To paraphrase the old Boston politician, revolution ain’t beanbag. The wave of revolutionary action across the Middle East and North Africa about a year and a half ago captured the imagination of democratic reformers around the world. But it wasn’t only democratic reformers who had grievances with their authoritarian governments.
Arab Spring toppled, or dislodged, a few governments, with the aid of local (Egypt) or distant (Libya) military support. Establishing new inclusive governments, however, is even more difficult, particularly when the anti-authoritarian coalitions were so broad.
Revolutions raise the aspirations of the people who participate in them. They are less likely to take the world as it is for granted, and more likely to try, again, to bring about the world they imagine. (Remember, the period after the American revolution was filled with rebellions against unresponsive or intrusive state governments, and sometimes they were violent. We don’t even have to go to France to make the point.)
Arab Spring demonstrated widespread dissatisfaction and the power of politics in the streets. When the pace or direction of change disappoints, activists will seize upon new opportunities or provocations (even a cheap and nasty video produced with the intention to irritate and agitate) to mobilize again. The new regimes are likely to lack both the capacity to maintain order and the will to repress ruthlessly. And it can’t be surprising that activist targets would now include the distant powers, like the United States, that had supported the authoritarian governments in the past.
Just as Arab Spring spread across states where activists saw themselves as having similar grievances and similar–or common–opponents, the Arab Fall is spreading, so far targeting the United States as well as local governments.
Are there lessons here?
First, making democratic change from below is hard work that doesn’t end when the first round of bad guys is forced out, and, second, allies in the first round of activism can become bitter opponents when it comes time to build a replacement.
Third, while great powers are attracted to doing business with ostensibly stable regimes, with whom they can make deals, those regimes will be stable–only until they’re not. And the moment of collapse may come suddenly. The more abusive the governments revolutionaries toppled were, the greater their grievances with those powers that supported the authoritarians will be.