By David Fairhurst
Show me someone who claims to have confidently predicted the wave of pro-democracy revolutions spreading so infectiously across North Africa and the Middle East, and I will show you a liar. The cross-country contagion of these revolutions surprised many and left foreign policy analysts hastily improvising explanations to rationalise the ongoing phenomenon. In order to improve understanding of the current revolutions a number of questions require addressing. What specific characteristics differentiate the current revolutions from those of the past? What factors help explain their inception? Alexis de Tocqueville asserted that in a revolution, as in a novel, the most difficult part to invent is the end. As the pro-democracy wave spreads from Tunisia, Egypt and Libya beyond to the traditionally conservative states of Syria and Saudi Arabia the real question becomes: Where next?
Commentators, especially historians, have clamoured to discover historical precedents for the current revolutions in the hope of predicting future developments. Citing the revolutions of 1848, 1917 and countless post-Imperial insurrections during the Cold War, which resulted in the installation of oppressive regimes akin to the type the current movements aim to bring down. The most useful parallels come from the democratic experiments across Sub-Saharan Africa in the 1990s. The reconsolidation of repression in Cameroon and Togo alongside the ongoing civil wars in the Democratic Republic of Congo paint a bleak picture for those battling in the name of political freedom, however, the tentative democratic foundations in Ghana and Benin may provide some hope.
So what characteristics do these contemporary revolutions have in common? Whilst Wilsonian Liberals across the world would argue that repression alone plants the seed of revolution, there are numerous variables which deserve consideration. The common themes uniting the current movements include; a youthful population with an exuberance for change; a specific and particular catalyst; unemployment and general malaise towards the social situation; and the exploitation of social media. Admittedly these criterion may be too reductionist to be conclusive, but they may be helpful in engendering an understanding of what conditions create fertile ground in which revolution may flourish. In these conditions the most important factor is the desperation for change. As one of the 20th century’s most infamous revolutionaries noted, ‘the revolution is not an apple that falls when it is ripe. You have to make it fall.’ Given these criterion why don’t we take a brief tour of modern dictatorships and look at the possibility of revolution in the near future.
Abiding by the conditions listed above, it is doubtful the regimes in North Korea, Turkmenistan, Burma and elsewhere are nervous. Many commentators alluded to the importance of social media in the recent revolutions. Put simply, without universal access to this essential device the people under these oppressive regimes cannot effectively poke and tweet their way to freedom like their Tunisian and Egyptian cousins. The ‘dictator on the doorstep’ Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus marks a blight of repression on the map of Europe, whilst the tyrants in the US neighbourhood, Castro in Cuba and Chavez in Venezuela have been candidly vocal in their support for Gaddafi. Here again, state control of the media coupled with ruthless suppression of protests, as evidenced by the chaotically brutal scenes in Minsk last December, ensures repressive regimes reign supreme. However, Ahmadinejad and his fellow kleptocrats in the Iranian regime may have cause for concern. The youthful ‘Green Movement’ that emerged following the contentious 2009 election results failed despite widespread social media engagement, partly due to President Obama’s refusal to re-clench the fist on his outstretched hand to the despot in Tehran. Alas, there may yet be hope in the region, but only if the international community is willing to explicitly support these democratic movements.
The protests in Damascus, Riyadh and Manama suggest cracks may be appearing in even the most conservative of the Middle East’s repressive dictatorships as large-scale youth unemployment, catalysed by the insurrections in neighbouring countries produce a wave of protest. Although the situation remains fluid, the coordinated crackdown by government forces, including crossing borders to prevent freedom, suggests the fledgling insurrections may not share the success of those in Cairo and Tunis. Perhaps now is the time for Western leaders to actively support the democratic virtues they so vociferously extol in their lofty rhetoric with genuine action. How exactly? I hear you cry. With resources stretched and the concept of covertly arming a popular uprising in a foreign country consigned to history following the dirty wars of the 1980s, what exactly can the noble pro-democracy crowd do? The UN resolution, which added legitimacy to the no-fly zone over Libya explicitly states human security rather than regime change as the primary objective. However, armed intervention, even in the most extreme cases, as in Libya, still leaves Chomsky and his anti-Imperialist chums champing at the bit. Loony-lefties aside, right now with Western governments struggling to cut huge deficits we probably can’t afford it, but that doesn’t necessarily leave us diplomatically impotent. Member states of the EU have a number of diplomatic weapons in their arsenal beyond military capabilities that may affect genuine change in the neighbourhood of despots. Statesmen representing the nations that hold democratic values so dear may encourage these nascent uprisings through the proverbial carrot, rather than the stick. Whilst it remains forever difficult to balance the interests and values of foreign policy, encouraging democracy and human rights by making aid and trade contingent on democratic performance may produce tangible changes, as Arab states look to follow the example set by Turkey in forging closer ties with the EU.
Victor Hugo suggested that when dictatorship is a fact, revolution becomes a right. This axiom couched in revolutionary optimism for democracy remains as true today as it was nearly two-hundred years ago. Pro-democracy supporters are hopeful, but they are not delusional. The probability of a democratic wave of freedom igniting the youth in North Korea, Belarus or Burma to rise up against their oppressive and tyrannical leaders is perhaps slim to nil. However, the unexpected nature of the current revolutionary movements and the surprising rapidity by which they have succeeded may embolden future generations under repressive regimes. Is the revolution likely to spread beyond the Middle East? I doubt it. Then again if you asked me in 2010 if I thought there would be revolution in the Middle East in the near future, I probably would have said, I doubt it.