Washington History tells us that revolution often triggers counterrevolution: The spontaneous, euphoric moments of liberation are eclipsed by the forces of repression — with reaction often dressed in uniform.
The counterrevolution is gathering momentum in the Arab world, two years after the uprisings that toppled rulers in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad has fought back brutally to preserve his dictatorship; Egypt’s generals ousted the Muslim Brotherhood government there. The men in the tanks seem to be winning the day.
Yet I’d be surprised if the Arab revolutions were permanently stalled. The forces that are undermining dictatorial rule are embedded in technology; a society where anyone can tweet a message or post a cellphone video will have difficulty repressing its citizens indefinitely.
Two books help make sense of what’s going on in the Arab world. They describe the foundations on which a new order might be built — economic and socio-political. They’re both contrarian, in that they challenge the pessimism of the moment, when democrats seem to be on the run and demagogues are back in the saddle.
The first is “Startup Rising: The Entrepreneurial Revolution Remaking the Middle East.” It’s written by Christopher M. Schroeder, a former colleague at the Washington Post Co. and a longtime friend. Chris is a startup guy, and over the last three years he has traveled the Arab world looking for kindred spirits.
What Schroeder found will startle even the most jaded observer. Despite the turmoil of the last few years, a new generation of entrepreneurs is inventing products, getting them funded, and bringing them to market. Even the dead weight of repressive government and religious intolerance hasn’t stopped this new breed.
Schroeder offers compelling illustrations to buttress his case: He wanders around a “celebration of entrepreneurship” in Dubai and finds a Saudi woman who has designed and marketed a line of iPod accessories, a Syrian who has created a computer-animation venture and a Kuwaiti who created a mobile game application that has been downloaded by more than a million users.
These Arab startup kids may be buffeted by political events, but they are tightly connected to the global technological base that Karl Marx woodenly described as the “means of production.” Schroeder tours the business landscape like an open-air bazaar: altibbi.com is an Arab version of WebMD; souq.com is the biggest online retailer in the region with 500 employees and 8 million customers; namshi.com is an online shoe retailer, like Zappos, that sells 12,000 different styles of shoes. A third of the Arab tech startups are founded by women, says Schroeder, a figure unheard of in Silicon Valley.
The base for rapid economic growth is there, in embryo, across the Arab world. But what about a political culture of tolerance and rule of law that could allow these businesses to flourish?
Here I turn to the second book on my contrarian summer reading list. It’s called “Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict,” written by Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Stephan. It was brought to my attention by Peter Ackerman, the founding chair of the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict.
In this study, Chenoweth and Stephan analyzed 323 resistance movements from 1900 to 2006. What they discovered was that non-violent campaigns of civil resistance (including protests, strikes and boycotts) succeeded 53 percent of the time, but violent campaigns only 26 percent. They also showed that, because of higher levels of citizen participation, nonviolent movements were 10 times more likely to lead to a democratic result.
Apply this analysis to the Arab revolutions. There’s hope for Egypt today, Ackerman argues, because the mass protest movement known as Tamarod mobilized 22 million Egyptians this spring to sign a petition demanding the recall of President Mohamed Morsi. That’s about two-thirds more people than voted for Morsi in the first place. Tamarod’s roots are in the nonviolent protest movement called Kefaya, created in 2004, which started the national mobilization that finally toppled Hosni Mubarak.
Egypt had never seen a mass nonviolent campaign like Tamarod, and it provided the backbone of popular support for the generals who ousted Morsi. This doesn’t excuse the generals’ heavy-handed tactics, but it reminds us that the open, diverse civic movement represented by Tamarod might prepare the ground for a real, working democracy in a way that the closed, conspiratorial Muslim Brotherhood couldn’t.
As for Syria and Libya, this study suggests that change agents there should embrace nonviolent resistance tactics.
There’s a riptide of counterrevolution on the Arab surface, to be sure. But these books remind us of the deeper currents in Arab economic and political life.