Vicken Cheterian

Perpetual Failure of Middle Eastern Revolutions

In the aftermath of the 1967 “Six-Day War”, in which the Arab armies were destroyed in a matter of hours by Israeli forces, a new generation of Arab militants radicalized from nationalist ideology towards Marxist-Leninist positions. People like George Habash and Wadie Haddad, the founders of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), or Naef Hawatmeh of the Democratic Front (DFLP), and many others, argued that Arab regimes like that of Jamal Abdul Nasser had failed to fight against Israel and its imperial overlords because of their class structure. They argued that only a popular resistance inspired by Marxism and taking Vietnam and Latin American guerrilla movements as model, could lead to the liberation of Palestine. And before being able to lead a popular struggle, it was necessary to overthrow the bourgeois Arab regimes to establish people’s power capable of leading the long-term struggles.

A whole generation was influenced by this radicalization, which continues to shape the Middle East – and beyond. From Turkey to Germany, from Iran to Ireland, young militants copied, were inspired by, or even passed through the training camps of one of the factions of the Palestine Liberation Organization. Just to name a few: Deniz Gezmiş (Turkey’s “Che Guevara”), Abdullah Ocalan (founder of PKK), Fusako Shigenbu (founder of Japanese Red Army), or Abdullah Azzam (the father of “Afghan-Arabs” who once headed PLO sponsored training camps in Jordan). First Jordan, and later Lebanon became training ground for revolutionaries from around the world.

Two decades later this generation left the stage of history and the barricades of Middle Eastern wars without much noise. They were defeated in more than one sense: they failed to overthrow Arab “bourgeois” regimes; on the contrary, soon they were at the payroll of oil-rich Arab dictators. They failed to liberate Palestine. In fact, most of the attacks of the militants were indiscriminate attacks, without much distinction between civilians, legitimate targets of violence, and a strategy of revolutionary change. The same ideologies that led to the Vietnamese resistance against the US armies, the Cuban Revolution, and most important Mandela’s struggle to transform South Africa, failed in the Middle East. Yet, this generation left behind a legacy of what could be called Kalashnikov fetishism where the culture of violence predominates the idea of its utility and final result of the “struggle”.

The worst failure of this generation was its disappearance from the political scene without any critical debate, without lessons learned. They were taken over by a new generation of militants of Islamic ideology. For the Islamists, the older generation of Marxists or Arab nationalists – the generation of their fathers – were unbelievers; they had no lessons to be thought from. Instead of Mao or Che, they had other fetish symbols, from the Islamic history of the first century Hijri, found inspiration in the writings of Ibn Taymiyya instead of Lenin, from the Islamist struggles in Egypt, or from the Islamic Revolution in Iran. It did not matter much that Sayyid Qutb’s jihad or “vanguards” were structurally not all that different from Lenin’s revolution or Bolshevik Party’s professional revolutionaries.

In 2011 another wave of revolutions erupted which, from todays perspective, can be qualified as failure and disappointment. The Arab revolt came immediately after a series of post-Communist revolutions, starting with the 1989 Velvet Revolutions of East European states, until the Serbian revolution of 2000 or the Georgian “Rose” revolution of 2003. Yet, while Czechoslovakia succeeded both to overthrow its dictatorial regime and to separate into two nation-states without violence, Serbia and Georgia went through non-violent revolutions promising democratization, the Arab World today is going through cycle of bloodbath. This time we had the “popular uprisings” which a generation earlier the leftist militants dreamed of, yet it did not lead to “liberation” neither. What are the lessons learned from the failed Arab Spring? Why did the Arab world fail peaceful transition in the age of “democratic revolutions”?

This question concerns the entire world, as the failure of peaceful democratization of the Middle East and North Africa is having a harmful effect over many countries, both near and far away. Roughly speaking, two explanations have emerged. One says that Arab societies were not ready for the change, for democracy, and that any destabilization of the status quo could only lead to anarchy and disintegration of the established order. This argument may sound like justifying the perpetual rule of the old regimes, and it could be. Yet, it is nevertheless legitimate question: is the Middle East ready for democratic transition and rule of law, after the wave of change in Eastern Europe and Latin America? What were the social agents, social class, that could replace the military establishment in power with a new project in which rule of law could be beneficial to all? In the absence of this social group, the 2011 revolts succeeded in destabilizing the old regimes, but failed to replace them with a coherent project.

Yet, one of obstacles for those societies to develop, not only in the sense of political institutionalization but also economic progress are the old regimes themselves. Their rule for several decades since the end of colonial presence did not permit the development of those societies. On the contrary, all human development indicators in the decade prior to the 2011 revolt showed that Middle East and North African countries were less developed in the years 2000 compared with the 1970’s. Here we have the second argument: the Arab revolt failed because the ancien régime was ready to use endless violence, to a degree neither the last Tsar of Russia nor the Shah of Iran could have imagined.

There is of course the greatest of all revolutionary failures, the model of modern Middle Eastern regimes: that of the 1908 “Young Turk” revolution. Military officers rebelled against a Sultan – Abdul Hamid II, and took power in the name of the Constitution, and chanting: “Liberty, equality, justice”. Yet, they deliberately violated the constitution, and every the principles they promised. Instead, they brought the army to power establishing the military rules the legacy of which is still haunting the Middle East. They led a weak empire into the First World War under the shadow of which they murdered millions of their citizens.

When will be the time to learn the lessons of our failed revolutions?