First it was Tunisia. Then it was Bahrain, Algeria, Jordan, Yemen, Albania, Syria, Lebanon and Egypt. Now it’s Libya. Suddenly, civil unrest has erupted in countries, some of which have been under authoritarian rule for decades, all over the Middle East and North Africa. What happened? Why now? And what does the future hold for this volatile region of the world?
It is clear, from the years of authoritarian rule, that people will put up with poverty and injustice for a very long time. There is of course the fear of reprisals; the feelings of powerlessness; how growing up with a social reality creates the sense that this is the way it has always been and it is unchangeable. But another important factor is that people put up with being in the number 2 position for a long time because of the promise of the reward of making it into the number one slot.
Trotsky once remarked that if poverty was the cause of revolutions, there would be revolutions all the time because most people in the world were poor. What is needed to turn a million people’s grumbling discontent into a crowd on the streets is a spark to electrify them.
Violent death has been the most common catalyst for radicalising discontent in the revolutions of the last 30 years. Sometimes the spark is grisly, like the mass incineration of hundreds in an Iranian cinema in 1978 blamed on the Shah’s secret police.
Sometimes the desperate act of a single suicidally inflammatory protester like vegetable salesman Mohammed Bouazizi in Tunisia, in December 2010, catches the imagination of a country.
Revolutions are 24-hour-a day events – they require stamina and quick thinking from both protesters and dictators.” As Egypt reminds, revolutions are made by the young.
What collapses a regime is when insiders turn against it. So long as police, army and senior officials think they have more to lose by revolution than by defending a regime, then even mass protests can be defied and crushed. Remember Tiananmen Square.
But if insiders and the men with guns begin to question the wisdom of backing a regime – or can be bought off – then it implodes quickly.
Tunisia’s Ben Ali decided to flee when his generals told him they would not shoot into the crowds. In Romania, in December, 1989, Ceausescu lived to see the general he relied on to crush the protesters become his chief judge at his trial on Christmas Day.
External pressure plays a role in completing regime-change. In 1989, the refusal of the Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, to use the Red Army to back East European Communists facing protests in the streets made the local generals realise that force was not an option.
Longevity of a regime and especially the old age of a ruler can result in a fatal incapacity to react to events quickly. Graceful exits are rare in revolutions, but the offer of secure retirement can speed up and smooth the change.
Often there is a hunger among people to punish the fallen rulers. Their successors, too, find retribution against the old leader can be a useful distraction from the economic and social problems, which don’t disappear with the change of regime.