Learning from past revolutions?

Egyptians are treading a well-worn historical path, walked in eastern Europe, Iran, Cuba and beyond.

    Hungarian foreign minister Gyula Horn (R) and his Austrian counterpart Alois Mock (L) cut through a piece of the Iron Curtain in June 1989. But supporters of democracy in Egypt must also cut through a culture of patronage [EPA]

    As Hungary's political changes began, Istavan Rev watched cautiously. Like thousands of his countrymen, he feared violence, counter-revolution or extremism - products of revolution the world over.

    Two decades after the 1989 political transformation broke the chains of Soviet control, lessons learned in Budapest could now provide insights for jubilant crowds in Egypt and Tunisia.

    Likewise, the guillotines of France in 1789, the Bolshevik purges of 1917 and the shrewd ability of Ayatollah Khomeini and Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Party to marginalise other social movements in 1979 provide chilling lessons to would-be revolutionaries. 

    "What happened in most of the countries of east and central Europe in former Soviet satellites were not typical revolutions, not revolutions in the textbook sense," says Rev, now professor of history at the Central European University in Budapest.

    A long way to go

    It is still too early to classify the political developments in Egypt and Tunisia. They could be a reconfiguration of national life, based on mostly peaceful uprisings - leading to broader institutional change.

    Or, with Hosni Mubarak and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali out of the picture, the faces of the regimes might change, while the entrenched power of the "deep state" remains untouched, says Kristian Coates, a professor of global governance and scholar of revolution at the London School of Economics.

    "Egypt has a fair way to go before it can be described as a revolution," says Coates.

    "The removal of a figure-head is not the removal of a regime."

    The classic 20th century revolutions - notably Russia, China, Vietnam, Iran and Cuba - involved prolonged, violent struggle, causing a break-up of the ruling elite, says Theda Skocpol, a professor of government at Harvard University and a leading expert on political change.

    "Revolutions are usually much more violent than what we saw in Egypt," she says.

    Since the fall of the Berlin Wall closed the historical curtain on traditional visions of Marxist-Leninist state power seizures, the "colour" revolutions in Ukraine and Georgia provide a good example of what not to do after so-called people power ousts an unpopular leader.

    "In post-2004 Ukraine, the oligarchs remained embedded in the political framework, even though there was supposedly a revolution," Coates says of the western-backed "Orange Revolution".

    "I suspect Egypt will probably go the way of Ukraine," he says.

    "The embedded interests sacrificed Mubarak. He was the visible head of the regime - but these deeply embedded networks will be very hard to dislodge."

    Favours for friends

    To mitigate classic concerns like poverty, corruption and a lack of freedom, dictators in Egypt and beyond usually rely on patronage networks, guaranteeing jobs and other perks to supporters.
    Those networks dominated much of Egypt’s economic life, with government jobs - and even positions on local library boards or sports organisations - doled out to ruling party supporters.

    "Initially, Egypt could potentially focus on job creation schemes in labour intensive industries, brought under the control of a democratic state, rather than private or semi-private patronage networks"

    Kristian Coates,  professor of global governance, London School of Economics

    With 40 per cent of the population living on less than $2 a day, it is hard to blame anyone from cozying up to the ruling party in the hopes of getting a job. But a revolution from below requires a rebuilding of the social order - and the excluded majority will question why supporters of an ousted leader continue to enjoy perks.

    The military, entrusted with guaranteeing the transition to democracy and a new constitution, benefited more than most from official patronage, including an annual $1.3bn in military aid from the US, Mubarak’s former patron.   

    "If - but hopefully 'when' - elections materialise, they will catalyse a process which will begin to open up politics and economics and chip away at the entrenched interests and privileges that run far and wide in Egypt," says Alia Brahimi, senior research associate at Oxford University.

    In former Soviet bloc countries, democracy did not level the economic playing field - and officials with ties to old regimes maintained privileged access to the centres of power.  

    "People were worried about a civil war between representatives from the old regime and the incoming one," says Istavan Rev from his office in Hungary.

    "There was a decision not to ban those people affiliated with the Soviet-backed regime from public office. The lack of such a process poisoned, in some sense, the political process."

    For attaining justice, Hungary's choice might have been meek. But for stability, it made sense: revolutionary purges of an old order often end badly - the so-called de-Baathification imposed by the US after its invasion of Iraq alienated small-time players who worked under Saddam Hussein, intensifying instability and sectarian conflict.

    Through the lens of history

    As protests rock Bahrain, the king hasactually  increased patronage, handing the equivalent of $2655 to each family in a bid to bolster his faltering legitimacy. So far, it isn’t working.

    "If Egypt moves from being an autocratic regime to being a constitutional order, then over time there will be less patronage," says Harvard's Theda Skocpol.

    "It might not happen overnight - and it might be better if it doesn’t happen overnight."

    Impatience is a classic trait of revolutionaries. But short-term euphoria often ends in long-term suffering.

    Fidel Castro and Che Guevara turfed out a US-backed dictator and his mafia cronies in a 1959 revolution. Castro and the communists greatly expanded public services, improving health and education for average people. But Fidel's dream of a "dictatorship of the exploited against the exploiters" became a good-old fashioned dictatorship, according to human rights groups, who accuse the government of censoring the press and jailing dissidents.

    Turkey is frequently cited as an example Egypt and Tunisia could follow, as it successfully merges democracy, Islam and strong economic growth. But Skocpol thinks there is a better example than Turkey: Spain.

    Dictator Francisco Franco "was persuaded to step aside, and gradually Spain made the transition to a more constitutional system", she said - adding that the army, once a vestige of fascism, changed their ways of doing things over time.

    Spain doesn't figure prominently among intellectual-types discussing Egypt's future. But the idea of a slow transition, rather than the thrill of the guillotine or firing squads, seems to be widely supported.

    The necessity of transparency

    If history is a guide for Egyptians and Tunisians, then maintaining openness will be crucial in the coming months if a democratic constitution is to take root, says Prof Rev.

    "Closed doors always make the population suspicious - and rightly so," he says - adding that current leaders of the opposition must proceed cautiously, as they have not been elected by popular vote.

    Televising negotiations to create a new constitution would be a simple way of involving the public, carrying the spirit of a grassroots rebellion into the halls of power, Rev says.  

    But fair elections don't fill hungry bellies. And, like revolutions throughout history, basic material concerns loom large in Egypt, Tunisia and beyond.

    "Initially, Egypt could potentially focus on job creation schemes in labour intensive industries, brought under the control of a democratic state, rather than private or semi-private patronage networks", says governance professor Coates.

    "They need a short term platform to alienate some of the discontent, to train people so they could become regionally and internationally competitive in the long-run."

    Rebuilding the tourism industry – "playing to the country's strength" will require projecting an image of normality, he says.  

    'Demand the impossible'

    Revolts in Egypt and Tunisia have galvanised a generation tired of unemployment, corruption, censorship and a lack of opportunities. There is nothing new about that. They are following footsteps well worn by the movements of history.

    Back in 1968, young people rebelled: in Czechoslovakia, France and the US.

    "Be realistic," they cried out. "Demand the impossible."

    From his Budapest office, Prof Rev thinks those kinds of demands; those "daring dreams" will have to be shelved - for less glamorous "negotiated outcomes" between various political forces in the country. 

    And, sadly, plenty of historical events prove his concluding point: "Reality is always bleaker than people dream."

    Follow Chris Arsenault On Twitter: @AJEchris

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



    Interactive: How does your country vote at the UN?

    Interactive: How does your country vote at the UN?

    Explore how your country voted on global issues since 1946, as the world gears up for the 74th UN General Assembly.

    'We were forced out by the government soldiers'

    'We were forced out by the government soldiers'

    We dialled more than 35,000 random phone numbers to paint an accurate picture of displacement across South Sudan.

    Interactive: Plundering Cambodia's forests

    Interactive: Plundering Cambodia's forests

    Meet the man on a mission to take down Cambodia's timber tycoons and expose a rampant illegal cross-border trade.