Is there a revolution underway in Egypt?

Guardian, February 8, 2011

Is what is going on in Egypt today a “revolution”?  What about Tunisia?  And how about the Georgian “Rose” Revolution (2003) or the Philippine Yellow Revolution of 1986?  Do these social and political conflicts and outcomes add up to a “revolution” in those societies?  Are they analogous in any way to other revolutions in the post-World War II period — e.g. Cuba, Nicaragua, Zimbabwe?

In the case of Tunisia, the world witnessed several things: large, sustained street demonstrations by tens of thousands of people demanding the resignation of Tunisia’s president; tactics of repression and intimidation by the state intended to quiet the protests; an unexpected ability of the population to sustain its demonstrations; and the eventual flight of the president from the country.  We also witnessed the establishment of an interim government that was nominally committed to free elections within a reasonable timeframe — though we don’t yet know how that process will unfold.  So we saw a popular movement aiming to topple a dictator and demanding institutional changes in government; we saw the downfall of the dictator; and we saw an apparent commitment to establish the institutional reforms that had been demanded.  Does all of this add up to a “revolution”.

This is as much a conceptual question as it is an empirical one.  What do we mean by “revolution”?  Is there a reasonably clear and uncontroversial definition that would allow us to classify various uprisings and changes as governments as “revolution” or not?  Let’s look at the way that a number of recent theorists have dealt with the concept of revolution.  Here are three, with rather different approaches: Samuel Huntington, Theda Skocpol, and Jack Goldstone.  Each of them seems to capture something important about the way we think about the idea of revolution.

Samuel Huntington offers a very clear definition of revolution in “Revolution and Political Order”, collected in Jack Goldstone’s Revolutions: Theoretical, Comparative, and Historical Studies:

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. (39)

A full-scale revolution thus involves the rapid and violent destruction of existing political institutions, the mobilization of new groups into politics, and the creation of new political institutions.  The sequence and the relations among these three aspects may vary from one revolution to another. (40)

In Huntington’s view, revolution usually unfolds from collapse of the state to the emergence of a new political group or elite capable of seizing and institutionalizing power.

If no group is ready and able to establish effective rule following the collapse of the old regime, many cliques and social forces struggle for power.  The struggle gives rise to the competitive mobilization of new groups into politics and makes the revolution revolutionary.  Each group of political leaders attempts to establish its authority and in the process either develops a broader base of popular support than its competitors or falls victims to them. (41)

The two prerequisites for revolution are, first, political institutions incapable of providing channels for the participation of new social forces in politics and of new elites in government, and secondly, the desire of social forces, currently excluded from politics, to participate therein, this desire normally arising frlom the group’s feeling that it needs certain symbolic or material gains which it can achieve only by pressing its demands in the political sphere. (45)

Huntington’s approach to revolution, then, emphasizes the grievances and demands of the population and the rigidity or flexibility of political institutions, and it highlights the sweeping character of the changes, political, social, and ideological, that resulted.

Next, consider Theda Skocpol conception of a “social revolution” in States and Social Revolutions: A Comparative Analysis of France, Russia and China:

Social revolutions are rapid, basic transformations of a society’s state and class structures; and they are accompanied and in part carried through by class-based revolts from below.  Social revolutions are set apart from other sorts of conflicts and transformative processes above all by the combination of two coincidences: the coincidence of societal structural change with class upheaval; and the coincidence of political with social transformation. In contrast, rebellions, even when successful, may involve the revolt of subordinate classes — but they do not eventuate in structure change. Political revolutions transform state structures but not social structures, and they are not necessarily accomplished through class conflict. And processes such as industrialization can transform social structures without necessarily bringing about, or resulting from, sudden political upheavals or basic political-structural changes.  What is unique to social revolution is that basic changes in social structure and in political structure occur together in a mutually reinforcing fashion. And these changes occur through intense sociopolitical conflicts in which class struggles play a key role. (4-5)

Several things are evident in this paragraph.  First, Skocpol is not offering a general definition of revolution here, but rather a sub-category, the “social revolution.”  A social revolution involves both significant transformation of political structure and major change of social structure.  It is both political (having to do with the institutions of the state) and social (having to do with the basic relations of property and class that exist in society).  She does presuppose that there is such a thing as a purely political revolution; but she indicates that she is not particularly interested in this category of change.  Second, she postulates that social revolutions derive from a duality of types of grievances as well: grievances about the economic structure (property, class, and inequality) and the political structure (the institutions through which a dominant group exercises power and coercion over the rest).  So a social revolution derives from demands for social as well as political change, and it results in largescale structural changes in both social and political institutions.

Jack Goldstone is a historical sociologist who has written very extensively on revolution in the past decade or so.  His Revolution and Rebellion in the Early Modern World (1991) offers an innovative interpretation of several modern revolutions — the English Revolution, the French Revolution, and state breakdowns in the Ottoman Empire and Ming-Qing China.  So let’s look at Goldstone’s way of conceiving of revolutions.

It turns out that Goldstone doesn’t really place much weight on “revolution.”  Instead, he gives conceptual priority to the idea of “state breakdown” over the more complex concept of revolution.

I shall refer to the revolutions and rebellions examined in this book as cases of state breakdown.  By state breakdown I mean a particular combination of events, but not quite a revolution. (7-8)

He frames his intellectual task as that of explaining why there were waves of periods of state breakdown in modern European and Asian history.  Revolution is a consequence of state breakdown rather than an event having its own historical dynamic.  So what is state breakdown?  Goldstone doesn’t give a developed analytical discussion of this concept; but it presumably encompasses fiscal breakdown (inability to collect sufficient taxes to maintain the state’s actions); military and police breakdown (inability to marshall sufficient manpower to quell foreign and domestic enemies); and ideological breakdown (inability to maintain the loyalty and adherence of the subject population).

Here is Goldstone’s definition of the state:

By “the state” I mean the institutions of centralized national-level rule-making and rule-enforcing power, including the individuals who controlled those institutions when acting in their official capacities. (4)

And “breakdown”:

State breakdown generally involved the collapse of the central authority’s ability to dominate in a confrontation with other politically powerful actors, rather than the breakdown of all political institutions. (4-5)

So — what about Tunisia and Egypt?  It seems that none of these three conceptual frameworks for revolution would classify Tunisia and Egypt as revolutions.  Neither is a “social revolution” by Skocpol’s definition.  There is no indication of major change in the system of property and class, either demanded or forthcoming — even if there are economic reforms that make life a little better for poor people.  And the anti-government popular movement does not seem to have been largely driven by under-class interests; rather, the demands seem largely to be centered on grievances about the misuse of government power and corruption of the state that are of interest across almost all segments of society.

Second, neither appears to represent the situation of “state breakdown” in Goldstone’s sense. Up until the street demonstrations began to grow and to represent a credible and sustainable social movement of opposition, no expert observer would have said that Tunisia or Egypt was suddenly losing its ability to control society, collect taxes, or run the government’s operations.  So the dramatic political events in Tunisia and Egypt did not result from “state breakdown.”

Finally, Tunisia and Egypt do not appear to fit Huntington’s definition either.  These movements have not been particularly violent — instead, they depend on “people’s power” for their political force.  And they don’t seem to have resulted in the kinds of sweeping changes of social, political, and ideological structures that Huntington postulates either.  We don’t know precisely where things will end up in either Tunisia or Egypt; but the case of the Philippines is well known, and only fairly superficial political institutional changes have persisted, with virtually no change in the basic social-property relations that govern ordinary people’s lives.  What is more congruent to Tunisia and Egypt is Huntington’s observation about the rigidity of certain political systems: in neither Tunisia nor Egypt was there an avenue for effective political expression and change for non-elites, over a three-decade period.  So these regimes were neither inclusive nor accountable; as a result, they had no way of containing the growing discontent in the population.

Perhaps the most we can say about Tunisia and Egypt is fairly descriptive: these were instances of governmental change forced by a largely spontaneous social movement that erupted into the streets, with very little organization or leadership.  Promises of political reform were made in response to the demonstrations, and if these promises are kept, then the movement will have produced some degree of political reform in addition to the successful ouster of the dictator.  So popular movements can push the governments of Tunisia and Egypt in the direction of more inclusive democratic political institutions. But this process, and these limited outcomes of political change, seem to fall far short of the idea of “revolution.” And, along with the realism that Huntington often expresses about this sort of process, it is entirely possible that these transformations will be hijacked by other groups as events unfold, so that their progressive political goals will be frustrated.

Unfortunately, though, we don’t have a convenient umbrella term for this kind of political transition.  The closest I can come is something like this: these are people-powered processes of forced political reform, intended to lead to institutions that are more inclusive and more accountable than the dictatorships they replace.  They are “people-power” political transformations, not revolutions.

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