PARADOXES OF ARAB REFO-LUTIONS
by Asef Bayat
Mar 03 2011
Serious concerns are expressed currently in Tunisia and Egypt about the sabotage of the defeated elites. Many in the revolutionary and pro-democracy circles speak of a creeping counter-revolution. This is not surprising. If revolutions are about intense struggle for a profound change, then any revolution should expect a counterrevolution of subtle or blatant forms. The French, Russian, Chinese, Iranian, and Nicaraguan revolutions all faced protracted civil or international wars. The question is not if the threat of counter-revolution is to be expected; the question rather is if the ‘revolutions’ are revolutionary enough to offset the perils of restoration. It seems that the Arab revolutions remain particularly vulnerable precisely because of their distinct peculiarity—their structural anomaly expressed in the paradoxical trajectory of political change.
Historically, three types of bottom-up regime/political change stand out. The first is the ‘reformist change’. Here, social and political movements mobilize in a usually sustained campaign to exert concerted pressure on the incumbent regimes to undertake reforms through the institutions of the existing states. Resting on their social power—the mobilization of the grassroots— the opposition movements compel the political elites to reform themselves, their laws and institutions often through some of kind of social pacts. So, change happens within the framework of the existing political arrangements. The transition to democracy in countries like Mexico and Brazil in the 1980s was of this nature. The leadership of Iran’s Green movement currently pursues similar reformist trajectory. In this trajectory, the depth and extend of reforms vary. Change may remain superficial; but it can also be profound if it materialized cumulatively by legal, institutional and politico-cultural reforms.
The second mode of political change is the ‘insurrectionary model’, where a revolutionary movement builds up in a fairly extended span of time during which a recognized leadership and organization emerge along with some blueprint of future political structure. At the same time that the incumbent regime continues to resist through police or military apparatus, a gradual erosion and defection begin to crack the governing body. The revolutionary camp pushes forward, attracts defectors, forms a shadow government, and builds some organs of alternative power. In the meantime, the regime’s governmentality gets paralyzed, leading to a state of ‘dual power’ between the incumbent and the opposition. The state of ‘dual power’ ends by an insurrectionary battle in which the revolutionary camp takes over the state power via force; it dislodges the old organs of authority and establishes new ones. Here we have a comprehensive overhaul of the state, with new functionaries, ideology, and mode of governance. The Iranian revolution of 1979, the Sandinista Revolution in Nicaragua, or the Cuban revolution of 1952 exemplifies such insurrectionary course.
The third possibility pertains to ‘regime implosion’, when the revolutionary movement builds up through general strikes and broad practices of civil disobedience, or through a revolutionary warfare progressively encircling the regime, so that in the end the regime implodes. It collapses in disruption, defection, and total disorder. In its place come the alternative elites and institutions. Ceausescu’s regime in Romania imploded in a dramatic political chaos and violence in 1989, but gave rise eventually to very different political and economic systems under the newly established political structure, the National Salvation Front. Qaddafi’s Libya may experience such an implosion if the revolutionary insurgency continues to strangle Tripoli. In both ‘insurrection’ and ‘implosion’, and unlike the reformist mode, attempts to reform the political structure take place not through the existing institutions of the state, but overwhelmingly outsideof them.
Now, Egypt’s revolution, just like that of Tunisia, does not resemble any of these experiences. In Egypt and Tunisia, the rise of powerful political uprisings augmented the fastest revolutions of our time. Tunisians in the course of one month and Egyptians in just 18 days succeeded in dislodging long-serving authoritarian rulers, dismantling a number of institutions associated with them, including the ruling parties, the legislative bodies, and a number of ministries, in the meantime establishing a promise of constitutional and political reform. And all these have been achieved in manners that were remarkably civil, peaceful, and fast. But these astonishing rapid triumphs did not leave much opportunity for the opposition to build parallel organs of authority capable of taking control of the new state. Instead, the opposition wants the institutions of the incumbent regimes, for instance the Military in Egypt, to carry out substantial reforms on behalf of the revolution—that is, to modify the constitution, ensure free elections, guarantee free political parties, and in the long run institutionalize democratic governance. Here again lies a key anomaly of these revolutions– they enjoy enormous social power, but lack administrative authority; they garner remarkable hegemony, but do not actually rule. Thus, the incumbent regimes continue to stand; there are no new states or governing bodies, nor novel means and modes of governance that altogether embody the will of the revolution.
It is true that, like their Arab counterparts, the Eastern European revolutions of the late 1990s were also non-violent, civil, and remarkably rapid (East Germany’s revolution took only ten days); but they managed, unlike in Tunisia and Egypt, to completely transform the political and economic systems. This was possible because the imploded East German communist state could simply dissipate and dissolve into the already existing West German governing body. And broadly, since the difference between what East European people had (one party, communist state) and what they wanted (liberal democracy and market economy) was so distinctly radical that the trajectory of change had to be revolutionary. Half-way, superficial, and reformist change would have been easily detected and resisted—something different from the Arab revolutions in which the demands of ‘change, freedom, social justice’ are broad enough to be claimed even by the counter-revolution. Consequently, the Arab revolutions resemble perhaps more Georgia’s Rose Revolution of 2003 and Ukraine’s Orange Revolution of November 2004-January 2005 where in both cases a massive and sustained popular protest brought down incumbent fraudulent rulers. In these instances, the trajectory of change looks more reformist than revolutionary, strictly speaking.
But there is a more promising side to the Arab political upheavals. One cannot deny the operation of a powerful revolutionary mode in these political episodes, which make them more profound than those in Georgia or Ukraine. In Tunisia and Egypt, the departure of despotic rulers and their apparatus of coercion have opened up an unprecedented free space for citizens, notably the subaltern subjects, to reclaim their societies. As is the case in most revolutionary turning points, an enormous energy has been released in the society’s body politics. Banned political parties have come to surface and new ones are getting established. Societal organizations have become more vocal and extraordinary grassroots initiatives are under way. In Egypt, working people, free from fear of persecution, aggressively follow their violated claims. Laborers are pushing for new independent unions; some of them have already formed the ‘Coalition of the 25 January Revolution Workers’ to assert the revolutionary principles of “change, freedom, and social justice”. Small farmers (with less than ten feddans) in rural areas are organizing themselves in independent syndicates; others continue fighting for betters wages and conditions. The first Organization of the Residents of Cairo’s Ashwa’iyyat (slums), established recently, has called for the removal of corrupt governors, and for the abolition of regime-sponsored ‘local councils’. Youth groups organize to clean up slum areas, engage in civil works and reclaim their civil pride. Students pour into the streets to demand Ministry of Education to revise the curricula. The stories of Coptic and Muslim cooperation to fight sectarian rumors and provocations are already known and need not be repeated here. And of course the Tahrir Revolutionary Front continues to exert pressure on the military to speed up reforms. These all represent popular engagement of exceptional times. But the extraordinary sense of liberation, urge for self-realization, the dream of a new and just order—in short the desire for ‘all that is new’ are what define the very spirit of these revolutions. In these turning points, these societies have moved far ahead of their political elites, exposing albeit the major anomaly of these revolutions—the discrepancy between a revolutionary desire for the ‘new’, and a reformist trajectory that may lead to harboring the ‘old’.
How do we then make sense of the Arab revolutions? These may be characterized neither as ‘revolutions’ per se nor simply ‘reform’ measures. Instead we may speak of ‘refo-lutions’– revolutions that want to push for reforms in, and through the institutions of the incumbent states. As such, refo-lutions express paradoxical processes—something to be cherished and yet vulnerable. Refo-lutions do possess the advantage of ensuring orderly transitions, avoiding violence, destruction, and chaos—the evils that dramatically raise the cost of change. In addition, revolutionary excess, the ‘reign of terror’, exclusion, revenge, summary trials and guillotines can be avoided. And there are the possibilities of genuine transformation through social pacts, but only if the society—the grassroots, civil society associations, labor unions, and social movements—continue to remain vigilant, mobilized and exert pressure. Otherwise refo-lutions carry with them the perils of counter-revolutionary restoration precisely because the revolution has not made it into the key institutions of the state power. One can readily imagine powerful stakeholders, wounded by the ferocity of popular upheavals, would desperately seek regrouping, initiate sabotage, and instigate counter-propaganda. Ex-high state officials, old party apparatchiks, key editor-in-chiefs, big businesses, members of aggrieved intelligent services and not to mention military men could penetrate the apparatus of power and propaganda to turn things into their advantage. The danger can especially be more pronounced when the revolutionary fervor subsides, normal life resumes, hard realities of reconstruction seep in, and the populace gets disenchanted. There is little recourse for realizing a meaningful change without turning refo-lutions into revolutions.