Why There Is A Revolutionary Wave

Many commentators have compared the situation unfolding in the Middle East to past revolutionary years. Anne Applebaum provides a useful piece on the challenges of making such comparisons, as she notes the messy nature of revolutions, particularly those in 1848. Country specific experts have also been quick to note, as protests spread, that each country is very different from the others. While this provides a useful corrective to those seeking to overdo the connections, with the developments in Libya it is clear that these experts are missing the forest from the trees.

2011 will be looked back as a year that brought about revolutionary change in the Middle East. This makes comparisons to 1848 and 1989 entirely appropriate. What we appear to be seeing today is the “third wave” of democratization finally coming to the Middle East. In just 20 years, from the mid-1970s to the 1990s, democracy spread rapidly from southern Europe to Latin America, to Africa, to Asia, to Eastern Europe. This wave of democratization skipped some countries, proved untenable in others and was weak in quite a few, but it also has fundamentally remade global politics and made the vast majority of countries in the world electoral democracies.

However, this wave, until now, had skipped over the Arab Middle East entirely. A combination of oil wealth, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the hypocrisy of Western democracies backing autocrat regimes, insulated the region from democratic change. But as this year is demonstrating, the Arab Middle East has not been immune to this radical change in the global political climate. Just as in the mid 1970s, when people in the authoritarian Southern European countries of Portugal, Greece, and Spain were well aware that the rest of Western Europe was prospering with democracy, the “Arab street” has similarly been well aware that much of the rest of the world has been getting on quite well with democracy over the last few decades.

Yet the yearning for change doesn’t explain the timing. Revolutions don’t simply develop in multiple countries in the same year (1848, 1989, 2011, even 1968) by coincidence. The countries impacted by the wave of uprisings during these years all operated in the same global environment and shared some broadly similar characteristics that spawned a desire for change among their populations. But what makes all these places ignite at the same time is ultimately because people are aware of what is happening elsewhere and are both inspired by those events and believe they too can bring about change.

To take to the streets against authoritarian regime takes a lot of guts. But it also requires a belief that others will join with you, that your feelings are widely shared, and crucially, that you can succeed. In this great take on what it takes to build a movement, Derek Sivers describes the “shirtless dancing guy theory of leadership.”

Similarly, the demonstration effect of Tunisia was essential in encouraging others in the region to take similar action. Tunisia created an example of a successful popular uprising that became a major motivating factor for other demonstrators around the region, especially in Egypt. After all, if it could happen there, why couldn’t it happen here? Once Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak stepped down, this only added further energy to protests in Bahrain, Yemen, Jordan, Iran and Libya. In the Middle East, it’s clear the demonstration effect has been pronounced. This is a common trait of revolutionary years. In the photo above, anti-monarchist revolutionaries in France, Germany, and Italy, while distinct groups, are portrayed as all marching together (also note the vertical stripes of the German anti-monarchist flag that was inspired by the vertical stripes of the republican French tri-color). Popular uprisings inspire each other.

While conservatives are tripping over themselves to insist President Bush brought democracy to the Middle East by invading Iraq. In reality, this almost certainly set back the cause of democratization of the region. The American invasion and the chaos and ethnic violence that followed in Iraq was hardly a poster child for democracy. Furthermore, the popularity of the United States and of the West plummeted due to the invasion. The Iraqi transition to electoral democracy was also hardly reproducible. It is not as if Egyptians could look to the Iraqi transition as a model for how to bring about democracy in their own countries. In short, unlike Tunisia, no one was inspired by Iraq.