European vs Arab revolutions: regimes, ideas, violence

Why did east-central Europe find a non-violent freedom path in 1989-91, while the Arab world failed to do so after 2011?

Vicken Cheterian
10 April 2015

Gennady Yanayev, the vice-president of the USSR, went on television on 19 August 1991 to declare that he and seven colleagues on a “committee on the state of emergency” were taking control of the world's second most powerful state. The usurpers, key figures in the Soviet leadership, acted in the belief that Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika reforms were taking the Soviet Union to the verge of disintegration. The self-appointed committee - having detained Gorbachev in his holiday dacha on the Black Sea coast - emptied prisons in expectation of the need to make thousands of arrests; seized radio and television outlets; declared a curfew; and deployed columns of elite troops with mechanised infantry to city centres, most importantly Moscow. The "August coup" was underway.

Within hours, thousands of citizens were gathering around the parliament of the Russian SSR (known as the “White House”). Some protesters blocked tunnels with buses belonging to the city's transport network to hinder the movement of advancing tanks. Three men facing the tanks were killed: Dmitry Komar, Ilya Krichevsky and Vladimir Usov. The military officers on the ground reported to the coup leaders that they could not achieve their objectives without confronting the crowds. A bloodbath was inevitable. The would-be rulers realised that they did not want a massacre of their own people. On 21 August, they bowed to reality, abandoned their plans, and were arrested.

This was but the latest episode in the rolling drama of communism's fall across east-central Europe where local ruling elites, in face of mass demonstrations, surrendered power rather than opt for bloody repression. In 1989, escalating popular marches in the DDR (East Germany) led the party-state Erich Honecker to allow free travel to the west and thus the fall of the Berlin wall; this sealed the fate of the regime itself, in a way that made clear that the era of shooting down unarmed civilians was over. A decade later, Serbia's leader Slobodan Milošević was overthrown in October 2000 amid mass demonstrations accusing him of electoral fraud; tens of thousands dead were his legacy, but not a single person was killed in these final days. In later years, a series of similarly non-violent revolutions - the “colour revolutions” - swept Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan.

A double contrast

At the end of the decade, in December 2010, another world-historical process began when a young Tunisian called Mohamad Bouazizi set himself on fire and ignited a series of protests that toppled the country's president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. The uprising that followed in much of the Arab world led many analysts to imagine that the Middle East was embarking on its own wave of democratisation. The dominant idea was that liberal-democratic change would transform this last bastion of authoritarian regimes. The rebellion in its initial stages did resemble a democratic revolution, led as it was by a young, urban, educated, middle-class cohort opposing the old regime's corruption and nepotism, and demanding freedom (hurriyeh), peaceful transformation (selmiyeh), democracy and jobs.

But more than four years on, most of the Arab world is engaged not in vigorous electoral struggles around parliaments and political platforms but burning in a series of violent conflicts. From Syria to Libya, Yemen to Iraq, war is destroying human lives and even entire civilisations. What went wrong; why was the hunger for a higher form of polity drowned in blood? A clear understanding of this issue is essential if any route out of the spiral of self-destruction is to be found. Here, a comparison with the east European revolutions, on two levels, could be useful (see "The Arab revolt and the colour revolutions", 10 March 2011).

The first level is the respective regimes and their use of violence. The communist ruling order in eastern Europe had been built on mass violation of human rights, and long after the high point of Stalinism depended for their existence on systematic repression. When Gorbachev came to power in 1985 the Soviet Union still had a vast network of gulags (prison camps) throughout its territory; by the early 1990s, the Milošević regime - after consolidating power in Serbia - was waging genocidal wars across a disintegrating Yugoslavia and employed death-squads to kill domestic opponents. Yet when popular mobilisations gained momentum, the communist ruling elites found themselves divided, suddenly unsure about their legitimacy, and crucially hesitant about using force against angry but peaceful citizens.

In the Arab spring, by contrast, ruling regimes were prepared to use force. Even Ben Ali or Hosni Mubarak tried to repress the popular movement by force; by the time Ben Ali left power in mid-January 2011 at least 338 Tunisians had been killed, in the three weeks of mass protest in Egypt that culminated in Mubarak's resignation on 11 February, 800-900 died. In Libya and Yemen, popular uprisings advanced against rulers prepared to use force to protect their power, before each country disintegrated into civil war. In Syria, the ruling caste unleashed a total war against its own population, destroying entire cities by artillery, surface-to-surface missiles, and (a local innovation) barrel-bombs. In other words, power-holders in the Arab world felt themselves justified in using limitless force against those initially pushing for non-violent political change.

The second level is the respective idea-systems and intelligentsias. Many east-central European intellectuals had over a century a strong belief in the notion of revolutionary violence as the exclusively legitimate way forward for their societies: overthrowing archaic political regimes and creating a path towards industrialisation. But decades of upheavals, wars, and authoritarian rule in the name of communism were to convince a dissident intelligentsia that violence after all would not deliver. The Prague spring of 1968, with its slogan of “socialism with a human face”, was a turning-point; after it was crushed by the Soviet army's tanks, east European intellectuals more firmly embraced the idea of evolutionary, non-violent change.

In the Arab world in 2011, no strategic consensus existed on how to achieve change. Some elements of the urban middle classes had been inspired by the east European experience, but across society more people were influenced by political Islam - at a time when this current was increasingly susceptible to a violent interpretation. In this radicalising trend, however, political Islam was not an exception, but rather a continuation; for earlier ideologies in the Arab world had also become infatuated with violence. The entire region had witnessed generations of political movements with diverse political mythologies - Turkish nationalism, Ba'athist Arabism, Palestinian fractions of nationalist or socialist bent - which nonetheless shared a culture of violence. Political Islam in its early expressions, whether under the flag of Muslim Brotherhood or Hizb ul-Tahrir, had been cautious about violence; but the appearance of a new generation of salafi-jihadi zealots put unlimited and indiscriminate violence at the centre of their outlook.

An endless tunnel

In eastern Europe, the intelligentsia proved itself to be a coherent social group.  As the communist nomenklatura lost its authority, rising intellectuals with democratic principles and ethical stature played a key role in ensuring stability and a peaceful transition. Without their contribution, the new order and its political institutions and practices would have been far harder to establish. After all, parliamentary democracy was not the only alternative to the collapsing Soviet system: in former Yugoslavia or in the Caucasus, extreme nationalism led the way to wars and disasters.

In the Arab world the intelligentsia is less defined as a coherent social group with a shared culture and references. Nor did the "Arab spring" create this; if in its early days it was possible to talk about Arab youth as the driving force of events, no Arab intelligentsia emerged as a social force capable of shoring a respected new leadership or directing the movement from below in a positive direction. Instead, competition over leadership of the new social movement nurtured ideological radicalisation, which in the context of war encouraged generalised acceptance of violence.

Today, as violence continues to destroy all in its path - industrial zones, residential neighbourhoods, vestiges of past civilisations - few remember why the revolutions started, and what goals the current wars are supposed to achieve. In a region with shifting alliances and a multitude of foreign interventions, a new generation is being sacrificed to the fire of violence. This sacrifice will bring no salvation to anyone, only endless suffering. The Arab world urgently needs to remove this culture of violence.

On 20 March 2015, four jihadis entered Badr mosque in Sana'a, Yemen, wearing explosive-belts, killing 137 people as well as themselves. The four jihadis did not attack enemy fighters, but civilians who were worshipping in the mosque. Compare this act with that of Gennady Yanayev and his seven other colleagues in August 1991, all high political figures in the Soviet Union. After months of planning their military coup, and then executing it, they reached a choice: either to continue their plans and open fire on peaceful demonstrating civilians, or give up their project. They chose to surrender, preferring the lives of people to the state which they were trying to save.

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