New Perspectives on the Sociology of the Arab Spring – mark II

Zenonas Tziarras

This is a follow-up article (mark II) to “The Sociology of the Arab Spring: A Revolt or a Revolution?”, which took a sociological approach in explaining the Arab uprisings, that spread throughout the Middle East since the end of the last year, and reached a conclusion on whether the Arab Spring consists of revolts or revolutions. Although at the time the first article was published many uprisings in different countries were still in progress, as they are right now, in retrospect, it seems that our analysis and conclusions did not fall far from reality. Thus, given the importance of these developments for the region and the world as well as the great interest shown for the first article, we considered the analysis of the currently unfolding events in the Middle East to be expedient. Hence, the purpose of this article is twofold: 1) the analysis of the new developments in Libya, Syria and Egypt, based on the theoretical framework that was set in the first article; and 2) the comparison of the conclusions of the two articles, thus evaluating our initial findings regarding the nature of the Arab Spring.

For the sake of coherence a few basic elements of the theoretical framework are repeated. Firstly, this article accepts that a “revolution” is a social movement that: a) is massive, b) leads to fundamental and systemic changes or reforms, and c) requires the use of violence.[i] Furthermore, revolutions are of larger scale, they last longer and have more extensive outcomes than revolts.

In terms of the situation on the ground, the most significant developments of the Arab Spring, in the past three to four months, include the events in Libya, Syria and most recently Egypt. To begin with, in Libya, the civil war turned out to be a victory for the rebels; a victory which was marked by the capturing and killing of the former Libyan leader, Muammar Gaddafi. The new Libyan leaders are now faced with the challenge of drafting a new constitution and leading the country to democratic elections.

In Syria, the violent crackdown of the regime on the protesters, and the Syrian people more generally, has not stopped while the international condemnation as well as the international disputes on how to manage the Syrian crisis increased. Unlike Libya, for example, where the division of the military was easier to occur given the country’s tribal nature, in Syria, the regime holds the monopoly over the armed forces. That is mainly because of Al-Assad’s strong ties with the military through the Alawite minority; a situation which makes it very difficult for the protesters to find the means and ways to fight the regime. However, this has changed over the past month and especially since the first military attack of the Free Syrian Army – which consists of Syrian army defectors – against the regime. This is the first sign of a division within the military; it took more time than it took in Egypt or in Libya but it is happening and it will most probably lead to another civil – perhaps ethnic, as well – conflict.

In Egypt, where the first post-Mubarak elections are taking place, the civil unrest re-ignited recently, with the people protesting against the military regime that undertook the political transition after Mubarak stepped down. As one would expect, the Egyptian people wants a much faster transition to democracy than the one pursued by the military, and an end to the military rule, despite military’s promises. In other words the protesters want to avoid the prolongation and solidification of the military to power, by all means.

The above mentioned present roughly the domestic situation in Libya, Syria and Egypt, and provide a good basis for our analysis. As in the first article, the following table presents the extent to which the most significant Middle East revolt/revolution cases agree with the three elements (preconditions) of the “revolution” definition. In addition, this time the table presents the three cases in a comparative perspective. The “X” indicates which elements can be found in each case while the question mark (“?”) presents the particular transitional situation in Libya, which is analyzed below.

Elements

Mass Social Movements

Fundamental Changes/Reforms 

Revolutionary Violence

Period

1st Article

Today

1st Article

Today

1st Article

Today

Libya

X

?

X

 

Syria

X

X

 

X

Egypt

X

X

X

 

 Once again, it is emphasized that what the table presents is subjective given the different interpretations of “violence”, “change” or “social movement”. This article sees a mass social movement as a movement of large social masses with at least some common goals regardless of class, age, gender or ethnicity. “Fundamental changes” are important systemic or structural changes that bring about a very different order than before. “Revolutionary violence” refers to brutal violence that is employed by the rebels as the ultimate means to accomplish the end of the revolution.

 LIBYA

Beginning with the Libyan case, we can see that in the process of the uprising and the civil war there was both a mass social movement and revolutionary violence but not any fundamental changes, at least not until the victory of the rebels and Gaddafi’s death. The latter symbolizes the defeat of the regime and the beginning of a new era. Although some could argue that the overthrow of the Gaddafi regime is in itself a victory and a fundamental change, the reason why the table shows a question mark (“?”) is because the real results of the rebels’ victory in the political system are yet to be seen. Libya might indeed be the first successful case of democratic transition that occurred from the Arab Spring; on the other hand, should the domestic politics be mismanaged, internal disputes may emerge that could lead to sectarian conflicts. In the case that the new Libyan state turns out to be a functioning democracy we could say that in Libya, what started as a revolt became a “micro-scale revolution”. That would mean that given the limited political goals of the mass social movement (i.e. the overthrow of the regime), the revolution was successful, without this entailing, however, that the new government will not inherit some of the qualities of the previous regime such as the western influence. Nonetheless, for the time being the Libyan case could not be seen as a revolution; further developments will complete the puzzle in the near future.

SYRIA

In Syria the situation has progressed and it is now similar to what Libya was facing a few months ago. Whereas in the first article we identified only the element of “mass social movement”, today the Syrian uprising contains the element of “revolutionary violence” as well. This shows an escalation of the crisis, albeit a slow one. The reason why the Syrian case has been so particular in the way it developed and its duration is because of the nature of the military establishment, as already mentioned, and the regional geopolitical realities which have been discouraging any regional or international powers from intervening. The inability and unwillingness of external powers to act and the reluctance of the regime to stop the violence are the two factors that may eventually lead Syria to a civil war that may be longer and bloodier than the Libyan one. Although there has emerged an organized militant group (Free Syrian Army) which could express and give specific goals to the revolution, it will be very hard to initiate an armed struggle against the Syrian regime without significant external help. Thus, the protesters remain largely isolated and inefficient. Even though the development of the Syrian crisis remains to be seen, we can say that it has not become a revolution.

EGYPT

The Egyptian case, despite the step-down of Mubarak, is facing a setback and it resembles the days of the first uprisings in Cairo, many months ago. In this light, it is obvious that the step-down of Mubarak was not as much of a victory as many expected; rather, it was a way to keep the uprisings from escalating. Despite the participation of many civil society groups, with specific political agendas, in the uprisings, it seems that the majority of the people thought that it got what it wanted when Mubarak stepped down. But when the military took over and the transition to civil rule seemed endless, the Egyptian people realized that in reality nothing changed. Therefore, today we have the protests and uprisings in Egypt as described above. The military is trying to appease the masses but the truth is that no one can assure them of their country’s future or even the results of the elections. From that perspective, neither the initial, nor today’s Egyptian uprisings can be seen as revolutions since, despite the massive popular participation and the limited revolutionary violence, there have not been any significant political changes.

It has to be made clear that the fact that we are not categorizing these cases as revolutions, it does not mean that we are diminishing their cause. The distinction between a revolt and a revolution is important not only for clarification and academic purposes but also for the better understanding of the internal socio-political dynamics of each case, and their relation and interaction with external and international factors that determine to a great extent the outcome of these uprisings. This means that even though some of these countries could attain some kind of political change, it would still be limited – at least for the near future – due to external influence and external structural factors. Yet, as mentioned in the previous article, these developments are creating new realities that give the opportunity to the peoples of the Middle East, like in Tunisia and Libya, to play a more important role in determining their future and their political system. After all, it is all part of a process and some changes are different and come more slowly than others.

[i] Giddens, A., Κοινωνιολογία [Sociology], Gutenberg, 2002, p.655 or the English version, Giddens, A., Sociology, Polity Press, 6th edition, 2009.

Follow Zenonas Tziarras on Twitter: https://twitter.com/#!/ZenonasTziarras

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