The Arab region is currently engulfed in revolution. We are amidst a wave that will have many repercussions, similar to the early 1950s when military coups —in the name of revolution —were frequent. They extensively changed relations among countries in the region and with the outside world, and how they developed domestically. An Arab Cold War occurred, as did socialism, which at the core was how the state managed the economy whether in “progressive” or “conservative” states, monarchies or republics.
Once the revolution of military coups was shattered by the June 1967 defeat, the victory of 1973 brought about the moderate republican and monarchy alliance to “stabilise” the entire region. But this soon became inertia and stagnation. Change was measured in the length of roads, number of bridges, amount of electricity, clean water, and mortality rates.
The secret word in the Arab world was reform and it was unpopular because it denoted the unknown, which we know nothing about and cannot understand, measure or monitor. An Arab minister once said that reform could only be applied to what is corrupt and unsound. This meant that there is no room for reform and all we need —or so it is said —is enough time to progress towards what is better, and make the country move up from the ranks of developing states to those of developed ones. The minister was keen to remind how many centuries it took for the latter to make progress from the Middle Ages to modern times, from despotic regimes to democracies, and how the US maintained slavery until the mid-1800s and in essence until the mid-1900s. Also, how it took Britain seven centuries to surpass the era of the Magna Carta until it reached the democratic system that we know today.
The problem then is not reform and change towards what is better and more sophisticated, but keeping in mind the timing of when this should take place. If it is not handled with great care, it could lead to disastrous results as witnessed in near and far countries, whereby omitting stages and ignoring historical circumstances resulted in dismal conditions, such as in Russia, the former Soviet states, or worse still, in Africa. In the last three decades of the 20th century, Africa was the exemplar of breakdowns and divisions —or simply put, failed states. Stability that became inertia and inertia that turned into stagnation were the primary reasons behind this appalling state of affairs.
The revolutions we see today undermine this entire theory, because maintaining the status quo for a long time while the world moves at the speed of light creates immense pressure and suppressed tensions which explode in a variety of forms. What took place in Tunisia and Egypt was different from what we saw in Amman and Bahrain, and what is happening today in Yemen, Syria, Morocco and Algeria.
Nonetheless, there are two common factors that cannot be overlooked here. First, eruption is imminent for anyone who believes in maintaining the status quo out of instinct, or that reform is possible at certain times which never come, or that in the end the issue is primarily economic and can be doused by some funding for those in need. Second, we don’t know what comes after current, ongoing and future eruptions; we are witnessing unfolding historic events that change every day and every hour.
At first glance, it appears that these are transformations towards democracy with extensive debates about constitutions, constitutional declarations and rules, and means of transfer and rotation of power. A closer look reveals that the accumulation of despotic and tyrannical elements is still in place, starting with deciding how to deal with the “ousted regime”, and later how to handle the “counter revolution”. This is shortly followed by attempts to resist foreign intervention that wants to abort the revolution; the scenario is well known and brings to mind two revolutions.
In Iran, several political forces agreed on the need to overthrow the regime of Shah Mohamed Reza Pahlavi, and this position helped close the large gap between divergent positions and policies. This made the revolution that overthrew the Shah in 1979 a success. But after achieving its goal, differences became more pronounced and were highlighted by disputes on how to move forward in the new phase, and the nature of the new political regime that would take over power after the Shah’s regime fell. Disputes escalated among the political forces which took part in the revolution about the character of the new republic —would it be “Islamic” or “democratic”. These quarrels continued regarding the new constitution, the essential articles it should include, and the foreign policies of the new republic.
Finally, any accord was terminated with the victory of one political force over the others, namely the clerics, who were able to impose their vision and establish the political regime they wanted, the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Many believe that once the clerics won the battle and succeeded in tightening their grip on power, this resulted in a number of significant repercussions. Most prominently, that Iran entered a period of political and security instability after a wave of assassinations of several senior officials, and increased obstacles on its path to transforming from the state of revolution into statehood. It also entered into fierce hostilities and conflicts within the region and on the international stage, with those who were very concerned about its new positions. This was clearly apparent during the eight-year war with Iraq in 1980-1988, followed by exporting the revolution, which has exacerbated tension in the region until today.
The 1917 Russian Revolution is another example. The country remained unstable for some time after the success of the revolution that overthrew the Czar in February. An interim government was formed and adopted policies to establish a democratic system in Russia, maintain political accord among all the forces that participated in the revolution, and to continue fighting alongside the allies in World War I. But the failure of the interim government to resolve economic crises and meet the demands of the people resulted in its ouster by the Bolsheviks led by Lenin in what is known as the “October Revolution” of the same year. Conditions did not stabilise right away and a civil war began in 1918 until 1921. Over time, Russia as a state or as the Soviet Union became embroiled in many wars —both cold and raging.