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Learn to Love The Revolution

9 minute read
Michael Elliott

There’s no need to panic.

Revolutions are messy affairs. They don’t follow the easy logic of middle-school textbooks. Hostilities in the American Revolution broke out a year before the Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution was not ratified until nearly seven years after the decisive battle at Yorktown. In two years starting in 1974, Portugal went from neofascism to army rule to something like a communist putsch and then to liberal democracy, where, happily, it has stayed. (Along the way, events in that little country made the end of white rule in South Africa and Rhodesia inevitable. That’s another thing about revolutions: their reverberations often surprise.) The Philippines got rid of Ferdinand Marcos in 1986 but is still groping toward a system of government that is both effective and democratic.

(See TIME’s photo-essay “Scenes from the Unrest in Libya.”)

In the 10 weeks since demonstrations began in Tunisia, the Arab Middle East has been messiness personified. We have seen the relatively swift and peaceful ouster of the regime in Tunisia; an 18-day standoff marked by peaceful mass protests and sporadic regime resistance before the departure of President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt; demonstrations for constitutional reform combatted by deadly force, followed by negotiations in Bahrain; and most recently, the outbreak of violence bordering on civil war in Libya. And this catalog of the Arab world’s democratic winter doesn’t include the protests elsewhere, against everyone from a classic big man in Yemen to hereditary monarchs in Morocco and Jordan. So what can we learn from the region’s revolutions — and those that went before them?

1. Provide, Provide, Provide
The key word for thinking about the Middle East today, says Eugene Rogan, director of the Middle East Center at Oxford University’s St. Antony’s College, is provision. Faced with the demands of a rapidly growing population of young people increasingly resentful of dynastic rule and increasingly linked to the outside world and one another by technology — and hence (and this is the key point) able to benchmark their situation against those elsewhere — regimes throughout the region have not done enough to provide sufficient jobs, education, housing, dignity. “Failure to provide,” says Rogan, “is the most glaring source of tension. That’s the constant.”

(See pictures of the rule of Colonel Gaddafi.)

Just as constant is the baseline demand of the protesters. It is quite simple: in the chant from the streets, Ishaab ureed isqat al-nizam, or “the people want the fall of the regime.” But while those seeking reform in the Arab Middle East share much in the way of both grievance and objective, they also have significant differences. A region stretching from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean is not homogeneous. Egypt has more than 80 million people; Bahrain around 1 million. Some nations, like Libya, have abundant oil and gas reserves; others, like Yemen, have little hydrocarbon wealth.

(See exclusive photos of the crackdown in Bahrain.)

2. No Two Places Are the Same
No revolution is a perfect analogy for any other. Each nation in the Middle East has been colored in its own way by its history of colonial rule. Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia are francophone; Libya has good relations with Italy, its former colonial master; Jordan was once effectively a British protectorate. Egypt receives enormous quantities of U.S. aid, and the leaders of its armed forces have close ties with their counterparts in the Pentagon. That combination gives U.S. interests a salience in Egypt that they do not have in many other nations in the region.

As the revolutions play out, memories, resentments and social fractures specific to each country will shape their outcome. Egypt, for example, was long the natural leader of the Arab world. Humiliated by its decline in standing (this is a nation that once led the nonaligned movement), many Egyptians would doubtless like to see their country regain its place and revive the sense of cultural and political dynamism that elements within their society demonstrated after World War I and again after Gamal Nasser and his colleagues overturned the monarchy in 1952. In no other Arab nation is the desire to retrieve lost stature likely to be so significant.

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Elsewhere, religion may shape what happens next. In Bahrain, the crowds have chanted “Not Sunni, not Shi’ite. Bahraini.” But in a nation where a Sunni minority and royal family rule over a much poorer Shi’ite majority, sectarian issues could easily muddle demands for constitutional reform. Syria has its own fractures. The Assad family, which has ruled the country since 1970, is from the small Alawite Islamic sect — this in a Sunni-majority nation whose Islamists remember the way the regime bloodily crushed the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1980s. The government of Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen is threatened by two insurgencies — and the armed members of the local affiliate of al-Qaeda. Sudan is split between a Muslim, Arab north (whose members rule the country) and an African, Christian and oil-rich south that has just voted overwhelmingly to secede. Jordan is home to Palestinians who hail from west of the river and those whose origin is in the deserts to the east.

See TIME’s special report “The Middle East in Revolt.”

See TIME’s photo-essay “Mass Demonstrations in Egypt.”

Economic issues, too, will manifest themselves in different ways in different places. A detestation of corruption is a constant throughout the states in the region that have seen disturbances, and for good reason. But it is likely to be a particularly significant driver of change in Libya. This is a nation whose small population, mineral wealth, cultural history and proximity to rich European markets should long ago have made it an economic powerhouse like one of the Gulf states, but instead it has become a kleptocracy run for the benefit of Muammar Gaddafi, his family and their supporters.

3. Patience Is a Virtue
Given the variety of social and economic circumstances in the Arab world and the rapid devolution from smiling faces in Tunisia to the awful violence in Libya, there is a natural temptation to fear the worst: to see years of instability stretching ahead for the region, instability that, as the U.S. learned on Sept. 11, 2001, can seep beyond the Middle East’s borders.

(See 10 autocrats in trouble.)

The wiser counsel, surely, is patience. During the European revolutions of 1989, it was common to look to the Middle East and wonder why it seemed immune to the democratic wave. But if anything has been abundantly proved in the past month, it is that there is no “Arab exception,” no iron rule that specifies that the desires that motivate human society anywhere — a right to choose your rulers, a hope that your children will lead better lives than you, a search for prosperity and happiness — are somehow absent from the Middle East. Why on earth should they be?

That does not mean that the postrevolutionary dispensation in the region will be happy everywhere. Though romantics want revolutions to have charismatic leaders, successful ones channel the revolutionary instinct into habits of effective government through institutions that have a degree of popular legitimacy. (Lucky Poland, to have had both a political organization — Solidarity — and a church hierarchy with such legitimacy in 1989.) Where such institutions do not exist, troubles brew. Russia after 1990 was a country with little organized political opposition and a compromised church and army. Little wonder that oligarchs, criminals and veterans of the Soviet security services rushed to fill the vacuum.

(See a brief history of People Power.)

4. Institutions Really Matter
Institutional arrangements are important in the middle East precisely because of the nature of the revolutionary transformation. Organized and brave the young people who have driven change may be, but a crowd in Tahrir Square cannot govern Egypt, nor can a Facebook page or Twitter account — at least not yet. More is needed. Though they may have been hobbled by years of autocracy, Egypt and Tunisia have parliaments, political parties, judges and lawyers, labor unions and a press whose members want to do what free journalists do elsewhere. All of that augurs well for the chance of building systems of governance that are both effective and — just as important — accountable to the people.

The contrast with Libya and Yemen could hardly be more striking. In Gaddafi’s madness, Libya has been rendered almost devoid of the appurtenances of state power. (It is officially a Jamahiriya, or “state of the masses.”) Yemen has been a unified state only since 1990; poverty-ridden and threatened by regional uprisings, it could face a rocky postrevolutionary trajectory.

(See pictures of clashes in Yemen.)

5. Let Them Do It Themselves
Yet even Libya and Yemen have one great thing going for them. When change happens in rough parts of the world, it is easy for those who live in happier lands — such as the U.S. and Europe — to ask condescendingly what they can do to help. And help they surely can — Europe perhaps more than the U.S., since it controls the vital spigots that modulate the flow of people and goods from the Middle East to its most proximate and important market.

But the key thing about the Arab revolution — the reason we can dream that even Libya may turn out fine — is that Arabs are doing it for themselves. This revolution is a regional one, a movement in which each nation’s young people have learned tactics, technological fixes and slogans from one another. A local TV channel — al-Jazeera, not the BBC or CNN — has been a principal megaphone. The unplanned system of mutual support that has developed may turn out to have done more to bind the region together than the top-down attempts to create pan-Arabism in the 1950s. This year, says Rogan, “Arabs have been inspired by the example of fellow Arabs. What matters in the Arab world matters to Arabs.” For that reason, it matters to us all.

This article originally appeared in the March 7, 2011 issue of TIME.

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