The current Arab uprisings are situated in a global moment which gives the term "revolution" a new connotation.
The moment can be situated within three historical waves - in part contradictory, in part complementary - that have taken place since the late 1970s. The sum result of those waves is close to what the "Arab spring", with its positive and negative aspects, has come to represent.
The first wave was inaugurated in 1979-80, when three momentous events - Iran's revolution under Ayatollah Khomeini, Poland's "Solidarity" revolution which was embraced by its compatriot Pope John Paul II, and Afghanistan's Mujahideen war against the Soviet invasion - led religion to occupy a central role in both the concept of "revolution" and its practice.
This trend occurred after two decades when religious organisations and parties had been suppressed by the military dictatorships that ruled the Arab countries, and after many more decades when religious institutions had been confiscated and believers jailed or driven underground in the Soviet bloc.
The second wave began in the mid-1980s, with globalisation and its effects in transforming mass communication and the democratising information. In breaking the one-party state’s grip on knowledge and media, these changes became an integral part of the revolutions of 1989. They also made politics less political and more societal, in the sense that issues such as "human rights", "civil society" and individual and gender differences and freedoms started to acquire unprecedented importance.
There also developed an interplay between the first and the second waves, from which the Islamists living under dictatorial regimes were to benefit the most. In this context, the Algerian regime's cancelling of the second round of elections in 1990 - following the Islamists' first-round victory - proved a turning-point.
The third wave began in the early 1990s. In the wake of the east-central European movements, when "revolution" was redefined as an essentially peaceful process aiming at the establishment of democracy. Michael Gorbachev helped give shape to a great development whereby the end of the Soviet empire (and, eventually, the Yugoslavian mini-empire) highlighted the new formula: to be more democratic is to be less nationalistic. This trend was echoed in the abolition of apartheid in South Africa and the spread of democracy in Latin America and Indonesia.
Between past and future
These three historic waves gained momentum after the demise of several older forms and contents of "revolution".
The "class"-based transformation born in 1917 in Russia had succeeded in altering the classical meaning of "revolution" inherited from the French or American versions, but it successively lost its appeal in the developed capitalist countries and the "third world". There were many reasons for its retreat: among them the creation of a variety of despotisms with no attraction whatsoever beyond true believers, the internecine ideological battles (Soviet Union vs China) and wars between erstwhile comrades (Ethiopia vs Somalia, Vietnam vs Cambodia), and the way regimes led by such figures as Pol Pot, Enver Hoxha, Kim Il-Sung, Nicolae Ceausescu and Abdul Fattah Ismail merged collective crimes and generalised absurdity to an extreme degree.
The "nationalist" revolutions whose roots lay in the encounter with colonial Europe also gradually faced extinction, after colonialism itself ceased to exist and was often followed by military-nationalist coup d’etats (which called themselves "popular" revolutions) that created repressive regimes and dysfunctional economies. Gaddafism in Libya was an eloquent caricature of this type.
The "national-liberation" revolutions too entered a slow disintegration. Their activism was consumed in terrorist actions and/or civil wars which weakened their own societies. The Palestinian experience in Jordan (1970) and Lebanon (1975-82) is exemplary in this regard. But other "anti-imperialist" revolutions with a higher sense of class and ideological awareness fared no better: the adventure of Che Guevara in Bolivia, the blunderings of Laurent Kabila in Congo, or the narco-financed Colombian guerrillas.
Both the descending and the ascending waves have made a huge difference to the contemporary meaning of the term "revolution". Now, the Arab uprisings are creating their own historic impact. Even now, some simplify this process by labeling it all an "American conspiracy". They are fooling themselves and proving how difficult it is to escape the trap of old dogmas. But as the Arab processes develop in their second year and beyond, so their contribution to the modern sense of "revolution" will become ever clearer.
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