What Does a Successful Arab Revolution Look Like?

Will the Arab revolutions be considered successful if they take years to complete?

So far, the Arab Awakening has toppled two regimes, in Egypt and Tunisia. Obviously, both countries have fared far better than their bloodier counterparts in Syria and Libya, but serious problem remain. Both countries have postponed elections (both until October – though this is not necessarily a bad thing) and have experienced revolutionary flashbacks with hundreds of thousands returning to Tahrir Square in Egypt while strikes and riots are still commonplace in Tunisia. Clearly, after decades of institutionalized corruption and authoritarian rule, these countries require deep, meaningful changes rather than a simple cosmetic removal of the leader. Indeed, the revolution and the changes stemming from it will continue to last for years. Thus, one needs to wonder what a successful revolution looks like.

The Economist attempts to tackle this question:

Perhaps with time all Arab regimes will indeed head the way of Egypt’s and Tunisia’s, or at any rate feel obliged to surrender big chunks of power to their people as a price for survival. The sense of having reached a watershed runs deep among Arabs, particularly the young. For weeks in February and March the ubiquitous Al Jazeera channel flashed a slick montage of images between hourly news bulletins, showing beleaguered autocrats succumbing to popular outrage and ending with the jaunty caption, “Who’s Next?”.

Yet for all their drama, and despite the satisfaction of seeing hated rulers fall, the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia have had to struggle to maintain momentum. The bloodier would-be revolutions in Libya (see article) and Syria (see article) and Yemen have dragged on for months, generating ever more destruction, with no resolution plainly in sight. Other Arab states, especially the monarchies, have so far parried calls for change with seeming success, using the familiar mix of coercion, co-option and promises.

So the pertinent question is perhaps not so much who will be next to fall but rather, what follows? The answer is not at all clear. The universal inclination of the revolutionary ferment is to create the more open, pluralist, democratic societies that have emerged in much of the world. But after two generations in a political deep freeze, Arabs face special challenges in getting there. Among these are such essential questions as how to frame relations between Islam and the state, how to incorporate ethnic and religious minorities and how to share oil revenues. Many Arab countries also face burdensome administrative legacies. Years of unaccountable rule have left hugely swollen, often venal bureaucracies, creaky courts, nasty security services spoiled by privilege, and publics addicted to unsustainable subsidies for such things as food and energy.

Though toppling an authoritarian regimes is the clearest sign of revolution, it is certainly not the best indicator of a successful revolution. Real change is not only difficult to spot, but it often takes years to reveal itself. If the future Egyptian or Tunisian governments refuse to make the needed sacrifices and reforms, the movements could be considered failures. Likewise, real reform and change will be the symbol of success in Syria, Yemen, Bahrain and Libya – not the successful removal of regimes. In other words (again from The Economist):

Yet the fall of dictators represents only part of a longer process in which the unspoken aim is to alter radically the balance of power between citizens and their state. Some Arab regimes may well survive this transition, so long as they understand that something very fundamental has to change. Such understanding does not come easily, as the revolutionaries of Egypt and Tunisia, the front-running reformers, have found to their dismay.

The eventual changes forced by the revolutionary movements could take years to become evident, leading some to prematurely characterize certain uprisings as unsuccessful (say, if Assad were to retain power in Syria). Moreover, the path to change will likely be littered with problems and uncertainty. Egypt and Tunisia could easily witness the persistence of Mubarak-esque traditions and leaders acting to inhibit real change. Libya, after the fall of Qaddafi, could descend into chaos as the country creates a governing structure independent of the leader – and even then, there is no guarantee that the new government will immediately implement the necessary reforms. Syria could look depressingly similar in one year, even if the regime undertook real reforms. So, will that Arab revolutions be considered successful in December if reforms have not taken hold or chaos proves more powerful than interim governments?

Personally, it seems as though humans desire to at least some sort of superficial, immediate change in order to recognize success. Real dialogue and longer term changes are more difficult to swallow as evidence of a successful revolution. Should Assad remain in power in Syria (still a possibility) or the Saleh power structure retain control in Yemen (a crapshoot at best), the revolutions in these countries could still be successful if the leaders learn that real change is necessary. One Egyptian is quoted as saying “In 1952 we had a coup that turned into a revolution. This time we seem to have had a revolution that turned into a coup.”  Arab populations and other observers should not be content with a simple change in leadership (a coup), but should push for a change in the entire system (revolution).

The optimist in me believes that the Arab Spring will eventually result in revolutionary changes throughout the region. In some countries the change will be more immediate (Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Morocco) while other may experience more prolonged and less easily detected reform (potentially Syria, Bahrain, Jordan). Regardless of what happens in several hotspot countries for the rest of year, one has to believe that the mass democratic movement in the Middle East this year has caused every regime (including those that saw little or no protests) to consider making revolutionary changes – both drastic and subtle – in order to retain power. In other words, whether revolutions are considered successful or not depends little on the immediate success of the movement, but rather the long term consequences.

Photo from Al Hittin

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