Requiem for the “Arab Spring?”

Requiem for the “Arab Spring?”

I’ve detected a growing tendency to issue obituaries for the "Arab spring." This impulse is understandable given the relentless turmoil in Yemen, the brutal repression that continues in Syria, the simmering tensions in Libya and Bahrain, and the recent resurgence of sometimes violent protest against the military regime in Egypt. Not surprisingly, early hopes that the Arab world was at the dawn of a new era have been dashed-or at least diminished. And that’s why pundits like Tom Friedman are now crossing their fingers and hoping for the reincarnation of Nelson Mandela in each of these states.

But if the history of revolutions tells us anything, it is that rebuilding new political orders is a protracted, difficult, and unpredictable process, and having a few Mandelas around is no guarantee of success. Why? Because once the existing political order has collapsed, the stakes for key groups in society rise dramatically. The creation of new institutions — in effect, the development of new rules for ordering political life — inevitably creates new winners and losers. And everyone knows this. Not only does this situation encourage more and more groups to join the process of political struggle, but awareness that high stakes are involved also gives them incentives to use more extreme means, including violence. 

Under these conditions, it is a pipedream to think that key actors in a complex and troubled society like Egypt or Libya (or in the future, Syria) could quickly agree on new political institutions and infuse them with legitimacy. Even if interim rulers write a quick constitution, hold a referendum, or elect new representatives, those whose interests are undermined by the outcomes are bound to question the new rules and the process and to do what they can to undermine or amend them. What one should expect, therefore, are half-measures, false starts, prolonged uncertainty, and highly contingent events, where seemingly random events (a riot, an accident, an episode of overt foreign interference, an unexpected flurry of violence, etc.) can alter the course of events in far-reaching ways. Tunisia notwithstanding, what you are unlikely to get is a quick and easy consensus on new institutions.

Remember the French Revolution? The storming of the Bastille took place in July 1789, the nobility was abolished by the National Assembly the following year, and Louis XVI tried unsuccessfully to flee in 1791 before being forced to accept a new constitution. Internal turmoil and foreign interference eventually lead to war in 1792, Louis and Marie Antoinette were executed in 1793, and Paris was soon engulfed by the Jacobin terror, which eventually burns itself out. A new constitution is adopted in 1795, establishing a government known as the "Directory," which is eventually overthrown by Napoleon’s coup d’etat on 18 Brumaire, 1799. By the time Napoleon seized power, it had been more than ten years since the initial revolutionary upheaval.

To judge by that timetable, the "Arab spring" has a long way to go. And other cases offer a similar lesson. The Russian revolution starts with the fall of the Tsarist regime in March 1917 and the formation of Kerensky’s provisional government, which is subsequently overthrown by the Bolshevik coup a few months later. But the Bolsheviks’ hold on power isn’t fully established until their victory in the Russian Civil War, which isn’t fully won until 1923. The Soviet political order endured recurrent power struggles over the next decade, until Joseph Stalin vanquished his various opponents and established a personal dictatorship.

Or take a more recent case, Iran. The revolution begins in 1978, with a steadily escalating series of street demonstrations. The shah flees into exile in January 1979, the Ayatollah Khomeini returns in February and appoints Mehdan Bazegar as Prime Minister of an interim government. A new constitution is drafted by October, but there is a continuing struggle for power between liberal, Islamist, and other groups.

The first president of the new "Islamic Republic," Abdolhassan Bani-Sadr, is impeached in 1981, and the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq war strengthens hardliners and provides an opportunity for a crackdown against some prominent members of the original revolutionary movement. The Islamic republic remains a work-in-progress to this day, with the role of the "Supreme Jurisprudent," the Revolutionary Guards, the clergy, the presidency, and the Majlis remaining in flux.

Even the comparatively benign American Revolution was hardly a done-deal when the peace treaty with England was signed in 1783. Independence from England had required the colonists to fight a lengthy war of independence, and the fledgling republic then faced several armed rebellions, most notably Shays’ Rebellion in 1786. These challenges revealed the inadequacies of the original Articles of Confederation (1777-1786) leading to the drafting and adoption of what is now the U.S. Constitution. 

In short, anybody who thought that the events that swept through the Arab world in 2011 were going to produce stable and orderly outcomes quickly was living in a dream world. To say this is not to oppose what has happened, or to believe that the old orders could or should have continued. Rather, it is to recognize that radical reform — even revolution — is a long, difficult, and uncertain process, and that the ride is likely to be a bumpy one for years to come. 

History also warns that outside powers have at best limited influence over the outcomes of a genuine revolutionary process. Even well-intentioned efforts to aid progressive forces can backfire, as can overt efforts to thwart them. Overall, a policy of "benevolent neglect" may be the more prudent course, making it clear that outsiders are prepared to let each country’s citizens choose their own order, provided that important foreign policy redlines are not crossed. But for a country like the United States, which still sees itself as a model for others and tends to think that it has the right and the wisdom to tell them what to do, patience and restraint can be hard to sustain. And patience is what is needed most these days.