Revolution is a weighty word, one as freighted with past disappointments as with hopes for the future. In the Arab world, where the first spontaneous popular revolutions of the twenty-first century have begun, cabals of colonels long expropriated the term to glorify their coups d’état. It is an accomplishment of the groundswells in Tunisia and Egypt in early 2011 that no prospective Asad or Qaddafi will get away with stealing the word again. Thanks to Tunisians and Egyptians, everyone has received a crash course in what revolution looks like.
There is a distinction to be drawn, of course, between political revolution and social. What Tunisians and Egyptians have achieved is political revolution — changes of personnel atop the pyramids of government forced by pressure from below. Their twin uprisings were certainly no mean feat. In both Tunisia and Egypt, crowds of angry, but ebullient citizens prevailed in fierce, prolonged street battles with fearsome police squadrons schooled in the methods of repression. In both places, the people rebuffed the authorities’ every attempt at suasion, whether by truncheon, pay raise or cabinet reshuffle, insisting upon regime change — and in Tunisia, resignation of the first caretaker government as well.
The Tunisian and Egyptian crowds aimed for social revolution, a far more thorough transformation of the polity, the relations between state and society, and ultimately the society itself. Most political revolutions carry within them the seeds of such metamorphosis, but very few in modern history have bloomed in full, for a variety of reasons, one being that the unifying energy of the initial phase frequently dissipates as the insurrectionists dissolve into competing factions. But a second, often more consequential, reason is that the specter of social revolution chills the rich and powerful to the bone. Elites can accommodate political revolution. A Zine El Abidine Ben Ali or a Husni Mubarak can be abandoned, ruling party machines can be junked, dozens of ministers and police chiefs can be fired and even put on trial, without upsetting the authoritarian bargain between the ruling caste and the ruled, not to speak of upending the class hierarchy. But sacking the old guard is where the elites want matters to halt. In most revolutionary situations, forces of counter-revolution rally to ensure that redistribution of wealth, in particular, does not transpire.
At this juncture, almost two months after the fall of Mubarak, and nearly three months after the ouster of Ben Ali, it is plain that counter-revolutionary elements have stirred themselves to action in Tunisia, Egypt and outside. Will they win or lose? The balance sheet can be read both ways.
On the revolutionaries’ side of the ledger can be counted at least one fait accompli: The steady degradation of the post-colonial Arab republics into ruling-family fiefdoms has been arrested. In Tunisia and Egypt, there will be no handover of presidential power from father to son or son-in-law (and it seems safe to say that no such transfer will occur in Yemen, either). Amidst tales of the Ben Alis’ and Mubaraks’ fantastic wealth, it seems unlikely that successor regimes will feel able to plunder the Tunisian or Egyptian treasuries with quite the same aplomb. The rise of citizen journalism via social media, the ransacking of ruling-party and Interior Ministry offices, the new prominence of privately owned satellite television channels, the collective civic education performed by the uprisings themselves — all of these factors militate in favor of greater transparency and accountability in the respective political cultures.
The more open Tunisian and Egyptian politics become, the more the steps toward democracy there will reverberate in the region. Of course, the political permeability of the Arab world is an old theme, but it is one underscored by the lightning-quick diffusion of the spirit of revolt from Tunisia to Egypt to Yemen, Bahrain, Libya and elsewhere. It cannot be just the common lexicon of Arabism or the reach of satellite television and the Internet that account for the spread of popular struggle, as these parts of the picture have been present for some time. It was rather the rawness and immediacy of the specific grievances of Mohamed Bouazizi and Khalid Sa‘id — under-employment and police brutality — that garnered the instinctive empathy of their peers, young and old. Once the pent-up fury of the region was released, it could not easily be contained. As the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions unfold, they will continue to exert a demonstration effect on activism in other countries, which will in turn inspire Tunisians and Egyptians not to quit.
A looming tension, however, is the inevitable lag in speed between political change and economic developments. The basket of World Bank and International Monetary Fund policies known as neoliberalism is deeply discredited by the Tunisian and Egyptian experiences, but it would be misleading at best to proclaim an end to the neoliberal era in the Arab world. The region saw its first IMF-provoked bread riots in the 1970s. What escalated the riots into rebellion in 2011 was the mode of structural adjustment peculiar to the oil-poor Arab republics, whereby the regimes sold off public assets (often at ridiculously low prices) to circles of chums in return for kickbacks and political support. This crony capitalism bolstered authoritarianism in many ways, but also undermined it by fueling widespread disgust at the conspicuous consumption of the chosen beneficiaries. Crony capitalism’s future is perhaps cloudy, but the example of Naguib Sawiris in Egypt illustrates that individual crony capitalists can adapt to revolutionary situations. The Sawiris clan grew supremely rich on state construction contracts under Anwar al-Sadat, so it has already survived the abrupt departure of one patron in the presidential palace. Its wealth burgeoned under Mubarak, thanks in part to the non-competitive award of the first cellular phone company license in Egypt, and has been augmented by telecommunica- tions ventures in US-occupied Iraq. Naguib Sawiris was one of the self-appointed “wise men” who endeavored to broker an “orderly, peaceful transition” away from Mubarak as the epochal Tahrir Square sit-in proceeded. He and his ilk can be expected to work to keep Egypt safe for preferential market access.
At a deeper level, the politics of economic reform in Egypt and Tunisia are likely to be more competitive. Business tycoons like Sawiris will be only one of many strata that will mobilize their ranks to promote social visions and stake claims on resources. The successor governments, irrespective of their ideological leanings, will be keen to minimize further social disruption as they hunt for footing in a secure politicalbase. They can accordingly be expected to move slowly with their economic reform programs, whether these consist of further privatization of state-owned enterprises or attempts at more equitable distribution of wealth. The result may be stasis, which could sow restiveness among the components of the revolutionary coalition — students, under-employed graduates, middle-class urbanites, industrial workers, day laborers and others. They might then reunite in the streets, indulge in mutual recrimination or do something in between. Another stratum whose prerogatives are poorly understood is the peasantry.
On the counter-revolutionary side of the register, a bold-faced entry is the coolness, if not outright hostility, of outside powers to social revolutionary projects. Saudi Arabia sent troops into Bahrain to calcify the backbone of the royal family amidst the revolt in the island kingdom. But its interventions have not stopped there: Throughout the uprisings of 2011, Saudi diplomacy has urged besieged rulers to crack down as harshly as possible. Israel has also openly stated a preference for the status quo. As for the United States, it has embraced a few rebellions — in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya — but only after they had succeeded in rendering the status quo untenable. Going forward, Washington will strive for a swift restoration of the stability it prizes and it will not smile upon grand reapportioning schemes that threaten to incur delays. Stability, as in the past, is found in dialogue and incremental reform undergirded by dependable armies. Visiting Tunis on February 21, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) praised “the model revolution” in the Mediterranean nation, pledging, “We stand ready to provide training to help Tunisia’s military to provide security.” Similar assurances have been conveyed regarding the hefty US military aid to Egypt. In Washington, the army is seen not only as the guarantor of US alliances but also as the guardian of democracy.
It is an odd misreading of the Arab reality, looking backward or forward. In Tunisia, the army played the “neutral, professional role” expected by Washington only because Ben Ali had excluded it from the circuits of booty. In Egypt, the army eventually turned on Mubarak, but its subsequent behavior — moving to ban strikes and demonstrations — betrays its rootedness in the nexus of autocracy, crony capitalism and stability worship. The lesson of Tunisia and Egypt for other Arab rulers, meanwhile, is to divide the military or to rely upon foreigners for regime security. In most Arab countries, the military is a reliable force of counter-revolution.
But no balance sheet would be complete without returning to the new actor that strode onto the stage under the winter sun — the people. For the first time in decades, in one capital after another, the regimes, the security men and their underwriters, foreign and domestic, cannot hope to determine the course of events by themselves. The resolution of the Arab revolutionary situation is unknown and unpredictable, a fact that does not mandate optimism, but does command rapt attention.