The Geography of Revolution

22 February 2011


Being alive in the winter of 2011 is a bit like being alive when the Berlin Wall came down, although at that time I remember watching events on television news, whereas now I learn everything from the internet, and if I watch anything, I watch it on Youtube not on television. I remember so well how the nation-states of the Warsaw Pact fell like dominoes. Today another dictator of many decades duration is tottering on the edge of political survival. I do not think that Gaddafi can last, although he does have seven sons and they ought to be both young enough and vigorous enough to beat back a challenge to their rule (something obviously not the case with Zine El Abidine Ben Ali or Hosni Mubarak) if only they are able to maintain the loyalty of police, military, and security services.

In the map above I have colored nation-states that have not yet experienced significant protests in orange, those that have experienced regime change through popular revolt in pink (Tunisia and Egypt), and those that have experienced significant protests in Red (Yemen, Jordan, Iran, and Libya; Bahrain is too small to appear on this map). It should come as no surprise that Libya, which now looks like it will be the next domino to fall to popular revolt in North Africa, is sandwiched between Tunisia and Egypt. While I have never been to North Africa, one can surmise that the trade links and population transfers between these neighbors will be fairly robust, even if they are confined to smuggling routes. Ideas move with populations, and it is to be expected that Libyans have been in and out of Egypt and Tunisia since the successful revolutions in these countries, and that Tunisians and Egyptians have crossed in and out of Libya. Even if the travelers are only local businessmen with no particular sympathy for youthful revolutionaries, they will have had stories that will not have been in the press, and one assumes that the Libyans would have been a rapt audience.

I suggested above that Gaddafi’s sons ought to be able to enforce their rule if they have the cooperation of the security services. Earlier when I was writing about Egypt, I suggested that the thing to watch for is whether security services switch sides or withdraw. In Egypt, the police withdrew, and the army enforced enough civil order to keep the transition relatively peaceful. While Egypt has not yet fully returned to normalcy, it was quite telling that once the central demand of the Egyptian protesters was met — the exit of Mubarak — the army “cleared” El Tahrir Square. It is pretty obvious that the army could have “cleared” El Tahrir square earlier, and if they had done so while Mubarak was still in power, he could have survived. I suspect that Mubarak is a little bitter about this, but somewhere along the way he lost the loyalty of the army. He retained some loyalty among the police, but the police were an unpopular institutions, and they made themselves scarce either due to the hostile crowds or the presence of the army or both.

Already in Libya there have been instances of security services making themselves scarce or switching sides and making common cause with the protesters. This tells me that the political rule of Gaddafi and his sons is doomed. There have even been reports that Libyan airforce pilots have defected rather than carry out orders against the protesters, and, most recently, a report that a Libyan warship has defected to Malta. I remarked elsewhere that when Romanians revolted against Nicolae Ceauşescu in 1989, even though Ceauşescu retained the loyalty of his private army, the Securitate, this was not enough to save him. Pitched battles were fought in the streets between regular army units and units of the Securitate. Ultimately, its a numbers game: numbers of guns, numbers of soliders, numbers of people, numbers of police, and numbers of sacrifices. The contemporary territorial nation-state is in most cases much too large for a population to be ruled against its will; if a people make a country ungovernable, often at considerable cost to themselves, the government has little choice but to leave. The only question is how many they will kill before they leave. And we have seen in Bahrain that even a small nation-state can be made ungovernable.

What more do we see when we look at a map of North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula? Sudan and Ethiopia have their own issues and their own conflicts. Now that the North of Sudan is consolidating itself as an independent nation-state, it is less likely to see protests rather than more likely. Iran has had significant protests. I predicted earlier that these will not go far. I stand by this prediction, although that does not mean that there will not be protests, and it doesn’t even mean that Ahmadi-nejad will remain in power. But I continue to predict that Iran will remain an Islamic Republic with its constitution more or less intact: faces may change, but interests and strategic trends will remain consistent. Algeria is the next obvious venue for revolution, especially if Libya falls. The sooner Libya goes, the more momentum there will be for action in Algeria.

Saudi Arabia is the 500 pound gorilla as well as being the elephant in the room that we pretend not to notice. So far, things are quiet and the House of Saud seems as complacent and implacable as ever. But Saudi Arabia has a youthful, restive population, although also a youthful population with a staggering sense of entitlement. This sense of entitlement may be enough to retain Saudi exceptionalism in the region. I don’t know. Winston Churchill famously said of Russia, “I cannot forecast to you the action of Russia. It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key. That key is Russian national interest.” I will say the same for Saudi Arabia: I cannot forecast to you the action of Saudi Arabia. It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. But I will not go on to paraphrase Churchill for the second part of his claim: Saudi national interest is as murky as its actions. There is the interest of the royal family, there is the interest of the oil wealth of the families in charge of the oil, there is the interest of the Islamists who understand the Kingdom only in terms of its stewardship of the holy places of Islam, and there are the interests of a youthful and restive population. These interests do not necessarily converge, and in some ways they radically diverge. Therefore there is no one Saudi national interest, and therefore no key to the mystery.

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