Revolutions are Rare
The events in Egypt have been referred to in the press as being a “revolution” (or, at least, a revolution in the making). However, the proper classification (as a manifestation of understanding) will have to wait, as we are far from revolutionary change in this case. Indeed, the precise endgame is not even knowable at the moment.
Indeed, to date all we have seen is Egypt are mass demonstrations that have generated some amount of political concessions from the regime, which is no small feat (although how big a feat it is remains to be seen). Consider the following list:
- The appointment of a Vice President. This is significant because it creates a viable transition figure within the current government. Of course, the appointment itself does not mean that such a power transfer will actually take place. The appointment also created a specific spokesperson for the regime in the midst of the crisis that isn’t Mubarak, which is a significant tactical move, as well as a practical one, politically speaking.
- Mubarak’s promise not to run for re-election in September. This at least opens to door for new leadership (although September is a long way away at the moment).
- The resignation of Mubarak and his son from leadership roles in the National Democratic Party. This at least suggests some change in power structure (I choose the word “suggests” rather specifically).
- Talks with the opposition. It’s a start.
- A promise to lift the emergency laws. These have been in place since 1981 and if they are lifted would, at least in theory, allow for some political opening. Of course, the promise is only triggered if peace is restored to the streets.
Now, every one of the above is significant, although it is worth pointing out that they are all either promises about the future and/or reversible.
None of this is revolutionary—not by a long shot. Even if Mubarak decides to get on plane during this evening and leaves for good, that act, dramatic though it would be, would not a revolution make.
The question about whether or not there is a revolution is predicated on the question not of whether a given leader is removed, or even if there is some change to the nature of the regime (such as a movement to a more democratic system or even towards some other kinds of authoritarian regime).
A key question in the Egyptian case will be: how radical will be the transformations of the institutions of the state and the basic social order? If there is no radical change in those arenas, there will be not revolution. At the moment there are zero guarantees of institutional or societal guarantees—indeed, no clear path to even tweaking said structures.
Ok, so what would a revolution look like? I have always been partial to Samuel Huntington’s definition of revolution:
A revolution is a rapid, fundamental, and violent domestic change in the dominant values and myths of a society, in its political institutions, social structure, leadership. and government activity and policies. Revolutions are thus to be distinguished from insurrections, rebellions, revolts, coups, and wars of independence. A coup d’etat in itself changes only leadership and perhaps policies; a rebellion of insurrection may change policies, leadership, and political institutions, but no social structure and values; a war of independence is a struggle of one community against rule by an alien community and does not necessarily involve changes in the social structure of either community. What is here called simply “revolution” is what others have called great revolutions, grand revolutions, or social revolutions. Notable examples are the French, Chinese, Mexican, Russian, and Cuban revolutions.
Revolutions are rare.*
To that list one can add Nicaragua and Iran (Huntington originally wrote the above in the 1960s, hence they were not listed). There is also a question to how to deal with the events in Eastern Europe in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, but I will leave that aside for this discussion (for example, how to classify the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia).
I will note, however, that things that are called “revolutions” in recent times comes nowhere near to qualifying, such as the “Orange Revolution” in Ukraine or the “Cedar Revolution” in Lebanon (as well as any number of other “color” revolutions). Mass protests that result in some amount of political concession does not a revolution make. Indeed, to take the Lebanese example, can anyone even say that pre- and post-Cedar Revolution Lebanon are especially different places?
The likelihood from these events has always been some form of continued authoritarianism with the main question being whether Mubarak stayed or not (as Mubarak’s exits does not, by any stretch, guarantee democracy). The hope (at least from my perspective and the perspective of many) was that these events would create an opportunity for democratization in Egypt (although instant democracy has always been rather unlikely). There has also been a fear of an Iran-like outcome, but this seems unlikely
At a minimum it seems clear that the military remains a viable institution (not to mention that military men remain in positions of power). As such, not only is revolution unlikely, so too is total regime breakdown unlikely as the coercive power of the state appears intact.
The question to me remains as to what degree the military’s disposition (its attempt at appearing neutral) is a function of policy by the Mubarak and his allies within the regime or simply the military itself biding its time.
* From page 264 of Samuel Huntington, Political Order in Changing Societies (2006 edition).