Why Revolutions Fail
Real change is hard when regime insiders stick around
As many Egyptian activists can attest, revolutions are risky business.
For starters, you have to go up against an entrenched and powerful regime that is probably more than happy to use deadly force against anyone who opposes it.
And even if you do topple the government—as was the case in 2011 when protests forced Egyptian dictator-for-life Hosni Mubarak to step down—chances are the old guard sticks around and continues to cause trouble.
Today Abdel Fattah El Sisi, a former field marshal in the Egyptian army, leads Egypt’s de facto military government. Not coincidentally, a court recently acquitted Mubarak, his sons and the former interior minister of charges they were responsible for the deaths of hundreds of protesters during the Arab Spring.
Meanwhile tens of thousands of pro-democracy activists and Muslim Brotherhood supporters remain in prison.
Jay Ulfelder, a political scientist who specializes in forecasting political developments and instability, calls this the “political power of inertia.”
“Whole journals are devoted to popular uprisings and other social movements, but they very rarely happen, and when they do, they often fail to produce lasting institutional change,” Ulfelder writes on his blog.
Egypt is maybe the starkest contemporary example, but watch Burkina Faso closely. Pres. Blaise Compaoré had ruled “the land of the upright people” for almost three decades but was swept away by popular and largely peaceful protests in October.
The uprising was unusual in that it didn’t build on an established or well-organized opposition. Instead, urban young people, fed up with the only president they have ever known, took to the streets spontaneously.
But while the Burkinabè severed the snake’s head, its body survives. Only a few hours after Compaoré announced his resignation, the military stepped in and Lt. Col. Yacouba Isaac Zida, second-in-command of the presidential guard, assumed office as interim president.
Under pressure from the African Union, he abdicated and power transferred to a civilian and fellow insider from the former regime, Burkina Faso’s long-time ambassador to the United Nations Michel Kafando.
Kafando in turn named Zida prime minister and minister for defense. Military officers are also leading the ministries of interior, sports, the environment and mines.
This turn of events is quite typical, Ulfelder explains. “Protesters can fill squares and topple statues and even swarm the buildings where laws are made, but the social practice of government does not allow them to pick up pen and paper and rewrite the rules while they’re there.”
“Even when they seem to heed the crowd’s call, those insiders have an uncanny knack for bending the arc of politics back toward the status quo ante.”
Of course, there are exceptions to this rule. “South Africa in the early 1990s is a clear case of deep change in the wake of headline-grabbing events,” Ulfelder told War Is Boring.
“Of course, those headline-grabbing events came at the tail end of decades of activism and insurgency. So, in a sense, South Africa illustrates the point that deep change inevitably requires a long process.”
Libya is another example of real change after the overthrow of an entrenched political elite, he added, although the outcome in that country has been far more ambiguous than in South Africa.
One possible success story could also be Tunisia, the first country to experience the Arab Spring—and which just held presidential elections.
Instead of getting excited by isolated events like revolutions, Ulfelder argues, we should also look more closely at long-term trends. “One thing to look for are interactions in which long-standing power-holders are asked to make concessions on their core interests,” he writes.
“If they continue to impede or veto those concessions, then probably not much has changed. If they accept those changes or aren’t around to block them, then we’ve got an indication that power really has shifted in a more fundamental way.”
This could be good advice not only to revolution watchers, but also to those taking part in them. While cutting off the head of the regime certainly good, the beast is usually a hydra, not a snake. Every would-be revolutionary should be wary of members of the old guard offering a helping hand.
The presents they give out are usually poison.