Inquilab is a word used in Iran and South Asia, roughly meaning political cataclysm – something that is clearly ongoing in North Africa and the Middle East right now. Whether or not they are successful, the movements of dissent springing up is going to be a major influence on politics in the region going forward.
One aspect I’m incredibly intrigued by is how quickly in the last year or two the culture of dissent and critique seems to have changed in these places. Historically, one of the central lessons of the Age of Revolution that swept through the world in the hundred or so years following the American Revolution is that what caused (or prevented) political upheaval was not simply economic or social pressures, which could be observed in many places, but how dissent and critique was expressed. It strikes me that this use of popular, sometimes violent, protest, is a new tool for dissent in many of the places it’s being used. One of the things historians will be looking at when they look at this surge of demonstration and revolution is how suddenly it flares and how quickly this culture of critique has become transnational. Each of the parochial concerns set off in individual countries has lit new sparks among near or distant neighbours.
Demonstration itself is not a new phenomenon in North Africa or the Middle East. Egypt in particular has the example of anti-British demonstrations to draw upon in its own history (so memorably represented in Palace Walk, the first book of the Cairo Trilogy by Naguib Mahfouz). Yet since last year’s demonstrations in Iran the use of demonstration as an expression of popular discontent has spread with incredible pace and power. We’ve seen two regimes toppled by it, and demonstration has returned to Iran, while new protest movements are being generated in the Middle East in the last few days and weeks. It is not only the successful act of revolution that is important, but the fact that dissent has suddenly become so open and so angry. This in itself is extremely important.
The central question is this: why have these demonstrations spread so quickly? It could be the birth of a new culture of dissent, one that is more confrontational than what had come before it? And will it persist? Like in the late 18th Century, I think the most important lesson from these demonstrations, the lesson that is spreading with such incredible rapidity across the region, is not of the outcomes: it is far from clear how much Tunisia’s state has changed, and Egypt is far from resolution still. The big message here is that the lowest and weakest sections of society can act independently as force for change: that popular discontent can work in these societies as long as it is mobilised in great enough numbers and with enough intransigence. And once it happened in one place, the ordinariness of how it starts was quickly made apparent to people across the world through the media but also through social networking (and this could be the real impact of FB and Twitter, rather than any organisational function – they emphasised that demonstration and revolution were being undertaken by ordinary people, demystifying the process).
The dissent that generated regime change was founded on raw power, but also will be domesticated eventually. Inquilab will give way to stability. The new states that emerge will have new ideological bases – they will probably move their self-justifications from order, stability and protection to ideals like equality, development and possibly freedom. And if this happens the culture of dissent must change again to one of political debate rather than demonstrations of power. And the round of revolutions will peter out.
Chris Blattman wrote just the other day that he cannot think of any sub-Saharan countries ready for street revolution. He’s right; it’s not immediately obvious where they will happen. But one of the lessons we should be drawing from North Africa is that a single successful incidence could set off a chain reaction – it takes far less time now for the message that demonstration and dissent works to spread than it ever has before.