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Sand storm on Arabian Peninsul
Last updated: January 9, 2016
The Tale of the Arab Revolutions

"The ending was determined by money and blood relations"

Banner Icon Arab Spring Unexpected beginning, different paths, sad endings. Ahmed Ezz Eldin explores the legacy of the Arab Spring.

In the spring of 2008, the Egyptian workers of (the once prosperous) textile industry embarked on a strike. The limited movement grew and expanded, but with no success. The National Democratic Party government crushed the protests, detained the supporters, and shamed the “destabilizing” movement. Mubarak’s regime sent a clear message to its opponents that it was here to stay. The regime built dams of fear to keep away the waves of rage. For millions of Egyptians, the idea of revolting was far from reality and the most that could be done was pray and wait.

The Europeanized streets of Tunisia, the narrow alleys of Damascus, the ancient corners of Sana’a, the shores of Tripoli, and the squares of Manama contained similar aspirations of their oppressed citizens. These masses felt so hopeless to try, so helpless to act, yet, too desperate to give up. They were waiting for a Messiah to give them hope, lead their revolution against oppression, and pave them a road in the seas of tyranny towards justice and liberty. We were all waiting for something to happen … it was just a matter of time.

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What does time mean in dictatorships? For the masses, time means more accumulation of grievances, more dissatisfaction, more exposure to humiliation, and more disbelief in the lies of the ruling elites. However, time could also lead to less hope, more adaptation to oppression, and even more support and sympathy towards the oppressors. For the dictator and his ruling elite, time means more depletion of resources to bribe his supporters, more paranoia-fueled repression of any potential descent, but also more stability and normalization of his regime. Thus, it is true that time could bring the desired change, but it could also enforce the status quo.

In the winter of 2010, the waiting came to an end. The largest revolutionary wave since the downfall of communism started in Tunisia and expanded to more than half of the Arab World. Millions marched into the streets challenging their dictators in an unexpected move. Yet, the outcomes were different. Countries achieved different levels of success in terms of their democratization and political stability. Interestingly, others chose not to revolt at all or were satisfied with minor gains. Why did the Arabs eventually revolt? Why the Arab Gulf states did not revolt? Why were the outcomes different? And, what is the remaining legacy of the Arab Spring?

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Why is it difficult to revolt?

One reason why dictators could last for long years is that the masses always face what social scientists call “collective action problem”. Imagine the situation when you just want to have a dinner at the lowest cost, and you got invited to a potluck party. The best strategy is not to bring anything to the party and enjoy the free food as long as you can get away with it! Simple enough, the situation for revolutions is not very different. Since the pleasure you will get from deposing a dictator is not bound to your actual participation in the risky revolution, you can just stay at home and wait for somebody to do the job for you. Ironically, most people think in the same way, and so no revolution happens. Even worse, if you will get punished by the regime due to your participation, there would be less and less people willing to participate in the revolution. Therefore, the regime can last for long decades without any credible threat to its rule. So, when do revolutions happen? And why did Arabs eventually revolt?

Unexpected revolutions          

What is special about one young poor man setting himself on fire in Tunisia? Why would this random event give millions across the Arab World a strong reason to revolt? The answer is that the masses did not need any reasons to revolt, they had their own strong reasons. Yet, the one special thing about this event is that it reminded everyone that oppression should not be tolerated anymore.

A quarter century ago, the world witnessed an unexpected wave of revolutions in Eastern Europe that brought communism to an end. This inspired Professor Timur Kuran at Duke University to explore why revolutions occur unexpectedly. In his book, Private Truths, Public Lies, he argues that individuals have two sets of preferences, or let’s say identities: public and private ones. Simply put, what you say in public might not coincide with what you actually think in private. In repressive regimes, this divergence between your public and private identities could be even larger. It is when individuals can’t stand this situation that they declare their dissent. This explains why the Tunisian street vendor went on with his public discontent. And so, the domino effect starts. The more hidden frustration there is, the more individuals join the movement. The collective action problem is countered by the individuals’ own rage against the regime and the pleasure they get from participating in bringing its downfall. The revolting Arab masses came to a point when they could not tolerate the oppression, injustice, and humiliation by their regimes. They needed one ordinary man to remind them that it was time.

Different revolutionary roads

Not all the Arab World revolted, and those who did had different outcomes. Why is this variation? As a general observation, almost all of the revolutions took place in the relatively poor Arab states, while the rich Gulf States remained immune, except for Bahrain. Repression cannot explain the variation as it is widely practiced by all the regimes in the region. Yet, wealth and regime types are two variant factors across the region. Richer states can bribe their citizens by giving them generous benefits that compensate the loss of rights and freedoms. For example, in January 2011, the Kuwaiti government announced that each citizen would receive 1000 Kuwaiti Dinars and free food staples. Although the official reason was celebrating three different anniversaries, the coincidence of the timing of the announcement and the neighboring revolutions raises suspicions about the government’s true intentions. Poorer states have much less, if any, to offer their unhappy citizens. Hence, the poorer revolted, while the richer opted to keep what they have instead of undertaking the risk. Bahrain is the only exception of rich states where their ephemeral revolution had its roots in the religious split between the Shi’a masses and Sunni ruling elites.

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The revolutions also led to different outcomes. Some dictators fell in span of days, others remained till today. How can these differences be explained?

In research published in the Journal of Democracy, Jason Brownlee (University of Texas-Austin), Tarek Masoud (Harvard University), and Andrew Reynolds (University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill) tried to provide an answer to that question. They claim that the explanation lies in two factors: regime type, hereditary versus non-hereditary, and its oil resources. Since dictators need an inner circle to protect them against the masses, they can either buy supporters to crush the protests or rely on blood relations to save themselves. Egypt, Tunisia, and Yemen are three resource-poor countries with non-hereditary, or ethnicity-based, regimes. Thus, their dictators were vulnerable and easy to ouster. Syria is also a resource-poor state, but Assad managed to build a loyal army of his own religious sect and family members to protect him against the Sunni masses. Interestingly, using the same logic, the Libyan regime could have survived by using its oil resources. However, the international alliance intervened to end Qadaffi’s rule. Finally, Bahrain had the right mix of hereditary rule and oil-money, as well as, the Saudi support to crush its protestors. Thus, in the story of the Arab Spring, the ending was determined by money and blood relations.

Five years down the road, was it worth it?

It has been almost five years since the Arab Spring started. Yet, the spring turned into a cold dark winter. Political instability, civil wars, millions of refugees, terrorism, failed states, and more brutal dictatorships are only some of the poor outcomes. The political disappointment of the Arab youth has drawn many of them into supporting extremist ideas and joining terrorist organizations. Dictators are being celebrated as heroes of “liberation and political stability” instead of war criminals. The democracy-enthusiast Western governments have surrendered to the realities of Middle Eastern politics and retained their old strategies of supporting the region’s dictatorships. What is worse, the bloodiness of the outcomes turned the masses towards supporting their dictatorships even more than before.

Yet, the picture might not be all that bleak. Tunisia managed to successfully transition to democracy with minor bloodshed. The remaining lesson for the rest of the countries is that the idolization of revolutions might be deceptive. For revolutions to lead to better lives, they have to be undertaken with the complete understanding of the domestic and international political structures. Otherwise, they lead to worse outcomes: civil war and stronger dictatorships. The lesson from the Arab Revolutions is clear; as Louis de Saint-Just put it, “those who make revolutions by half do nothing but dig their own graves”.

It might be true that it could be decades before the Arab World revolts again. However, when it happens, the masses have a historical experience to learn from. This might be the only positive legacy of the Arab Spring.

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