The Muslim world, from North Africa to Iran, has experienced a wave
of instability in the last few weeks. No regimes have been overthrown
yet, although as of this writing, Libya was teetering on the brink.
There have been moments in history where revolution spread in a
region or around the world as if it were a wildfire. These moments do
not come often. Those that come to mind include 1848, where a rising in
France engulfed Europe. There was also 1968, where the demonstrations of
what we might call the New Left swept the world: Mexico City, Paris,
New York and hundreds of other towns saw anti-war revolutions staged by
Marxists and other radicals. Prague saw the Soviets smash a New Leftist
government. Even China’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution could, by
a stretch, be included. In 1989, a wave of unrest, triggered by East
Germans wanting to get to the West, generated an uprising in Eastern
Europe that overthrew Soviet rule.
Each had a basic theme. The 1848 uprisings attempted to establish
liberal democracies in nations that had been submerged in the reaction
to Napoleon. 1968 was about radical reform in capitalist society. 1989
was about the overthrow of communism. They were all more complex than
that, varying from country to country. But in the end, the reasons
behind them could reasonably be condensed into a sentence or two.
Some of these revolutions had great impact. 1989
changed the global balance of power. 1848 ended in failure at the
time — France reverted to a monarchy within four years — but set the
stage for later political changes. 1968 produced little that was
lasting. The key is that in each country where they took place, there
were significant differences in the details — but they shared core
principles at a time when other countries were open to those principles,
at least to some extent.
The Current Rising in Context
In looking at the current rising, the geographic area is clear: The
Muslim countries of North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula have been the
prime focus of these risings, and in particular North
Africa where Egypt, Tunisia and now Libya have had profound crises.
Of course, many other Muslim countries also had revolutionary events
that have not, at least until now, escalated into events that threaten
regimes or even ruling personalities. There have been hints of such
events elsewhere. There were small
demonstrations in China, and of course Wisconsin is in turmoil over
budget cuts. But these don’t really connect to what is happening in the
Middle East. The first was small and the second is not taking
inspiration from Cairo. So what we have is a rising in the Arab world
that has not spread beyond there for the time being.
The key principle that appears to be driving the risings is a feeling
that the regimes, or a group of individuals within the regimes, has
deprived the public of political and, more important, economic rights —
in short, that they enriched themselves beyond what good taste
permitted. This has expressed itself in different ways. In Bahrain, for
example, the rising
was of the primarily Shiite population against a predominantly Sunni
royal family. In Egypt, it was against the person of Hosni Mubarak.
In Libya, it is against the regime and person of Moammar
Gadhafi and his family, and is driven by tribal hostility.
Why has it come together now? One reason is that there was a
tremendous amount of regime change in the region from the 1950s through
the early 1970s, as the Muslim countries created regimes to replace
foreign imperial powers and were buffeted by the Cold War. Since the
early 1970s, the region has, with the exception of Iran in 1979, been
fairly stable in the sense that the regimes — and even the personalities
who rose up in the unstable phase — stabilized their countries and
imposed regimes that could not easily be moved. Gadhafi, for example,
overthrew the Libyan monarchy in 1969 and has governed continually for
42 years since then.
Any regime dominated by a small group of people over time will see
that group use their position to enrich themselves. There are few who
can resist for 40 years. It is important to recognize that Gadhafi, for
example, was once a genuine, pro-Soviet revolutionary. But over time,
revolutionary zeal declines and avarice emerges along with the arrogance
of extended power. And in the areas of the region where there had not
been regime changes since after World War I, this principle stays true
as well, although interestingly, over time, the regimes seem to learn to
spread the wealth a bit.
Thus, what emerged throughout the region were regimes and individuals
who were classic kleptocrats. More than anything, if we want to define
this wave of unrest, particularly in North Africa, it is a rising
against regimes — and particularly individuals — who have been in place
for extraordinarily long periods of time. And we can add to this that
they are people who were planning to maintain family power and money by installing
sons as their political heirs. The same process, with variations,
is under way in the Arabian Peninsula. This is a rising against the
revolutionaries of previous generations.
The revolutions have been coming for a long time. The rising
in Tunisia, particularly when it proved successful, caused it to
spread. As in 1848, 1968 and 1989, similar social and cultural
conditions generate similar events and are triggered by the example of
one country and then spread more broadly. That has happened in 2011 and
A Uniquely Sensitive Region
It is, however, happening in a region that is uniquely sensitive at
the moment. The U.S.-jihadist war means that, as with previous
revolutionary waves, there are broader potential geopolitical
implications. 1989 meant the end of the Soviet empire, for example. In
this case, the question of greatest importance is not why these
revolutions are taking place, but who will take advantage of them. We do
not see these revolutions as a vast conspiracy by radical Islamists to
take control of the region. A conspiracy that vast is easily detected,
and the security forces of the individual countries would have destroyed
the conspiracies quickly. No one organized the previous waves, although
there have been conspiracy theories about them as well. They arose from
certain conditions, following the example of one incident. But
particular groups certainly tried, with greater and lesser success, to
take advantage of them.
In this case, whatever the cause of the risings, there is no question
that radical Islamists will attempt to take advantage and control of
them. Why wouldn’t they? It is a rational and logical course for them.
Whether they will be able to do so is a more complex and important
question, but that they would want to and are trying to do so is
obvious. They are a broad, transnational and disparate group brought up
in conspiratorial methods. This is their opportunity to create a broad
international coalition. Thus, as with traditional communists and the
New Left in the 1960s, they did not create the rising but they would be
fools not to try to take advantage of it. I would add that there is
little question but that the United States and other Western countries
are trying to influence the direction of the uprisings. For both sides,
this is a difficult game to play, but it is particularly difficult for
the United States as outsiders to play this game compared to native
Islamists who know their country.
But while there is no question that Islamists would like to take
control of the revolution, that does not mean that they will, nor does
it mean that these revolutions will be successful. Recall that 1848 and
1968 were failures and those who tried to take advantage of them had no
vehicle to ride. Also recall that taking control of a revolution is no
easy thing. But as we saw in Russia in 1917, it is not necessarily the
more popular group that wins, but the best organized. And you frequently
don’t find out who is best organized until afterwards.
Democratic revolutions have two phases. The first is the
establishment of democracy. The second is the election of governments.
The example of Hitler is useful as a caution on what kind of governments
a young democracy can produce, since he came to power through
democratic and constitutional means — and then abolished democracy to
cheering crowds. So there are three crosscurrents here. The first is the
reaction against corrupt regimes. The second is the election itself.
And the third? The United States needs to remember, as it applauds the
rise of democracy, that the elected
government may not be what one expected.
In any event, the real issue is whether these revolutions will
succeed in replacing existing regimes. Let’s consider the process of
revolution for the moment, beginning by distinguishing a demonstration
from an uprising. A demonstration is merely the massing of people making
speeches. This can unsettle the regime and set the stage for more
serious events, but by itself, it is not significant. Unless the
demonstrations are large enough to paralyze a city, they are symbolic
events. There have been many demonstrations in the Muslim world that
have led nowhere; consider Iran.
It is interesting here to note that the young frequently dominate
revolutions like 1848, 1969 and 1989 at first. This is normal. Adults
with families and maturity rarely go out on the streets to face guns and
tanks. It takes young people to have the courage or lack of judgment to
risk their lives in what might be a hopeless cause. However, to
succeed, it is vital that at some point other classes of society join
them. In Iran, one of the key moments of the 1979 revolution was when
the shopkeepers joined young people in the street. A revolution only of
the young, as we saw in 1968 for example, rarely succeeds. A revolution
requires a broader base than that, and it must go beyond demonstrations.
The moment it goes beyond the demonstration is when it confronts troops
and police. If the demonstrators disperse, there is no revolution. If
they confront the troops and police, and if they carry on even after
they are fired on, then you are in a revolutionary phase. Thus, pictures
of peaceful demonstrators are not nearly as significant as the media
will have you believe, but pictures of demonstrators continuing to hold
their ground after being fired on is very significant.
A Revolution’s Key Event
This leads to the key event in the revolution. The revolutionaries
cannot defeat armed men. But if those armed men, in whole or part, come
over to the revolutionary side, victory is possible. And this is the key
event. In Bahrain, the troops fired on demonstrators and killed some.
The demonstrators dispersed and then were allowed to demonstrate — with
memories of the gunfire fresh. This was a revolution contained. In
Egypt, the military and police opposed each other and the military
sided with the demonstrators, for complex reasons obviously.
Personnel change, if not regime change, was inevitable. In Libya,
the military has split wide open.
When that happens, you have reached a branch in the road. If the
split in the military is roughly equal and deep, this could lead to
civil war. Indeed, one way for a revolution to succeed is to proceed to
civil war, turning the demonstrators into an army, so to speak. That’s
what Mao did in China. Far more common is for the military to split. If
the split creates an overwhelming anti-regime force, this leads to the
revolution’s success. Always, the point to look for is thus the police
joining with the demonstrators. This happened widely in 1989 but hardly
at all in 1968. It happened occasionally in 1848, but the balance was
always on the side of the state. Hence, that revolution failed.
It is this act, the military and police coming over to the side of
the demonstrators, that makes or breaks a revolution. Therefore, to
return to the earlier theme, the most important question on the role of
radical Islamists is not their presence in the crowd, but their
penetration of the military and police. If there were a conspiracy, it
would focus on joining the military, waiting for demonstrations and then
Those who argue that these risings have nothing to do with radical
Islam may be correct in the sense that the demonstrators in the streets
may well be students enamored with democracy. But they miss the point
that the students, by themselves, can’t win. They can only win if the
regime wants them to, as in Egypt, or if other classes and at least some
of the police or military — people armed with guns who know how to use
them — join them. Therefore, looking at the students on TV tells you
little. Watching the soldiers tells you much more.
The problem with revolutions is that the people who start them rarely
finish them. The idealist democrats around Alexander Kerensky in Russia
were not the ones who finished the revolution. The thuggish Bolsheviks
did. In these Muslim countries, the focus on the young demonstrators
misses the point just as it did in Tiananmen Square. It wasn’t the
demonstrators that mattered, but the soldiers. If they carried out
orders, there would be no revolution.
I don’t know the degree of Islamist penetration of the military in
Libya, to pick one example of the unrest. I suspect that tribalism is
far more important than theology. In Egypt, I suspect the regime has
saved itself by buying time. Bahrain was more about Iranian
influence on the Shiite population than Sunni jihadists at work.
But just as the Iranians are trying to latch on to the process, so will
the Sunni jihadists.
The Danger of Chaos
I suspect some regimes will fall, mostly reducing the country in
question to chaos. The problem, as we are seeing in Tunisia, is that
frequently there is no one on the revolutionaries’ side equipped to take
power. The Bolsheviks had an organized party. In these revolutions, the
parties are trying to organize themselves during the revolution, which
is another way to say that the revolutionaries are in no position to
govern. The danger is not radical Islam, but chaos, followed either by
civil war, the military taking control simply to stabilize the situation
or the emergence of a radical Islamic party to take control — simply
because they are the only ones in the crowd with a plan and an
organization. That’s how minorities take control of revolutions.
All of this is speculation. What we do know is that this is not the
first wave of revolution in the world, and most waves fail, with their
effects seen decades later in new regimes and political cultures. Only
in the case of Eastern Europe do we see broad revolutionary success, but
that was against an empire in collapse, so few lessons can be drawn
from that for the Muslim world.
In the meantime, as you watch the region, remember not to watch the
demonstrators. Watch the men with the guns. If they stand their ground
for the state, the demonstrators have failed. If some come over, there
is some chance of victory. And if victory comes, and democracy is
declared, do not assume that what follows will in any way please the
West — democracy and pro-Western political culture do not mean the same
The situation remains fluid, and there are no broad certainties. It
is a country-by-country matter now, with most regimes managing to stay
in power to this point. There are three possibilities. One is that this
is like 1848, a broad rising that will fail for lack of organization and
coherence, but that will resonate for decades. The second is 1968, a
revolution that overthrew no regime even temporarily and left some
cultural remnants of minimal historical importance. The third is 1989, a
revolution that overthrew the political order in an entire region, and
created a new order in its place.
If I were to guess at this point, I would guess that we are facing
1848. The Muslim world will not experience massive regime change as in
1989, but neither will the effects be as ephemeral as 1968. Like 1848,
this revolution will fail to transform the Muslim world or even just the
Arab world. But it will plant seeds that will germinate in the coming
decades. I think those seeds will be democratic, but not necessarily
liberal. In other words, the democracies that eventually arise will
produce regimes that will take their bearings from their own culture,
which means Islam.
The West celebrates democracy. It should be careful what it hopes
for: It might get it.
George Friedman, is chairman and CEO of Stratfor, the world’s
leading online publisher of geopolitical intelligence. Revolution
and the Muslim World is republished with permission of STRATFOR