What Happens When the Arab Spring Turns to Summer?

Ruminations on the revolutions of 2011.


Nabil Fahmy, Egypt’s former ambassador to Washington, was commenting during a recent visit to the United States about the prospects for the Arab Spring. He cautioned that Americans didn’t understand the weather in his part of the world. For Arabs, he said, it is always either summer or winter.

After the exhilarating days in Tahrir Square that led to the resignation on Feb. 11 of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, many observers have felt a chill in the political air — whatever the season may be. The first electoral test of the new democracy came in the March 19 constitutional referendum. That resulted in resounding defeat for the democracy-building “no” vote urged by many leaders of the Tahrir Square revolution — and a thumping 77 percent victory for the “yes” position advocated by the unspoken alliance between the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and the Muslim Brotherhood.

Egypt’s democratic revolutionaries, to be sure, are fighting back. They have stepped up their own political organizing and are forming new parties. They see the danger that their revolution will be hijacked, and they are organizing against that outcome.

To say that there are dangers ahead for Egypt and its neighbors is only to state the obvious. For the historical truth is that although revolutions are always lovable in their infancy, they tend to become less so as they age. The idealistic youth on the barricades, who seem drawn from the cast of Les Misérables, are replaced by small groups of determined revolutionaries who have the will and ideological or religious determination to steer the masses. And the revolutionary disorder, which seemed so exciting at first, becomes dark and insecure to the point that people demand order and give up the freedoms they fought so hard to obtain.

I don’t mean to predict that the Arab Spring will turn to winter. In truth, we don’t know where this process is heading; there are too many inflection points and uncertainties. U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates had it right when he said in March that this is “dark territory“; it’s impossible to read the overhead imagery, so to speak, and know what’s down there in terms of outcomes. In what follows, I want to offer a skeptical analytical look — not predicting failure, but warning of obstacles ahead.

First, the reality of the Arab revolution: In my more than 30 years of covering foreign news, I have never seen anything quite like what is happening now in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Syria — and datelines yet to be announced. I see this process as part of a “global political awakening” — a movement for change that is enabled and accelerated by modern technology, but is also comparable to some other periods of revolutionary change in modern history.

I owe the “awakening” idea to Zbigniew Brzezinski. Three years ago, with the 2008 U.S. presidential election approaching, I worked with Brzezinski and Brent Scowcroft on a book called America and the World: Conversations on the Future of American Foreign Policy. The theme was that a global process of change was under way — and that the basics of U.S. foreign policy needed to be reimagined by the next president. In my introduction, I described the central insight of these two former national security advisors this way: “Both men describe a political revolution that’s sweeping the world — Brzezinski speaks of a global awakening, while Scowcroft describes a yearning for dignity. They want America on the side of that process of change.”

We are now seeing the full force of that political awakening as it sweeps across the Middle East. How and why did it happen? What similar events have occurred in the past? And what are the consequences for America?



First, the triggering event in Tunisia. It’s almost a case study in how complex systems fail. What seems a small event disturbs the equilibrium and produces a very large change in outcomes. It’s a discontinuity, a “tipping point,” as pundits like to say — an example of what mathematicians sometimes call “catastrophe theory.”

Think of the collapse of a bridge: Observers may see that the steel girders of the bridge are rusting away; they may see it sway and shudder with each vehicle that passes. But who can explain why it gives way after the 1,000,001st truck rumbles across, when it didn’t fail for the previous million? The bridge’s collapse is a catastrophic event that was at once foreseeable and impossible to predict.

The same could be said for the “Arab Spring.” We knew that the political systems in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Syria were rotten and that popular discontent was growing. Those problems had been developing for more than 20 years. But who could have predicted the inflection point, the moment when fear became rage, and rage became action that spread until it was a cascading wave of change?

Here’s how it began in Tunisia, as my colleague Marc Fisher assembled the timeline in the Washington Post. It’s an astonishing story, all the more as we see each day its eddying repercussions.

On Friday, Dec. 17, a street vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi in the town of Sidi Bouzid loaded his cart with what he told his family were the best oranges, dates, and apples he had ever seen. On his way to the market, he was blocked by two police officers who tried to take the fruit from his cart. His uncle protested to the police chief, who told one of the officers, a woman named Fedya Hamdi, to let the man go sell his produce.

The policewoman was indignant about the complaint and searched out Bouazizi, who had by now set up his stall in the market. She arrogantly carried off one load of his apples to her car and was about to take another when he protested. The policewoman then hit the street vendor with her baton, and when he struggled to his feet, she slapped him — which made the young man weep with tears of humiliation and rage.

“Why are you doing this to me?… I’m a simple person, and I just want to work, ” Bouazizi cried out, according to people who were interviewed later by Fisher.

Bouazizi went to city hall to complain about this mistreatment, but no officials would see him and clerks told him to go away.

The humiliated young man was seething when he got back to the market, and he told other vendors that he would show the wrong that had been done — by lighting himself on fire. His friends didn’t believe him, but within minutes he had wet his body with paint thinner and, standing in front of the local municipal building, lit himself on fire. He died of severe burns three weeks later in a hospital.

In the interim, this sad little incident — this protest of a humiliated man who had no other way to express himself but self-immolation — went viral. Bouazizi’s cousin posted a cell-phone video that he shot of a protest in Sidi Bouzid the day after the incident. An activist posted that on Facebook, Al Jazeera picked it up that evening, and suddenly millions of people were sharing the shame and rage of the Tunisian fruit seller.

Less than a month after the incident in the Sidi Bouzid market, President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali had fled the country and his regime, once seen as one of the more advanced in the Arab world, had been toppled.

The Tunisian rupture spread quickly to Egypt. After Ben Ali fled Tunis, a Google marketing executive named Wael Ghonim and others used Facebook to organize a demonstration in Cairo’s Tahrir Square to protest Mubarak’s autocratic regime. On Jan. 25, the protesters took to the streets and stayed there, overwhelming riot police not just in Cairo but across the country. The regime, in an attempt to stop the virus from spreading, turned off the Internet. That further enraged the public, and on Friday, Jan. 28, a much larger demonstration, drawn from a far wider array of Egyptian society, gathered in the square. It grew and grew. The military was summoned; the protesters wisely embraced the soldiers as their army, not Mubarak’s, and the troops returned the embrace. In that moment, you knew how it would end.

On Friday, Feb. 11, less than three weeks after the first protest, Mubarak was gone.


I arrived in Egypt several days later, when huge crowds were still filling the square, day and night, and revolution was in the air.

These massive gatherings — on Friday, Feb. 18, more than a million people filled Tahrir Square — were like a living organism. The crowd was spontaneous and only loosely organized, but it had the discipline and cohesion of a connected network.

As you moved through Tahrir Square, you passed from node to node: from a group singing patriotic songs, to a solemn knot of mourners holding portraits of martyrs who had died in the square, to a circle of leftists chanting slogans and waving banners, to a group of kids jumping gleefully on Army tanks.

Scientists sometimes speak of an “emergent phenomenon,” a self-organizing process that unites what appear to be discrete individual entities. That’s what Tahrir Square felt like, even a week later. It was at once a protest and a festival. An Egyptian friend told me that the Army wouldn’t leave the square until the last Egyptian had his picture taken atop a tank.

In this cauldron of revolution, the normal divisions seemed to dissolve. That was the discontinuity — the break with passivity and division to a new state of unity and fearless confidence. The protests brought together Christians and Muslims; socialists and capitalists; young and old; Internet tycoons and poor people from the slums. They were all united in the demand that Mubarak leave office. And despite brutal provocation — as on the infamous “Day of the Camels” — they generally held to the promise of their slogan, “salmiya, salmiya,” “peaceful, peaceful.”

The virus has continued to spread, with fits and starts. After visiting Syria in late February, I wrote about a flash mob that had gathered in downtown Damascus to protest a policeman’s brutal treatment of a motorist he had detained. People emailed each other videos of the police beating, and soon hundreds of people were chanting slogans demanding dignity and freedom from harassment. That protest was defused when the Syrian interior minister himself arrived, 30 minutes later, to discipline the police officer.

I wrote at the time that if President Bashar al-Assad didn’t follow through on what aides told me were his plans for reform, he might be too late. For one sure lesson of the Arab Spring is that delay can be fatal. But Assad waited, and his regime at this writing is in dire jeopardy.

As I look back at these three months of protest and try to find the unifying theme, I think back to the formulation of my mentors. There is a yearning for dignity, as Scowcroft said, and it is producing a political awakening. Of the many words chanted by the crowds in Tahrir Square, one of the most powerful was karama, or dignity. My favorite summary of the emotional core of this movement comes from my colleague Nora Boustany, a Lebanese journalist, who translated for me an Arab proverb: “The artery of shame has ruptured.”

For Americans, that must seem like a strange concept. They are shameless, in the anthropological sense. But from the time I began covering the Middle East in 1980, I have seen what I now recognize was a shamed and broken political culture — a culture of passivity and resignation, which often expressed itself in negative and self-destructive acts of political violence and accepted authoritarian governments and the slogans they used to justify themselves. As my Arab friends say, that was the culture of 1967 — the culture of defeat, in which Arabs, with momentary exceptions, found themselves the pawns of a tiny but potent Israel and its superpower patron.

This is the culture that ended in 2011. That’s not to say that what lies ahead is necessarily benign, from an American standpoint. But Arabs are now embracing a culture of activism and self-determination, as opposed to one of passivity and victimization. They are defying army tanks, secret police, gangs of roving thugs, and their own ethnic and religious differences to unite in revolt.


The Internet and Facebook have played a role in this revolution. But I am not a material determinist: I don’t believe that the “means of information production” determine the course of history.

As I look back in history, there were other moments of sudden discontinuity, when people broke through the existing barriers of fear and defied authority, passing the message of revolt by the best available means. Thomas Paine’s pamphlet, “Common Sense,” had an electrifying effect on American revolutionaries when it was published in 1776. When Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini swept to power in 1979, his rise was powered by an insidious new technology known as the “cassette tape,” which allowed Iranians to listen secretly to his sermons. The movement that spread across Eastern Europe in 1989 and toppled the Soviet empire was sometimes called the “fax revolution,” in honor of that liberating technology, and the first post-Soviet news agency proudly took the name “Interfax.”

What’s discouraging, as you look back through this history, is what Crane Brinton famously called the “Anatomy of Revolution.” His book should be on every reading list this spring, but if you haven’t looked at it recently, here’s a brief summary:

Brinton noted that revolutions are born of hope, not poverty and despair. Their life arc moves from the uprising that displaces the old regime to a “honeymoon” in which a legal, moderate government tries to rule, even as an illegal, radical movement gains strength. The radical movement — the Jacobins, if you will, or the Leninists or (in our darkest imagining of the future) the Muslim Brotherhood — tend to win because, in Brinton’s words, they are “better organized, better staffed, better obeyed.”

The radicals’ triumph brings on a period of fanatical activism, with purges and revenge attacks — and a growing “reign of terror.” Eventually the public demands order, and the street radicals are put down by a reaction that Brinton likened to the Thermidorian Reaction in France in 1794. With order comes a new dictator who presumes to speak for the people — a Napoleon or Stalin or Khomeini.

Reading history reminds us that revolutionary change is a volatile and sometimes toxic process that confounds expectations.

The Arab Spring has been likened, for example, to the revolutions that swept across Europe in 1848, which was known in some countries as the “Spring of Nations.” Now that was a revolutionary movement! Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels sent the manuscript of the Communist Manifesto to the printers in February 1848, a few weeks before the revolution exploded in France. Recall the opening lines of the Manifesto:

A specter is haunting Europe — the specter of communism. All the powers of old Europe have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this specter.

Anyone who thinks that Muslim extremists invented intolerance or terrorism should read on in the manifesto:

You reproach us with intending to do away with your property. Precisely so; this is just what we intend….

The bourgeois family will vanish as a matter of course…. Do you charge us with wanting to stop the exploitation of children by their parents? To this crime we plead guilty.

And this, in the Manifesto’s closing paragraph:

The communists disdain to conceal their views and aims. They openly declare that their ends can be obtained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions. Let the ruling classes tremble at a communistic revolution.

They failed, of course, that time around. They failed in France, they failed in Germany, they failed in Italy — though with some stirring fights along the way. Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables was actually set in the French revolution of 1832, but it has the same sense of virtuous disaster as the 1848 uprising, especially the leftist aftershock in June 1848 that was crushed by the forces of bourgeois France.

Marx did some superb “op-ed” journalism about these uprisings, collected in the book The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. Just after the famous opening passage where he says that history always repeats itself — first time tragedy, second time farce — Marx offers this superb observation, which I find apposite for the events of today:

Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living.

Chris Hondros/Getty Images 

The Russian Revolution is another troubling point of comparison for observers of the Arab Spring, largely because of the weakness of the transitional figure who seemed to embody the hopes of the revolution, the moderate social democrat Alexander Kerensky. The revolution itself had been accomplished with very little violence, in the protests that led to the abdication of Czar Nicholas II in March 1917. Alan Moorehead’s study, The Russian Revolution, quotes the Soviet historian Nikolai Sukhanov: “The break had been accomplished with a sort of fabulous ease.” That, too, reminds me of Egypt 2011.

Hearts in the West were aflutter at this initial Russian Spring. President Woodrow Wilson spoke on April 2, 1917, of “the wonderful and heartening things that have been happening within the last few weeks in Russia.”

But Kerensky was no match for Lenin and the Bolsheviks, who plotted furiously against him even as he tried to make his moderate government work. Sukhanov, who describes Kerensky as “this noisy lawyer,” paints this scene in which Kerensky nervously tries to rally his colleagues to fight off an attack of Cossacks:

I demand that everyone — to do his duty — and not interfere — when I — give orders!

By October, the conservatives and radicals alike had decided that Kerensky was hopeless and that the situation required a firmer hand, which Lenin supplied. Brinton offered this epitaph for Kerensky and his variety of moderate revolutionary:

The eloquent compromisist leader seems to us a man of words, an orator who could move crowds but could not guide them, an impractical and incompetent person in the field of action.


A final, depressing stop on this historical tour is the Iranian revolution. I do not want to make too much of the parallel to contemporary Egypt, but what’s striking is that the United States, just as now with Egypt, wanted Iran as a military ally, but also wanted to stress human rights. When President Jimmy Carter visited Tehran in December 1977, he proclaimed: “Iran under the great leadership of the shah is an island of stability in one of the more troubled areas of the world.”

An August 1977 CIA analysis, cited by James A. Bill in his book, The Eagle and the Lion, concluded its 60-page review with the prediction: “the Shah will be an active participant in Iranian life well into the 1980s…. there will be no radical change in Iranian political behavior in the near future.”

I do not have to tell you that there are similar statements about Mubarak’s Egypt by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, President Barack Obama, and others.

The initial Kerensky figure in revolutionary Iran was a neat little man named Shahpour Bakhtiar. Washington tried to work with him, and when he gave way on Feb. 12, 1979, to Khomeini’s man, Mehdi Bazargan, Carter expressed “continued hope for very productive and peaceful cooperation.”

For a gripping account of what happened in Iran over the next months and years, I commend a visceral new memoir by my Newsweek colleague Maziar Bahari called Then They Came for Me, about how the Iranian revolution was kidnapped in slow motion, and mostly out of Western sight, culminating in the election putsch of June 2009 that triggered and then crushed the Green Revolution and led to Bahari’s arrest and torture in Evin prison.


So I come back, somberly, to today and the Arab Spring. The best hope for avoiding the fate of so many of history’s revolutions is solid, experienced leadership in the transition to democracy — aided by strong allies. That certainly was the case with the American Revolution; and even with the genius of America’s founders and the backing of France, Americans still made a mess of things initially with their first constitution, the Articles of Confederation. The democratic transitions of Indonesia, the Philippines, and the countries of Eastern Europe were also aided by this combination of good leadership and foreign support.

I hope a similar “virtuous cycle” will develop in Egypt. In April, on my third trip since the revolution began, I interviewed three “founding fathers” of the new Egypt: former International Atomic Energy Agency head Mohamed ElBaradei, outgoing Arab League chief Amr Moussa, and business leader Naguib Sawiris. They didn’t make the revolution, but they did take personal risks in supporting it before the result was clear. Two are potential presidents, and the third, Sawiris, has formed a new, well-financed liberal party. They are tough, wily characters, with money and organizational skills. Suffice it to say that they do not remind me of Alexander Kerensky or Shahpour Bakhtiar. But we shall see.


Let me conclude by discussing the consequences of this Arab political awakening for the United States. I would make two basic points:

First, the success of the democratic revolutions in Egypt, Tunisia, and elsewhere is absolutely in the interest of the United States. I am not yet convinced that there are democratic revolutions under way in Libya, Yemen, or Syria, but if that happens, they will deserve U.S. (nonmilitary) support, too.

Egypt, in particular, is decisive. It has roughly 25 percent of the population of the Arab world, and it was for much of the 20th century the region’s engine of modernization. If democracy succeeds in Egypt, other countries will follow. Should the democratic experiment in Egypt be hijacked by the military or anti-democratic Islamist groups, the revolution will fail elsewhere.

This being the case, the United States must do everything it reasonably can to provide two things that post-revolutionary Egypt badly needs: financial assistance and help in creating a modern, democratic police and security service. The Egyptian economy is heading toward a severe cash squeeze this summer because of the drastic fall in tourism, foreign investment, and other economic activity since January. And insecurity is growing on Egypt’s streets because of the disarray and demoralization of the Egyptian police. Both problems are potentially fatal to the revolution.

This is a “use it or lose it” situation in terms of Western assistance. The United States will accomplish its goals best by acting discreetly, working with allies — especially those in Eastern Europe that have made successful transitions from authoritarian governments. Visiting Harvard University in April as I pondered these issues, I inevitably reread the speech given there on June 5, 1947 by George Marshall as he outlined a program of assistance for the shaky democracies of Europe. He used language that was civilized, sexist, but also crystal clear:

I need not tell you, gentlemen, that the world situation is very serious. That must be apparent to all intelligent people. I think one difficulty is that the problem is one of such enormous complexity that the very mass of facts presented to the public by press and radio make it exceedingly difficult for the man in the street to reach a clear appraisement of the situation…. The truth of the matter is that Europe’s requirements for the next three or four years of foreign food and other essential products — principally from America — are so much greater than her present ability to pay that she must have substantial additional help or face economic, social, and political deterioration of a very grave character.

The stakes in Egypt are so high that it is unimaginable to me that the United States would continue to spend more than $100 billion this year in Afghanistan and leave aid to Egypt as a sorry afterthought. The Obama administration’s only offer thus far, I believe, is Clinton’s pledge of $150 million.

STF/AFP/Getty Images 

Second, we cannot be sure that, even with timely assistance, the democratic revolutions in Egypt and elsewhere will succeed. It is entirely possible that they will follow the downward course of other revolutions in history. The political awakening — this magnificent opening to the world — may produce a counterreaction that has the effect of reducing freedom and democratic action, as has been the case in Iran since its June 2009 election.

In situations like this, where the outcome is unknown and unknowable, it’s especially important to have a clear sense of where U.S. interests lie and make sure that they guide U.S. policy. I am indebted to conversations with FP blogger Stephen Walt for reminding me that this catalog of U.S. interests is actually quite simple to enumerate:

The United States has an interest in the secure supply of oil from the Persian Gulf, and Saudi Arabia in particular, to itself and to its allies. It has an interest in combating terrorist actions by al Qaeda and other groups that seek to target Americans. It has an interest in the security and well-being of Israel, America’s closest ally in the Middle East, and a concurrent interest in a just resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. The United States also has an interest in the growth of stable, democratic regimes and the expansion of human rights.The intersection of these interests is the zone of ambiguity in which foreign-policy choices must always be made.

Obama has been wise to take a low-key approach to these developments — to let Arabs write this new chapter in their history, without feeling they are taking dictation from the United States. He has been criticized for not being “tough” or “presidential” enough, but these criticisms are, to me, misguided. And I think he’s absolutely right to let others who are closer to Libya fight most of that war — and figure out, in the process, just who the good guys and bad guys are.

But there is a time for low-key, and there is a time for clarity. On the final two strategic imperatives I cited — America’s obligation to assist the democratic revolution in Egypt and its need to be clear and forthright about its own national interests — I think Obama needs to speak as clearly and forcefully as Marshall did at Harvard’s commencement 64 years ago: “I need not tell you, ladies and gentlemen, the future security of the United States depends on the success of the Arab Spring.”


David Ignatius is a columnist for The Washington Post.

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