Monday, February 28, 2011

The New Revolutions are Same Same but Different

Are we seeing a new era of revolutions these days, revolutions of a style we have never seen before? Is the internet changing it all? Or are we just witnessing something that has happened many times before, just without social media, or with a different type of social media, different from Facebook, Twitter, Blogs and Emails?


Jeffrey Wasserstrom muses about these questions in "Media and Revolution 2.0: Tiananmen to Tahrir" and compares Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiabao, who suggested that "The Internet is God's gift to China" to Evgeny Morozov (@evgenymorozov on Twitter) who used to be an internet enthusiast but now argues in his book "The Net Delusion" that "Western do-gooders may have missed how the internet also entrenches dictators, threatens dissidents, and makes it harder - not easier - to promote democracy". Wasserstrom then goes on citing Adam Gopnik who, in an article for "The New Yorker", offers a tripartite categorization scheme for thinking about media and revolution. Gopnik says that analysts of the internet often take an optimistic “Never Better” approach, a pessimistic “Better Never” one or make we’ve-been-here-before sorts of “Ever Was” claims. "Better Never" of course meaning it was never better than now, its partisans highlighting the solidarity-creating aspects of digital formats. "Never Ever" proponents in return stress the alienating and fragmenting effects of the internet. And the "Ever Was" gurus calmly claim that we have seen it all before, only in a different wrapper. 

Wasserstrom clearly chooses the "Ever Was" camp for himself - and so does yours truly - saying that at the end of the day, revolutions are and always have been about one thing: convince large groups of people to take to the streets, gather in central squares and participate in symbolically charged performances.

But that might not be enough. In "Revolution and the Muslim World", the ever realistic, anti-enthusiastic, no bull STRATFOR brings everyone back to reality. What are a revolution's key events? And who to watch in a revolutionary setting? The large groups of people that have taken to the streets? No, says Stratfor, you don't watch the demonstrators, you watch the men with the guns, the military, the police. Quoting Stratfor: "The revolutionaries cannot defeat armed men. But if those armed men, in whole or part, come over to the revolutionary side, victory is possible. And this is the key event. In Bahrain, the troops fired on demonstrators and killed some. The demonstrators dispersed and then were allowed to demonstrate — with memories of the gunfire fresh. This was a revolution contained. In Egypt, the military and police opposed each other and the military sided with the demonstrators, for complex reasons obviously. Personnel change, if not regime change, was inevitable. In Libya, the military has split wide open. When that happens, you have reached a branch in the road. If the split in the military is roughly equal and deep, this could lead to civil war. Indeed, one way for a revolution to succeed is to proceed to civil war, turning the demonstrators into an army, so to speak. That’s what Mao did in China. Far more common is for the military to split. If the split creates an overwhelming anti-regime force, this leads to the revolution’s success. Always, the point to look for is thus the police joining with the demonstrators. It is this act, the military and police coming over to the side of the demonstrators, that makes or breaks a revolution. Therefore, looking at the students on TV tells you little. Watching the soldiers tells you much more."

Tough business that is, a revolution. Will the current revolutions in Arab countries - Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and where else? - succeed? Stephen M. Walt, professor at Harvard university and author, together with John Mearsheimer, of the much disputed "The Israel Lobby and the U.S. Foreign Policy" is rather skeptical. He didn't think that the Tunisia uprising would spread to other countries in the first place. Now, with Egypt on TV and Libya, Bahrain and Yemen in the news, he takes one step back and writes a new post in Foreign Policy: "What I got wrong about the Arab revolutions and why I'm not losing sleep over it." What he got wrong for instance was that he underestimated the internal resentment in countries like Egypt. For Walt it is now clear that resentment against some of these governments was deeper and wider than we (well, actually he means "he" - and he clearly is not on Twitter) recognized. But let us nevertheless be cautious, writes Walt, don't let our emotions mar our judgment, let us remain open to the possibility that 2011 could be, to paraphrase Trevelyan, "a great turning point in [Arab] history, at which history fails to turn". 

Let's paraphrase Doris Day then to help us out. Very fitting, and one of the many wicked ideas by one of the smartest directors in film history, that Alfred Hitchcock used "Que sera sera, whatever will be, will be" in his 1956 movie "The Man who  know too much". Doris Day both sang the title song and acted in the movie, playing the main female character, Josephine Conway McKenna. You never can, because you never will, know too much. Or as Stephen Walt's favorite Yogi said: "Prediction is very hard. Especially about the future."

Well, my dear readers, you guessed it: Here's Doris Day with "che sera sera".