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.

Egypt in January 2011: The regime still seemed to be stable

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.

Four down, and who is next? Ben Ali, Saleh, Gaddafi and Mubarak.


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.

North Korean soldiers marching. Will demonstrators ever be able to overcome them?

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 Basij in Iran: fanatically loyal to the regime

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.

Libyan rebels: only foreign intervention ensured their success

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.


About דני אורבך

רוכים הבאים לינשוף! אני דני אורבך, היסטוריון צבאי מהחוגים להיסטוריה ולימודי אסיה באוניברסיטה העברית, וחוקר הפיכות, התנקשויות פוליטיות, התנגדות צבאית ושאר אירועים עקובים מדם ביפן, סין, גרמניה ושאר העולם. מי מכם שמתעניין במלחמת העולם השנייה, אולי נתקל בספר שלי, ואלקירי- ההתנגדות הגרמנית להיטלר שיצא לאור בהוצאת ידיעות אחרונות. מחקר חדש, מעודכן ומורחב בנושא, The Plots against Hitler, יצא לאור השנה באנגלית ובאיטלקית, בנוסף לעדכון של של הספר העברי הקיים. מהדורות קינדל והארד-קופי של כל הספרים ניתן לקנות באמזון. כדי לראות את הפרופיל האקדמי שלי – מחקרים, מאמרים ועוד, לחצו כאן.

Posted on February 24, 2012, in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 25 Comments.

  1. Abdelbar Mahmoud

    You know Danny I’m afraid the Spring part is already finished! In Tunisia the Ennahdha party created its own armed branch (the Salafists) a real Frankenstein! They gather in a fascist way once every 2 weeks and now they are starting to go out of control of Ennahdha itself. There was some armed confrontations in between them and the police forces recently, and these people are not joking they really believe in the establishment of an islamic emirate!
    In Libya it’s even worse! Apparently there is some tribal clashes going on in the south and every single house in the country has its own arsenal of weapons, which means a huge traffic of fire arms in the neighboring countries (you can get an AK-47 for 500USD!). Not to mention that Libya is relying on the food supplies coming from Tunisia Which made food prices tripple in the whole country.
    And on top of all this the government announced yesterday that the Americans are going to establish a military base in Tunisia in order to secure the Libyian border! So I think that winter is not bad enough to describe the situation, it’s even worse!

    • Mahmoud, I think your fears are justified and reasonable. I still hope that things will get better in Tunisia at least, though. Remember what turmoils France had to go through after the Great Revolution. Even in Japan, after 1868, it took more than ten years to stabilize a new regime.

      I did not understand about the confrontation in Ennahadha. Why are the salafists confronting with the others?

  2. Abdelbar Mahmoud

    The reply to your question is that the younger Islamists generations are much more radical than the older ones. This made the olders think about placing these ones (the young radicals) in a seperate group that suits their ideology and that’s how the salafists were created in Tunisia. Also the Salafists were created by Ennahdha to serve as some kind of scarecrow and an armed faction (SS if you want!) to intimidate the people. And to come to the confrontation point, my guess is that the Salafist group grew bigger and so did its networking (they have dozens of associations to legitimate their activities) and I think that they are getting both financial and logistic sponsorship from oraganizations in the gulf. They are present on the internet by detecting, harrassing and hacking the presence of left wing activists (blogs, e-mails). But also they are present on the ground by protesting and manifesting in the streets in very organised groups that can appear in different cities during the same day. So I guess the growing size and force of this group is what is making it clash with the government even if in my opinion they are both from the same side looking for the same goal but arguing about the way to reach it!

  3. I agree with you Danny, but i would also like to add that Sudan has helped arm the Libyans against Gaddafi, some of the armed movements fighting the Sudanese government have also supported Gaddafi against the Libyan people, the governments in place now in Tunisia, Libya, & Egypt are all considered middle right in middle eastern scale, secular parties will never win through free elections in the middle east.

    • Thanks for the comment on Sudnaese involvement in Lybia. That was new to me: can you elaborate more on the interest of the Sudanese government to support the rebels against Gaddafi?

      As about your second comment, what do you make of the elections in Lybia? In western media, the party that won the elections was often described a relatively liberal. Do you disagree with that definition?

      • Gaddafi has been supporting the movements in Darfour with weaponry and money for quite some time, one attempt to over through the government happened about a year ago, forces from Ibrahim Khaleel’s wing ” that used to be the biggest in military power amongst the movements” breached the capital and engaged army HQ was 100% financed by Gaddafi, i do not believe 90% of what the government media says, but the public recognizes the support by Libya to the movements as a fact, also am positive our government expected a right wing government to take office after elections, which would secure our north western boundaries, and we gain an ally in the region “just like Egypt”
        The Libyan elections coverage by our media was almost zero, but i do agree they are relatively liberal it seems odd to me that we agreed on the definition since there is a great canyon between our ideology, i just hope that those elections were actually free, because that will mean this government is supported by the people and so Libya is headed towards better days

      • The elections in Lybia seems a positive development for me as well, but this country must get rid of the militias, especially the Salafist-Jihadist ones, otherwise all positive achievements will be spoiled.

        I am still pondering the new information you gave me. You are from Sudan, right? I remember well the big attack in Khartoum, but I did not know that Gadaffi supported it. In retrospect, it seems probable for me. The struggle in Sudan, in a way, was perceived as one between “Arabs” and “Black Africans”, and Gadaffi consistently took the “African” side. You could see it also during the civil war in Libya: many of Gadaffi’s troops were mercenaries from the continent.

  4. I agree on getting rid of the Salafist, “please refer to last paragraph” they make it so easy to label Islam as a backward ideology or religion, all those on middle ground about Islam are lost due to those people’s horrific actions, we ” as main stream Muslims” have a duty to speak out and oppose them.
    i am Sudanese living in Khartoum, my younger brother had to walk about 20 – 25 Km back from his college to home during that big attack as all public transportation vehicles did not work that day and all the chaos, your deductions about why Gaddafi supported those movements could be true, although we ” as average Sudanese citizens” look upon the Darfour conflict as a conflict that used to be between farmers and shepherds tribes that was escalated due to the governments ” the current one” involvement by arming the Shepherds because they are mostly Arabs, to gain their support, the government was suffering from all the internal alienation at the time, they did not care about the consequences as long as they gained support.

    * (btw the meaning of Salafist totally differs from Jihadist, the first is a school that translated every word of the Qur’an or our Prophet Mohamed pbuh in a strict aggressive nature, they frown upon anything new, would die before allowing a woman to drive, the later is one of the corners of Islam, as in you are not a muslim without it, it aims to spread Islam, the prophet says that the hardest method of Jihad is mentioning truth in the face of a tyrant, there is too much to it to mention here)

    • Interesting. Would you define the war in Darfour as a genocide? That is how we look on it in my country (Israel) or generally in the west.

      In addition, I would like to comment on the issue of Jihad. When you say a duty to spread Islam, how exactly? Usually Jihad is interpreted here (and also by many Islamic thinkers such as Sayid Qutb exc.) as a duty to spread Islam by force of arms.

  5. First of all let me say that personally ” and all the people i know ” are against what’s happening there.
    Do you know that all information i get about whats going on in darfour is actually from foreign media ?!! , if all they say is true then we can not differ on its being a genocide, but can you honestly tell me its 100% true, that no part of it is for political use, i know for a fact people were killed, but what defines a genocide? if it was backed by the government of the country ? or is it the number of murders ? or the causes of death ? ” as in hunger or weapons” , you must know that Darfour was a troubled part of my country since ever, first it was armed robbery and murder plaguing the region and its residents and travelers, then smuggling was added, and finally this.

    On the Jihad front Sayid Qutb is a thinker of his times, force of arms in my consideration is the last resort and not to be used unless certain conditions arise, for example i believe if a country allows us to establish institutes that teach about Islam to its citizens then the militarized form of Jihad can not be used against it, to my knowledge no such country exists, and if the Vatican perhaps does not allow it, i believe it’s quite OK, because this is like how we feel about churches in what we call the Arab Island ” KSA and its neighbors” we don’t want them there, we believe this is our sacred sanctum,
    The only other scenario for use of Jihad in militarized form is when a Muslim country falls under attack ” btw Jihad becomes a must for each and every Muslim at a time like that, there is this huge argument between us if Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory falls under this category”

    finally when its by force of arms Jihad does not mean i have the right to blow up a building with civilians inside it, i can not even unearth a tree let alone kill a civilian, only those who bear arms and attack are to be fought with, this is my understanding of Jihad, so is the mainstream of Muslims, unfortunately these opinions are oppressed because they are voiced by people who oppose our local regimes, i hope the Arab spring will change that.

    • Something else: as you’ve mentioned the ban on other religions in Saudi Arabia, it looks to me very unfair that the Saudis are building huge mosques in all Christian countries, while churches cannot be built in Saudi Arabia.

  6. The first thing you need to understand here is that this subject does not pertain to the Saudi’s only, all Muslims would reject it, but why did you ignore my comparison to the Vatican ? it is recognized as a country, isn’t it? and it has the same sacred nature to Christians as Saudi Arabia has to Muslims, may be we claimed a lot in terms of Square Kilometers but i don’t think that’s an issue

    You can find 100’s of years old churches in other parts of the Muslim world just as mosques are found in the Christian world

    • In my opinion it is actually an issue (not a super important one, but still) because the Vatican is not building hugh churches in Muslim countries. The Saudis do it (along with Wahabbi centers) in almost all Christian countries. Sometimes they build very tall mosques, much taller than the ancient churches of European towns, which is viewed as very insulting by many locals.

      By the way, it may be interesting to compare to Israel. We are formally defined as a Jewish country, but still there are many mosques and churches around the country, and more are being built all the time.

      • forgot about the high mosques being insulting, well that’s unfortunate, it’s not in our interest on the long run to do something insulting to the locals, if it up to me i think we should have avoided that although there is no law against it, because it does not hurt my cause, i do not need a high mosque to teach Europeans about Islam, and i gain some respect from the locals, but i think some of the Saudi’s just do it to brag or some kind of a redemption for one’s sins

  7. So will it be OK if the Vatican starts building Churches around here, i don’t think any one has objected, just because they don’t exercise their right, does not deprives us of ours
    Regarding Israel which btw i do not recognize as a country ” as if it matters!” were these mosques and Churches built after 1948 ? you can only take credit if this is true, besides you country is like the exception to the whole world, within those borders exists some of the most sacred spots for Muslims, Christians, & Jewish people ” am trying to not be insulting, not used to arguing with people of your religion”
    I always thought you thought of yourself as a secular nation ?!! but formally recognized as a Jewish state is news to me.

    • It seems that in some Muslims countries, at least, even local Christians have hard time keeping their churches, as they are burned from time to time by Salafists (e.g. Egypt).

      In Israel, anyone who violates a mosque will be punished by the courts, if caught. Many mosques and Churches were built after 1948, and are being built even today. There is an Arab minority of 20%, and they are allowed to build their own places for worship.

      Israel’s definition as a “Jewish country”, and whatever that means as to its religious or secular character, is a highly complicated subject. If you are interested, I can explain a bit more. It has to do with the difficult problem of Jewish identity, as both a religion and an ethnic group.

      I am absolutely not against building mosques in Christian countries (or in Israel). I just expect that this will be done in a considerate way, without compromising the skyline, and not as a statement of grandeur, as it is done at the moment by the Saudis.

      By the way, as for Israel. As someone who can speak Arabic, travelled around the Arab world and am very interested in Arab and Muslim culture, I am always very sorry that Israelis and Arabs usually do not know a whole lot about each other. There are many misconceptions in the Arab/Muslim world about Israel, and vice versa. Perhaps this blog (actually a branch of my much more developed Hebrew blog) is a good venue to meet, learn about each other and exchange opinions.

  8. i did not know you spoke Arabic :), the burning of Churches frustrates me to no end, it’s such a stupid thing to do i can’t imagine the person behind it,
    you mention that any one caught violating a mosque or a Church is punishable by law, it’s the case here too, but that’s not the issue, is that law implemented, and i am speaking about your and my country or countries, how can you be a Jewish state and have non Jewish citizens, it’s different in your case because you did say being Jewish requires the religion and the ethnicity ?!! better yet not how but why would be a better question,

    one thing am sure about, i did enjoy this exchange.

    • I enjoy this exchange as well – to be sure. That’s what is so nice in having a blog.

      In a nutshell: Israeli struggles since 1948 with issues of identity. In essence, it was established by our first prime minister, David ben Gurion, as a “Jewish and democratic state”. That means that the state, as a state, must have a certain Jewish character, celebrates Jewish holidays and offers citizenship to all Jews around the world. On the other hand, it should be democratic as well- and give equal rights to its non-Jewish citizens. This is according to Israel’s seminal document from 1948, the “Declaration of Independence”.

      Where these ideals adhered to in reality? Only partially. Israeli Muslims have the same vote as anyone else, but I agree there are different kinds of unofficial discrimination, which I am very much against. Still – I think it should be a point of pride, that notwithstanding the conflict with the Arab and Muslim world, and the deplorable treatment of Jews in almost all Arabs countries (except Morocco), the founders of the state decided to integrate the Arab Muslim and Arab Christian minority in our political system.

      What I meant by ethnic and religious double identity is as follows. Judaism is like a family. As you know, family is based on ethnic ties. Still, people unrelated by blood can join the family by marriage, and in the case of Judaism, by conversion.

  9. Hi Danny, it’s been a while, am not sure if it’s ok to message you here, anyways can you send me an email you use frequently, if you are interested in getting opinions from my part of the world on various issues since i would like you to help me with the same 🙂

    • Hey! I’m always happy to get opinions from any part of the world. The easiest thing would be to find me on facebook (Danny Orbach). All of my posts are public, and I gladly approve friend requests.

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