A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Revolution and Counter-Revolution, Then and Now

Last week my posts were mainly reactive due to my preoccupation with the destruction in my home town of Joplin, Missouri. This week I want to return to some analysis of my own, at a bit more length.

Depending on which op-ed you read, Arab Spring is either a crushing disappointment, a movement betrayed by the old entrenched establishments, or a youth movement co-opted by radical Islamists. It is fueling sectarianism (Egypt, Syria) and anti-Americanism, and it's all the fault of either Barack Obama (either because of his sinister plotting against friendly regimes or his apathy about supporting old allies) or the Muslim Brotherhood. (Or Iran or Israel if you want to get out into the really complex conspiracy theories.)

Personally, I think this is one of those blind-men-and-the-elephant situations, in which analysts with various agendas see only those aspect of the larger whole that reinforce their pre-existing prejudices. Some aspects of each assertion reflect reality, but the whole is still greater than the sum of its parts. It's not over, and no one can see the farther shore, not yet. However much the 24/7 news cycle demands instant gratification, real life doesn't work that way. These are still early days. Ben Ali fell in January and Mubarak fell in February (neither of which is spring, by the way), so people have been wondering why no despots fell in March, April, or May, and now already we're in June. So perhaps it was less an Arab Spring than a Winter of Discontent, now played out?

Actually, I'm sure Mu‘ammar al-Qadhafi isn't sleeping well, what with the NATO air strikes, and I doubt if ‘Ali ‘Abdullah Salih or Bashar al-Asad are as confident as they once were. If anything, more people are dying each day in Libya, Yemen, and Syria than in the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions, but repressive censorship makes it harder to document. Bahrain's uprising was crushed, but only through foreign intervention.

There's an old saying, "Never trust a generalization, including this one." A corollary could be, "Never rely too much on historical parallels, including the one I'm about to draw." History does not repeat itself, though if we do not learn from it we may repeat its mistakes. It's also been said that history doesn't repeat itself, but historians do; I may be a bit guilty of that here. But while I'm on the theme I should also note the quote attributed to Mark Twain (but is it his? I can't find a source): "History doesn't repeat itself, but it does rhyme."

Now I've said before that for general historical parallels you have to go back to the early years of the post-World War I colonial era, where the Egyptian Revolution of 1919 and the Iraqi Revolution of 1920-21 against the British were the sort of largely leaderless grass-roots uprisings we've seen recently. Both, in fact, have always been called "uprisings" or "revolts" in British historical narratives. But both Egyptians and Iraqis call those events thawra or revolution, even though the British didn't leave right away. But Egypt did get (nominal, conditional) independence in 1922 and Iraq a decade later.

The other possible period of comparison is the period of the 1950s  and 1960s, when the wave of Arab nationalism spread, led by Gamal Abdel Nasser and the "Revolution" in Egypt in 1952. The quotes are there because like most of the other "revolutions" of the era, that was a khaki revolution. While it did result in some genuine social change — land reform, nationalizations, and the like — it was really a military coup with a social agenda, not a revolution from the street. For years, Egyptians and other Arabs have argued over whether the Egyptian revolution of 1952 and its analogues in Iraq (1958, 1963, 1968, unless you want to start in 1936), Syria (frequent between 1949-1971), Yemen (1962 and periodically to 1978) and Libya (1969), plus similar events in Sudan (multiple, 1958-1989) and elsewhere, should be described as thawra (revolution) or inqilab (coup, literally pretty much "overthrow".) [Semantic aside: in Iran, the Islamic Revolution of 1979 is routinely called inqilab, due to some semantic shift when the word moved from Arabic to Persian.]

The period of the "revolutions" of the 1950s and 1960s was famously defined by the late Malcolm Kerr as The Arab Cold War.

There was a clear dichotomy between the "revolutionary" (whether they were implementing social change or just consolidating personal power) regimes and the "counter-revolutionary" regimes of the Kings, Sultans, Amirs, and Imam (in Yemen) who resisted them.  While it did get confusing at times (especially in Yemen), it was generally clear who the "revolutionaries" were and who the reactionaries were.

The same is true in today's revolutions, but for different reasons. This time the revolutions are not in khaki; they're in cyberspace. They're not young military officers; they're just the frustrated young, of all social and economic classes. Whether they, unlike their khaki-wearing predecessors, can actually deliver on their dreams remains to be proven. This is, I think, something quite different, but there is one common factor: the common enemies.

Saudi Arabia and Israel are as discomfited by the Arab Spring as they were by the Nasserite wave of the 50s and 60s, and while they may agree on little else (though if truth were fully told, they probably agree on more than you think [remember the Dany Ayalon-Prince Turki handshake?]), the two agree that Change in the Arab World is Bad.

And it needs hardly be said that the old regimes that are under attack now were themselves mostly the "revolutionaries" of the 1950s and 1960s. Mubarak was a junior pilot in 1952 but became part of its legacy; Qadhafi led the Libyan "revolution" in 1969 before he became the Picture of Dorian Gray, and Salih of Yemen led his coup in 1978, again, like the others, before the overwhelming majority of his people were born. The old revolutionaries become the Bonapartist dictators opposed by the new revolutionaries.

But I do believe that Arab Spring has deeper roots than the khaki "revolutions" of the Nasser era. I think this is a real, grass-roots movement, and while the young intelligentsia with their cellphones and Twitter accounts are the vanguard, the peasants and workers aren't far behind. The role of the labor movement in Egypt — not the official labor movement but the independent unions who were striking for a year before January 25 was dreamt of — may be the untold story of the Egyptian revolution. Someday we will have a clearer picture of what is going on; but the op-ed writers know no more than I or the participants themselves what happens next. What I'm sure of is, it ain't over till it's over.

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