In 1848, partly inspired by the just-published Communist Manifesto, European masses rose up against their monarchies. In 1968, major rebellions flared in the U.S., Mexico, England, France, Japan, Czechoslovakia, and various other places. In 1989, people across Eastern Europe, as well as China, rebelled against their Communist Party dictatorships. Currently, people across the Arab world, as well as other places including Chile, China, India, Iran, Israel, and elsewhere, are courageously confronting their authoritarian governments. The governments in Tunisia and then Egypt have already fallen and their former dictators have escaped into political exile, leaving jubilant protesters with hopes of creating some form of stable democracy in their wake -- hopefully with women as included as they were in the rebellions. Libya is following suit, with the help of NATO, and Syria may not be far behind; Bahrain is still an open question.
Modern revolutions are, essentially, grassroots urban movements that nonviolently propel their societies from dictatorships to democracies. Despite some obvious differences in geography, religion, and government ideology, there are striking similarities between 1989 and 2011. While the Arab protests began in Tunisia, partly inspired by massive government corruption and triggered by a self-immolation, they have been spreading like anti-authoritarian wildfire. Corruption may have turned up the heat, as did rising food prices, but the pot of discontent was already simmering. As Russian historian Leon Aron notes, revolutions are brought about by the "quest for dignity". The revolutionary slogan of Tunisia was "Dignity before bread". The uprisings have entailed large demonstrations by wide swaths of the populations, though especially urban middle-class professionals, who have typically instigated and led social movements and revolutions. Indeed, the critical role of students and teachers, lawyers and doctors, clergy, journalists, engineers, and other professionals -- who are obviously not the poorest -- is too often ignored.
Although dictatorships are, by definition, strong governments, they have an inherent weakness as well. Dictatorships generally do not listen to complaints or provide enough freedom for their citizens, often creating arrogant ignorance in the former and relative deprivation in the latter. Within dictatorships, people are denied their rights, yet all rights are reserved by the people -- who are always ready to rear, given the suitable causal convergence -- while in post-dictatorships, the goal is to have all wrongs reversed.
The mass media, another key factor in revolutions, already clue people in to how other governments behave and how other people live, creating comparisons between what is and what could be. The new mass media of social networking -- think Facebook and Twitter, and Weibo in China -- more easily facilitate the mobilization of grievances and then people. While official state-controlled media largely lost its legitimacy, Al Jazeera -- without as much nationalistic, tribal, or sectarian bias -- is a more independent, aggressive, trusted, and popular media source in the Middle East, North Africa, and beyond. As with any mass media, Al Jazeera not only reports public opinion, but also shapes it, not necessarily telling people what to think, but certainly what to think about. In the words of Marc Lynch, professor of Middle East Studies at George Washington University, "They did not cause these events, but it's almost impossible to imagine all this happening without Al Jazeera."
Libya is following the path of old revolutions not modern ones Unlike modern revolutions, the Libyan rebels are not non violent -- indeed, they were heavily armed, even before being supported by foreign air power -- and were liberating territory, while moving towards the capital. This may have something to do with Libya's more tribal nature, the country's social and political structure, and its relative isolation. After over forty years in power, Muammar Qaddafi is the most erratic and brutal of the local dictators. However, his grasp on power -- and perhaps his grasp on reality -- is quickly slipping away.
Wherever there is dictatorship, there is the potential for democratic uprisings. When uprisings occur, whether they become successful revolutions or failed rebellions depend on the role of the military. If the military resolutely supports the government, that government is likely to survive, even if with less legitimacy; if the military supports the uprising, it's a matter of when, not if, for the government; and if the military is neutral, the success or failure of the uprising will depend more heavily on other necessary factors for revolution, including resources, opportunities, internal and external allies, and perseverance.
As with 1848, 1968, and 1989, no one predicted the unfolding events of 2011. Therein lies hope, as even when it may appear darkest, the bright light of positive social change may be nearby. It simply takes the right spark at the right time to light the revolutionary fire. While history and revolutions cannot necessarily be specifically predicted, they can and should be better understood. Revolutions have only succeeded against dictatorships, never democracies, because democracy gives people political outlets and personal hope, which may prove disastrous for groups like Al Qaida. It should be noted that largely nonviolent, secular, pro-democracy movements brought down governments in mere weeks that Al Qaida -- with its organization, funding, ranting, religious extremism, terror, and violence -- could not in years. Even before the killing of Osama bin Laden, Al Qaida represents the past, while democracy represents the future.
There are lessons for the West as well: decades of U.S. support of brutal and tyrannical dictators -- over $85 billion (inflation-adjusted) as well as a plethora of surplus military equipment and, apparently, yacht upgrades, solely to the nearly 30-year Mubarak regime -- partly out of fear of groups like Al Qaida, contributed to massive suffering and too many victims. If the U.S. had not invaded, perhaps the citizens of Iraq would have been rising up against the tyranny of Saddam Hussein in 2011, had he remained in power, possibly much more efficiently and effectively --and, of course, less costly and less deadly -- than the ill-fated U.S.-led invasion and occupation.
While successive U.S. governments profess democracy, they have not actually encouraged it enough in practice, typically supporting, or at least not actively opposing, the very dictators that the people are protesting against until that support becomes untenable, further enraging the Arab masses. Democracy, while being good in and of itself, may also turn out to be the best bulwark against terrorism and war.
Daniel Brook, Ph.D., teaches political science and sociology and is the author of Modern Revolution (University Press of America, 2005).