Recent discussions here at KP have revealed some misunderstandings of what constitutes a “revolution” and what the prospects for democracy are after an authoritarian regime collapse or withdrawal. Specifically, there appears to be some confusion in the minds of some readers as to the difference between revolutions and revolts, uprisings, coups d’etat and other forms of regime change. Most worrisome, there appears to be a belief, apparently shared by many in the Western Press, that revolutions are intrinsically good things and lead to democracy. Although I have tried to dispel some of these notions in the commentary about other posts, let me address the issue directly and explain some dynamics of regime change that impact on the direction of said change and the prospects of democracy after the collapse or withdrawal of an authoritarian regime.
First of all, let it be clear: Revolutions are not just a transfer of political power. They are a form of mass collective violence mobilized against a political regime and its repressive apparatus that results in the overthrow of that regime and Â its replacement with a new political, social and economic order. Second, no revolution in the 20th century led to democracy as a direct result. Ever. What revolutions do is replace one authoritarian regime with another. This is due in part to the fact that what it takes to be a successful revolutionary leader is ruthless determination, ideological zealotry, supreme organizational, strategic and tactical skills in both the armed and propaganda fields, and an unwillingness to compromise in pursuit of victory. That is not the stuff that genuine democrats are made of. In fact, the very traits that make for good democratic leadership are anathema to revolutionary leaders. Hence, if one has a preferential bias in favour of democracy, then revolutions are not the best way to achieve it. If one is less interested in democratic outcomes and more interested in imposing a preferred social construct, then revolutions are the best way to achieve that end.
The other major reason why revolutions lead to authoritarian outcomes is because the defeated authoritarian regime has allies and supporters inside and outside the country that will continue to attempt to block revolutionary reforms after the change in power. These counter-revolutionary forces include former opposition factions that do not share the militant revolutionary goals even though they participated in a tactical alliance with hard-liners against the ancien regime. Confronted by a more radical agenda for change than they anticipated or are prepared to accept, such moderate opposition factions tend to switch sides and propose a moderate counter-revolutionary platform that only serves to strengthen the resolve of the revolutionary hard-liners.
Needless to say, for a revolution to be successful the opposition must be organised and have mass support, while the old regime must suffer decisive internal fractures, especially within its security forces and in the relationship between the repressive apparatuses and the regime elite. So long as there is ideological unity and corporate discipline within the armed forces and other security agencies and the regime elite retain the loyalty of those specialised in the management of organised violence, then no amount of external pressure will topple it. This is true even if some regime leaders are sacrificed to appease public discontent and cooptive reforms or concessions are offered to mollify specific grievances and induce opposition acceptance of the “new” regime (which itself is a divide-and-conquer tactic used on the opposition that allows to the regime to more clearly target intransigent factions within the former). As part of this, a leadership coup or putsch may occur in which despised individuals are replaced by more nondescript or less tainted people who are nevertheless committed members of the ruling elite.
Thus, revolutions are neither always progressive or democratic, as the Iranian Revolution demonstrates. For those interested in seeing a democratic outcome to situations of authoritarian regime crisis amid popular unrest, there is actually a baseline formula that needs to obtain, and it falls far short of revolution. Let me explain.
Authoritarian regimes and their oppositions can be broadly divided into hard-line and soft-line (militant Â and moderate) factions. Hard-liners in the regime are usually the political leadership and those directly engaged in acts of repression during its tenure (which can extend down to street level police, paramilitary thugs, intelligence agents and, if complicit, elements of the military itself). Soft-line elements of the authoritarian regime are those who benefited from it but who did not have visible decision-making roles and those uninvolved in repression, as well as the minority few who genuinely worked from the inside to promote reform.
Hard-liners in the opposition are ideological militants and those who suffered directly at the hands of the authoritarian regime. Their suffering can be physical or economic and their numbers depend on how repressive and criminal the regime was in its dealings with political opponents and non-allied economic and social agents. For the hard-line opposition, the thirst is for revenge, not reconciliation. On the other hand, soft-liners in the opposition are all those who, while having a dislike for the authoritarian elite, did not suffer directly at its hands. For them, the issue is not so much revenge as it is change.
The formula for a democratic transition stemming from authoritarian collapse or withdrawal is simple. If hard-liners dominate both the authoritarian elite and the opposition, the prospects for a democratic outcome are negligible and civil war is probable. If hard-liners dominate the regime and soft-liners dominate the opposition, then regime continuity with minor reforms is the likely outcome. If soft-liners dominate the regime and hard-liners dominate the opposition, the reforms will be more significant but regime continuity will most likely occur simply because of the fear of retribution amongst the regime elite and its supporters when confronted with a hard-line opposition victory.
The only situation is which a transition to democracy is a potential outcome is one where soft-liners dominate in both the regime and opposition. The trouble for these actors is that they must fend off and eventually subordinate their hard-line counterparts while at the same time negotiating the terms and conditions for a transfer of power to openly elected authority. That is a very delicate matter that involves, among other things, an “ethical compromise” whereby both sides agree not to prosecute most of those responsible for state atrocities or insurrectionary violence (in other words, although some notorious figures may be offered up as sacrificial lambs by both sides, the bulk of those involved in human rights abuses and non-state terrorism will walk free). The examples of the Southern Cone of Latin America, Central America and South Africa are illustrative in this regard. If anything, prosecution of human rights violators must wait until the new regime is more or less consolidated in its institutional structure and in the transparent application of universal law. That can take decades.
Hard-liners on both sides will see the soft-liner negotiations for what they are and move to denounce them as sell-outs and lackeys. The more secret the negotiations between the soft-liners on each side the more the minority hard-liners will resort to obstructionist and provocative tactics to thwart any agreement. This can involve internecine as well as partisan bloodshed. The more the hard-liners can thwart soft-liner agreement, the less likely it will be that a peaceful transition of power to a democratically-elected authority will occur.
The strategic position of the country in question will impact on the influence of external actors. In strategically inconsequential countries, external actors will be less inclined to involve themselves in domestic crises and will prefer to observe an internal resolution so long as it does not impact on their national or material interests. Conversely, in countries that have strategic import or geopolitical significance, the more likely it is that external actors, acting individually or in consort, will involve themselves in efforts to shape the outcome. For them, expending diplomatic capital is necessary because of the stakes involved, especially when a transition outcome could have deleterious repercussive effects on regional or international stability.
And that, in sum, is why democratic outcomes of popular revolts against authoritarian regimes are less probable than many hope for. Besides the non-democratic outcome of genuine revolutions involving the overthrow of an authoritarian elite, the dynamics of regime extrication and replacement are such that the more likely outcome of a transition short of revolutionary overthrow is authoritarian regime restoration under different guise, limited democratisation with ongoing authoritarian elite veto power, authoritarian reaffirmation or high-or low-level civil war.
Best to keep that in mind when observing recent events in the Middle East.