On the third anniversary of the so-called Arab Spring, it is only fair that we learn lessons. Why do revolutions get hijacked by militants? Why are the consequences of revolution so often opposite to the aspirations of those who took to the streets?
Revolutionaries fail to control the post-revolutionary phase
The disparate groups of activists and exiles who spontaneously mobilized the population usually lack the social networks necessary to control the aftermath of revolution.
Therefore victory often goes to the best-networked group, even if they played little part in the revolution or even opposed the revolution.
Thus, the Muslim Brotherhood initially dominated the political scene in Egypt; and Ayatollah Khomeini swept to power through his religious networks in Iran.
Revolutionaries don’t know how to govern
Revolution is inevitably followed by a purge of the former governing class. In Libya and Iraq laws were passed preventing any former officials from holding office.
The inevitable result is that thousands of political and civil service postings are filled by novices, at a time when there is desperate need of skills and experience for restarting the economy and rebuilding institutions.
Revolution is bad for business
The instability of revolution usually sends businesses and investors running for the hills; the economy collapses and the high hopes of citizens who took to the streets demanding jobs and better futures are dashed.
The post-revolutionary period continues to be unsettled and uncertain, so anyone who can invests their money abroad. Therefore the economy continues to plunge and the new regime loses legitimacy as it fails to keep its promises for a more prosperous future.
New regimes often incur massive debts while trying to restore order, increasing civil service wages to satisfy their supporters and in trying to rebuild the country, particularly as they always promise for more than they can deliver
Revolutions are bloody and violent
Revolutionaries organize mass protests which force a harsh response from the authorities. When protesters die, revolutionaries whip up further anger over these ‘martyrs’ and condemn the regime’s human rights record.
However, in the chaos that follows a revolution, only a government willing to use disproportionate force can restore order: Disarming militias, breaking up riots and imposing their own political vision.
Therefore a political group which swept to power by condemning human rights abuses inevitably ends up committing far worse abuses than the former leadership.
The French, Russian and Iranian revolutions were bloodbaths as hundreds of thousands were killed in the violence during the revolutionary period. In post-revolutionary Russia, millions were murdered by a Communist leadership willing to impose its vision at any cost.
Militants and terrorists exploit the power-vacuum
In the unsettled period following the revolution, the authorities are often slow to regain control of substantial parts of the country. This provides the perfect breeding ground for gangsters, extremists and militants to gain effective control of these territories, particularly in a country awash with guns.
If the revolution was long and bloody, those groups which fought for the revolution may be willing to fight for their share of power, and are likely to take up arms if they feel they’ve been cheated out of the rewards of revolution. This is particularly true in Libya where the Government has been forced to rely on militia groups and Islamists who failed to profit from elections have taken up arms.
Revolutions unleash the sectarian genie
There is often an ethnic or sectarian link between those who formerly held power and those who sought power. If the revolution is long and violent – as in Syria – society may divide along sectarian lines and result in attempts at genocide and ethnic cleansing, with increasingly violent bouts of retaliation and counter-retaliation. Minorities fare particularly badly. The inevitable result is a shattered society with few positive future prospects and the seeds of further civil wars.
Whose vision prevails?
Revolutionaries necessarily claim that the former laws and constitution were unjust and often begin the post-revolutionary phase by cancelling the constitution and abolishing institutions. This creates a solution where there is no law and anybody’s vision is as good as anybody else’s. This allows revolutionaries to commit atrocities in the name of “saving the revolution” and means that extremist organizations can try and impose their own ideologies.
There is always a tension between those who supported the revolution but wanted only minimal changes – often the middle classes – and those who wanted to purge the entire system and install their own utopian vision.
This happened with the French Revolution, where the initial consequences of the revolution looked rather modest, but thousands were killed when hardliners purged the system and sought to take the revolution to its logical conclusion.
Beware of the counter-revolution
Elements of the former regime quickly disappear into the shadows and plot their return. They often have vast resources at their disposal and can usually depend on friends in high places.
When the post-revolutionary phase fails to go as smoothly as planned, the counter-revolutionaries strike and seek to regain power.
…and then the military coup
The army – who may have survived the revolution intact by refusing to support the old regime – may well stage a coup d’etat in order to ‘restore order’.
The instincts of top generals are usually to cancel the fledgling democratic process and restore the pre-revolutionary status quo. Many would argue that this is what we saw in Egypt.
The people rise up against ‘the people’
In most ‘popular’ revolutions only a tiny percentage of the population consistently take to the streets. But they claim to represent ‘the people’ and be acting in the interests of ‘the nation’.
For all the reasons discussed above, revolutions rarely bring about the desired goals that ordinary people aspire to and often result in much chaos, bloodshed and economic misery.
Therefore, it doesn’t take long for the majority of the population who never had a real stake in the revolution to start believing that their lives were better before the revolution, and for popular anger to be focused against the revolutionaries.
This may bring about a bout of mass-protests which spark a second revolution; this popular anger may be seized upon by counter-revolutionaries for plotting a return to power; or this may just add to the sense of chaos and misery and lead to a prolonged situation where the new regime lacks legitimacy and popular support.
Another day, another constitution
Because people see that any constitution can be ripped up and rewritten, revolutions go through progressive bouts of constitution-writing; each constitution enjoying less legitimacy than the last.
This means that it is easy for any post-revolutionary President to change or ignore the constitution and completely ignore the democratic system, extending their presidential terms, repressing the media and locking up opponents.
Revolutions produce dictators not democrats
We have already noted that only those willing to use excessive force can restore order in the post-revolutionary phase. Victory goes to the strong-man and his well-armed supporters.
During the French Revolution it was Napoleon who eventually swept to power and wager war against the rest of Europe. After the 1958 Iraq revolution a series of increasingly violent dictators came to power, culminating in Saddam Hussein. Syria during that same period also went through multiple coups, finally favouring the Baathists and the Assad family. The rest is history.