The Arab revolt and the colour revolutions

The fate of the popular insurgencies in Serbia, Georgia, Ukraine and elsewhere in the early-mid 2000s could offer guidance or warning to the middle-east uprising of 2011 - and to western states, says Vicken Cheterian. 

The Arab revolt of 2010-11 has spread with intense speed and magnitude. A protest that began in the provincial Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid in mid-December 2010 has in under three months become a wave of rebellion that has deposed two presidents; stretches from Morocco to Iraqi Kurdistan; has revived the fires of the Iranian opposition; and continues to burn in Bahrain, Libya, Yemen, and beyond.

This remarkable regional phenomenon has inspired a search for precedents. It has been compared to the great revolutionary wave in Europe in 1848 with its “springtime of nations”, and to 1989 and the liberation of east-central Europe (the “Arab spring”); as well as explained with reference to the techniques of communication used by activists (the “facebook” or “twitter” revolution).

These parallels and elements have limited force, however. The events of 1989 in eastern Europe were unique in that they accomplished the “undoing” of  the 1917 revolution and (over the next two years) sparked several revolutions in one: the implosion of a system (the command economy), the fall of an empire (the Warsaw pact), the withering of a state (the Soviet Union) and the collapse of a global ideology (Soviet communism).

The new technologies to a degree play the role of the printing press in 1848. They have been used with great aptitude in Tunisia and Egypt, and are influential in the movements elsewhere. But the exaggerated focus on these tools tends to suggest that what is happening in the middle east and north Africa is a middle-class revolution driven by a “normalising” correction of the region’s “historical exception”, in ways that channel it towards the comforting thought that “they” are going to become just like “us”.

The colour codes

Any reference-point suggested to make sense of the Arab revolt needs to be used with caution and in ways that recognise the complexity (and unfinished nature) of the events. With this qualification in mind, some insight may be gained into their depth and possible trajectory by viewing them through the lens of the so-called “colour revolutions” that hit regimes in parts of Europe and central Asia in the early-mid 2000s.

The cycle of protests and regime changes that came to acquire the description of “colour revolutions” (after the dominant shade or flower worn by those seeking change) affected a swathe of countries: Serbia (2000), Georgia (2003), Ukraine (2004), Kyrgyzstan (2005). Other attempts at a similar outcome - in Belarus, Azerbaijan, Lebanon (the ambiguous “cedar” revolution of 2005), and Burma (the “saffron” wave of 2007) are sometimes considered to be part of the same wave.

Each national experience was distinct, yet there were also common features. First, the colour revolutions followed fraudulent elections by semi-autocratic regimes, with a prominent role being played by organised groups of young people adept at combining clever slogans with creative non-violent action to spread their message. Otpor (“resistance”) in Serbia, Kmara (“enough”) in Georgia, and Pora (“It’s time”) in Ukraine were the most visible part of these countries’ anti-authoritarian rebellions. The Kefaya (“enough”) movement founded in Egypt in 2004 with the purpose of mobilising for change against the Hosni Mubarak regime was directly influenced by these predecessors.

Second, although popular mobilisation was the driving force, the colour revolutions were also led by individuals who had already occupied high political positions. Mikheil Saakashvili had been Georgia’s justice minister during Eduard Shevardnadze’s period as president and a member of the country’s ruling party less than two years before becoming the “rose revolution’s” figurehead; Viktor Yushchenko had been Ukraine’s prime minister before the “orange revolution”, and Kurmanbek Bakiyev had been Kyrgyzstan’s.

In this sense, the revolutions also had an element of intra-elite rivalry: a radical wing had realised that there was no way to rotation of power through elections, and that popular mobilisation in the main squares of the capital was needed for change to happen.

Third, the colour revolutions were non-violent, in contrast with the “classical” revolutions of France or Russia. This informed the ideal of opposition to a corrupt political regime determined to cling to power (by electoral fraud, and itself often prepared to use violence); but it was also related to the intention of the “revolutionaries” to implement a reformist political agenda (which some of their predecessors had proclaimed, though failed to realise): democratisation, pro-market reforms, and more integration with the west.

Fourth, the colour revolutions showed that a repressive state can find it impossible to contain mass popular revolt. When tens of thousands of people gather in the streets, and when doubts grow over the loyalty of security forces to the state (for example if the army is called in and the rank-and-file refuses to open fire), the balance of advantage can quickly shift to the demonstrators. This happened in Serbia in October 2000, when the special Serbian police units known as “red berets” refused to open fire on the protesters in Belgrade and left Slobodan Milosevic exposed.

But the state’s use of violence too can be a sign of weakness and a prelude to its fall. In Kyrgyzstan in April 2010, Kurmanbek Bakiyev (who himself had ridden to power in the popular revolt of 2005) ordered police to fire on a demonstration of over 10,000 people in the capital, Bishkek. There were eighty-six people killed and over 1,000 wounded, yet this only intensified people’s anger; the presidential offices were stormed and Bakiyev fled the next day. 

The contrasts

The traces of these events in the Tunisian and Egyptian tumult are clear, not least the inability of repression to stem the tide, and the shift of loyalty among troops from the old dictators isolated in their palaces to the young demonstrators defying batons and arrests on the street.

But the differences between the colour revolutions and the Arab rising may be more instructive. First, there may be overlaps in the role of educated young people, but the engine of the later revolt - youth anger against hopeless social conditions and the lack of employment possibilities - is hardly the same. Second, the old Arab opposition elites are often marginalised after years of constraint, removed from the scene, and caught by surprise at the popular upsurge.

Third, the motivations of protest diverge. In Georgia and Ukraine, people rebelled against political remnants of the Soviet era: aging rulers unable to reform the political system and modernise the economy. In Yugoslavia, young people had enjoyed greater freedoms than in the Soviet-dominated communist countries; by 2000, two decades after Tito’s death and a decade after the country’s disintegration, the next young generation in Serbia saw Poland and Hungary moving ahead to become part of the European Union.

Their counterparts in Georgia and Ukraine similarly viewed the former Soviet republics of Estonia, Latvia or Lithuania, while they had barely begun a “transition” to western-style democracy and market economy. A peaceful revolution was a way to mark their detachment from the older generations for failing to be “modern” and “western”.

By contrast, the hopelessness created by a lack of any perspectives for change has helped to drive the Arab movement. Its most graphic representation is the harraga in Algeria or Tunisia (a description of would-be migrants hoping to reach the shores of Europe on boats or improvised rafts). It also seems that the overthrow of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali at least has not ended the desperate exodus of young people from Tunisia.

Fourth, the respective presence and absence of an international dimension is striking. The participants of the colour revolutions were rebelling against the remnants of a fallen (Soviet) empire, and attracted by the victorious (western) one; in effect they desired to join the “new world order”. The west encouraged, supported, in some cases even financed the popular revolt in Serbia, and to a lesser degree those in Georgia and Ukraine.

Where the Arab rebellion is concerned, the west is completely absent. The extensive security cooperation between western states and Arab regimes is part of the explanation, but this is only one part of a post-colonial policy in the region that entails oil-based economies completely dependent on western economic systems; extensive financial corruption; and a policy over Palestine that no democratic Arab system could support. In this respect, western powers (especially European) would be well advised to take a new approach founded on principled solidarity with Arab democracy.

The lessons

The outcomes of the colour revolutions might also carry lessons for the Arab revolt, which faces even deeper socio-political problems than those faced by (for example) Serbia or Ukraine.

The first is that overthrowing an old dictator does not mean changing the system. There are two models here. In Ukraine, the post-orange- revolution president Viktor Yushchenko failed to bring much change beyond respecting free elections, with the eventual result of the return of his rival Viktor Yanukovich to power in February 2010 and subsequent pressure on civic rights; in post-rose-revolution Georgia, Mikheil Saakashvili established a centralised government where the parliament was under the complete control of the ruling party, and the media had even less freedom after the change. In other words, the end result of the rose revolution in Georgia strongly resembles the starting point of Arab revolt.

The second, daunting or a spur to further action as it may be (or both), is that the forces for change in Tunisia and Egypt - and other countries yet to change their governments - will need to go much further to turn revolt into revolution. The youth movements such as Kmara or Pora did not in the end produce a new political force; Kmara dissolved itself into Georgia’s new ruling party, and Pora - initially associated with Yushchenko’s party - contested the parliamentary elections in 2006, without success.

The social composition of the Arab rebellion makes it potentially more radical than the colour revolutions. But there remain many uncertainties, some of them surrounding its lack of leadership. Will young Arabs continue to topple dictators, perhaps then to allow others to profit from the resulting vacuum; or will they move on to create new institutions and a new political culture? Any historical comparison can only go so far. The future is not fated; it is being created on the streets of Cairo, Tunis, Benghazi and Sana'a.

About the author

Vicken Cheterian is a journalist and political analyst. He teaches at Webster Geneva's faculty of media communications, and is a research associate at SOAS's department of development studies. His next book is Open Wounds: Armenians, Turks, and a Century of Genocide (C Hurst, January 2015). His other books include From Perestroika to Rainbow Revolutions: Reform and Revolution after Communism (C Hurst, 2013) and War and Peace in the Caucasus: Russia’s Troubled Frontier (C Hurst, 2009; Columbia University Press, 2009)

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Vicken Cheterian is a journalist and political analyst who works for the non-profit governance organisation CIMERA, based in Geneva. He is the author of War and Peace in the Caucasus: Russia’s Troubled Frontier (C Hurst, 2009; Columbia University Press, 2009), and From Perestroika to Rainbow Revolutions: Reform and Revolution After Socialism (C Hurst, 2011)

Also by Vicken Cheterian in openDemocracy:

"The pigeon sacrificed: Hrant Dink, and a broken dialogue" (23 January 2007)

"Serbia after Kosovo" (17 April 2007)

"Georgia's arms race" (4 July 2007)

"Lebanon: short memory, system failure" (25 September 2007)

"Armenia's election: the waiting game" (19 February 2008)

"Georgia's forgotten legacy" (3 September 2008)

"Georgia: between war and a future" (8 July 2009)

"Armenia-Turkey: genocide, blockade, diplomacy" (13 October 2009)

"Armenian genocide and Turkey: then and now" (24 April 2010)

"Kyrgyzstan failing, and an arc of crisis" (15 June 2010)

"The Armenia-Turkey protocols: a year on" (20 October 2010)

"The Arab crisis: food, energy, water, justice" (26 January 2011)