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Why revolutions fail...

The early months after the 1789 French Revolution seemed like a great success. A new elected Parliament was in control, the upcoming middle classes had an increasing say in the country's affairs and the Declaration of the Rights of Man remains a key text for those studying the history of human rights.

The events in the years that followed turned France into a by-word for extremism, bloodshed, terror, regicide, despotism and political turmoil. For more than a century afterwards, French politics remained incredibly volatile, lurching between coups, republics, returns of the monarchy, bouts of unrest and a succession of wars.

I recently discussed this historical period with a group of Libyan and Egyptian friends who observed that this succession of events seemed horribly familiar. By Autumn 2011, the world's Press was predicting a utopian democratic future for Libya and Egypt and there were expectations that Syria and Yemen would follow along the democratic path shortly after.

Today, many countries are engulfed in a state of civil war and anarchy - not least Iraq, which in 2003 America confidently predicted would be a model of democracy for the rest of us to follow.

All of this got me thinking. Why was it that in very different countries events seemed to follow similar patterns? Could it be that the course of events in these states was actually horribly predictable? What happens when the existing political culture is eradicated?

Many of us were pleased to see the back of figures like Bin Ali, Gadaffi and Ali Abdullah Saleh. They had been in power too long, they were corrupt and they survived through repression. However, the removal of their political systems created a vacuum. Revolutions removed an entire political culture - the good and the bad.

To begin with, this didn't seem to be a problem. There would be elections and the people would vote in new leaders. This is what happened in France in 1789. But these countries lacked the institutions of democracy; new systems of government lacked popular legitimacy; and there were many forces with very different ideas of how the country should be run: Islamists, militants, communists, fascists, secularists, separatists...

In Russia's 1917 revolution, Lenin's communists succeeded in defeating all potential rivals. In France, it took 10 years of anarchy before Napoleon staged a coup and took power. In Egypt the army stepped in. We often forget that the 1979 Iranian revolution was staged by leftists, students, nationalists, communists and others - but it was Khomeini's Islamists who succeeded in bloodily repressing all opponents.

The slogans of revolutions are always about "power to the people". But, the "people" themselves become the problem for whichever group wants to assert itself. Saddam Hussein will go down in history as one of the worst and most brutal rulers. But for most Iraqis, his rule was better than the bloody anarchy which followed. All of us despise Bashar Al Assad, but most Syrians wish they could return to a time before 2011.

No matter how bad a political system is, revolutionary change almost always results in a situation which is far worse, and in which millions of innocent civilians suffer.

We in Bahrain still have fresh memories of opposition leaders calling for revolution and toppling the monarchy. In hindsight - given the sectarian nature of Bahraini society, Iran's ill intentions, the militancy of the opposition and the broad range of aspirations among Bahrainis. We can all be thankful that the ambitions of opposition militants were curbed and that Bahrain's rulers were able to ensure stability and security.

In 2011, Western nations and much of the Arab world collectively made the mistake of believing that transition to full democracy is easy: People protest, the dictator flees, elections are held and everybody enjoys a bright future.

The lessons from history show us that it can take decades to recover from bouts of revolutionary instability. It is difficult to see how countries like Yemen, Syria, Libya, Iraq and perhaps even Lebanon can ever be put back together after their political cultures and national consensuses have been completely dismantled.

The solution is to look at history and understand how states like Northern Ireland, Rwanda, Vietnam, South Africa and Algeria have overcome conflicts and embarked on processes of reconciliation and nation-building.

The costs of failing to learn these lessons from history may be too high to contemplate.

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Publication:Gulf Daily News (Manama, Bahrain)
Geographic Code:4EUFR
Date:May 24, 2015
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