in Twitter and Facebook. “Jamal Mubarak escaped to London”, reported Al-Jazeera TV network to ten millions of Egyptians in the privacy of their living rooms. Al-Jazeera, more than any other network, played an extraordinary role in “injecting” the daily achievement to the consciousness of demonstrators and would-be demonstrators. Its power was enormous, because it was out of the reach of the regime, enjoyed great popularity in Egypt and spoke the local language. However, in Iran the regime was able to efficiently neutralize the communication between the demonstrators and to “keep them in the dark”. Therefore, they were not inflamed by daily achievements and their protests faded away. The absence of an international popular network in Farsi, which is (unlike BBC in Persian) not perceived as a foreign propaganda outlet, is maybe the most crucial difference between the revolutionary situations in Egypt and Iran.
These three rules, of course, are far from being absolute. Rather, they are ever-changing according to the political and social conditions in each respective place. Nevertheless, recognizing them may help us to better analyze and understand the events around us. How would the Arab Spring develop? Will it turn into an “Islamic Winter”? Where will it finally lead the region? The answer is still hidden in the darkness of the future.
Posted on February 24, 2012, in Uncategorized and tagged Alexandria, Arab Spring, Assad, Ben Ali, Cairo, civil wars, Damascus, Daraa, Edward Luttwak, Egypt, Egyptian Revolution, Friedrich Engels, Gadaffi, Katherine Chorley, Libya, Middle East, Mubarak, rebellions, revolts, revolutions, Saleh, Sanaa, Syria, Tripoli, uprisings, Yemen. Bookmark the permalink. 25 Comments.