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Middle East Studies | Uprisings in the Middle East: Jack Goldstone

Are these truly revolutions?  Yes they are.  Although some of the personnel from the earlier regimes remain, this is in fact typical of all revolutions.  What is crucial is that the system of authority based on personal control of the political system, by a particular person or family, is gone, and will not return.

What other revolutions will follow?   The regimes that have so far fallen or fell into revolutionary wars are all personal dictatorships: Mubarak’s in Egypt, Ben Ali’s in Tunisia, and Gaddafi’s in Libya.  Theories of revolution have long highlighted personal dictatorships as particularly prone to revolutions.  Prior examples include Batista in Cuba, the Shah of Iran, Marcos in the Philippines, Mobutu in Zaire, Somoza in Nicaragua.

Other similar regimes in the Middle East today are those of Saleh in Yemen and Assad in Syria.  These are the main candidates for regime change.  This does not mean that the monarchies of the region can escape change.  They face the same problems as all the countries of the region – surging youth population, high unemployment, corruption, inequality, lagging wages, rising food prices.  But they have space to make significant changes in their regimes by sharing power with elected legislatures and prime ministers, moving in the direction of becoming constitutional monarchies.  Even in Saudi Arabia, movement in the direction already taken by Kuwait is conceivable, and even desirable for future stability.

Will the revolutions turn radical?   That is possible, but depends very large on what happens next.  Revolutions go through up to a dozen stages, of which we are now only in stages 3 and 4.  After an old regime is overturned, whether or not the new government is radicalized generally depends on the threats that it faces.  If there is a strong counter-revolutionary movement, or external threat, revolutionary leaders become more ruthless and extreme to defend their new government.  But if there is no existential threat to the revolution, messy compromises and shifts among contending parties is the norm.  So a great deal depends on whether there is a military power-grab in Tunisia and Egypt.  Such a move could generate a radical backlash, but absent such a move I do not expect a radical outcome.  In fact, there has been no new radical regime produced by democracy-movement type revolutions since the Iranian and Nicaraguan revolutions of 1979.

Why is Libya proceeding so differently?  I do not believe the Tunisian and Egyptian militaries were less willing to fight if needed to defend themselves.  Rather, I believe the Tunisian and Egyptian militaries decided it served their interests better to be rid of the Ben Ali and Mubarak dynasties, which they saw pushing them to the sidelines.  In Libya, the regular army was similarly pushed to the sideline by Gaddafi, who deprived them of pay and status after attempted military coups.  But unlike Egypt and Tunisia, Gaddafi then invested in recruiting mercenaries and setting up special paramilitary units under the command of his sons, for the specific purpose of defending his family’s power.  So like in Egypt and Tunisia, many units of the regular military DID defect when there were popular uprisings against the regime.  But the mercenaries and paramilitary units did their job, and are fighting to preserve the Gaddafi family’s hold on power.

Where will all this lead?  We cannot know; as I said we are in the early stages of a long process that will no doubt take years to unfold.  However, I do believe we are seeing a major turning point, in that the last region of the world to hold out entirely against prior waves of expanding democracy is no longer a monolithic block of dictatorships.  Ending that Arab ‘exceptionalism’ is a good thing, and I believe marks a lasting change.

About Jack A. Goldstone

Jack A. Goldstone is the Virginia E. And John T. Hazel, Jr. Professor at the George Mason School of Public Policy and an Eminent Scholar, with expertise in the areas of social movements, revolutions, and international politics. The author or co-author of nine books, Professor Goldstone is a leading authority on regional conflicts. He has served on a U.S. Vice-Presidential Task Force on State Failure, and is a consultant to the U.S. Department of State, Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the U.S. Agency for International Development.


States, Parties, and Social Movements
Silence and Voice in the Study of Contentious Politics
The Encyclopedia of Political Revolutions
Revolutions: Theoretical, Comparative, and Historical Studies

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