The Arc of Revolution: Egypt and Tunisia's Uphill Battle to Democracy

CAIRO, Egypt -- The past several days have seen Egypt in the throes of its own Jasmine Revolution. Throngs of protestors disenchanted with the regime took to the streets, burning tires and chanting "Freedom," and "Oh Mubarak, Saudi Arabia awaits you," a reference to the current hiding place of Tunisia's ousted strongman Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. In the media, these developments have been portrayed as a victory for democracy and a sign of more popular mobilization to come. As the Christian Science Monitor put it on January 21, "The arc of history is for more democracy, not less. The next chapter may have started in Tunisia." The only question now that the revolution has spread to Cairo is "where will democracy break out next?"

But for all the excitement surrounding Tunisia's Jasmine Revolution and its intellectual progeny -- the protests in Cairo, Alexandria, Suez and, as of this morning, the Yemeni capital of Sanaa -- there are a number of factors that portend against the successful consolidation of democracy post revolution.

First, until the collapse of the Soviet Union, political scientists generally agreed that revolutionary transitions were unlikely to result in democracy. More often than not, they simply resulted in the replacement of one autocratic regime with another -- the French Revolution of 1789 being the archetypal case. Much of "third wave" theory -- named for the wave of democratic transitions in Europe, Latin America, and to a lesser extent Asia and Africa during the 1970s and 80s -- reaffirmed the problematic nature of revolutions and pointed instead to negotiated or "pacted transitions" as the most promising route to a democratic future. These reforma pactadas, exemplified by the Spanish and Chilean experiences, were essentially elite affairs that involved minimal popular mobilization. Indeed, popular mobilization a la Tunisia was viewed as a clear impediment to democracy.

The "color revolutions" of the former Soviet bloc inevitably changed the way we think about mass mobilization. In the early 2000s, popular uprisings in Serbia, Georgia and Ukraine succeeded not only in ousting repressive governments, but also in consolidating more or less democratic regimes in their aftermath. This led Michael McFaul, a Stanford professor and current Special Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs, to argue in a game-changing article in World Politics that, "It is... revolutionary transitions -- the mode of transition thought to be least likely to facilitate democratic outcomes by third wave theorists -- that have actually produced the most stable and consolidated democracies in the postcommunist world."

Setting aside the fact that many of the democratic gains in the former soviet bloc have since been rolled back, the idea that revolutions in the Middle East will follow Ukrainian or Serbian trajectory is inherently suspect. The defining feature of the "fourth wave" of transitions that occurred after the disintegration of the Soviet Union is that they led to both dictatorship and democracy with fairly equal incidence. Indeed, for every Ukrainian Orange Revolution that ushered in a new era of democracy, there was Kyrgyzstani Tulip Revolution that resulted in more violence, corruption, and political repression. Moreover, in most models that were developed to explain these transitions -- McFaul's included -- democracy resulted only where the pro-democratic opposition was stronger than the anti-democratic old guard. This may seem like a tautology, but it has profound implications for the Tunisian and Egyptian cases. After decades of entrenched authoritarian rule, the opposition in both Tunisia and Egypt has been marginalized to the extent that it would be literally incapable of running any government it inherited. A quote from Slim Amamou, a former dissident and the new Tunisian youth minister, says it all: "Not everybody can be a novice in politics in government like me."

In Egypt, the power differential between the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP), which strong-armed its way to 97% of the vote in the recent parliamentary elections, is even greater. The Mubarak regime enjoys a cozy relationship with the business sector (Taher Helmy, the president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Egypt, and Ahmed Ezz, a notorious steel magnate, are both NDP officials) and billions of dollars in US aid with which it can buy political support -- directly with bribes or indirectly with its massive and brutal security apparatus. It is unlikely, therefore, that Egypt's rag-tag collection of democratic opposition forces will gain the upper hand against the authoritarian old guard, ostensibly foreclosing the pathway from revolution to democracy on the postcommunist transitional model.

Leaving aside comparisons to Eastern Europe, there is yet another reason to think that revolution does not foreshadow a democratic future in Egypt or Tunisia. The Middle East has a rich revolutionary history -- from the Free Officers that overthrew monarchies in Egypt and Iraq in 1952 and 1958, respectively, to Qaddafi's coup d'etat in Libya in 1969, to the massive popular mobilization that enabled the overthrow of the Pahlavi Dynasty in Iran in 1979 -- but nowhere did revolution a democracy make.

Revolution in this region -- and everywhere except a few outliers in Eastern Europe, for that matter -- is perhaps better understood in the classical sense: a cyclical process in which one arrives back at the original starting place, rather than a sudden and pervasive change in political reality. Thus, the arc of history may be for more democracy, but the arc of revolution is simply for more of the same.

Ty McCormick is a Presidential Intern at the American University in Cairo. A graduate of Stanford University, his writing has appeared in the Huffington Post, Boston Herald, and the Washington Post.