Micah Levinson, Washington resident fellow at the Middle East Forum, spoke to participants in an August 10 Middle East Forum Webinar (video) about prospects for successful revolutions in the Middle East.
By "revolution," Levinson means "mass mobilizations" of citizens resulting in "the transfer of power over control of the state." The "ingredients of those that are successful" are fairly straightforward.
The first is widespread economic disaffection. "Economic discontent incites mass revolutionary mobilization," said Levinson, pointing to Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution as a paradigmatic example. The Shah's economic reforms in a country suffering under severe inflation during the 1970s alienated various segments of the Iranian population already disaffected with the corruption and "profligacy" of the Shah's regime. The demonstrators in Iran were influenced by the religious component of Ayatollah Khomeini's Islamic revolutionary rhetoric, but what swayed them was the belief that Sharia "protected the economically disadvantaged," and that the clerics were less corruptible than secular leaders.
Economic motives were also evident in Tunisia's successful revolution that touched off the 2011 "Arab Spring." Tunisia was plagued by low-income jobs, strikes, unemployment, and political repression under the authoritarian rule of President Ben Ali. Although Ben Ali instituted privatization reforms in the economy, benefits largely favored a politically connected elite. Similar to conditions during pre-revolution Iran under the Shah, the population's resentment of the president and his family's extravagant lifestyle contributed to the success of the mass mobilization-initiated revolution that led to Ben Ali's fall during the popular uprising of the Jasmine Revolution in 2011. Similar conditions prevailed in Egypt prior to its successful 2011 revolution and in Syria prior to the mass mobilization that failed to unseat Syrian President Basher al-Assad later that year.
However, severe economic discontent is not by itself sufficient to produce mass mobilization, let alone successful regime change. Most regimes have security forces powerful enough to physically "preclude mobs from ousting a government," said Levinson. To succeed, revolutionaries need either to solicit defections or at least passive noncompliance from regime security forces, or to build a "guerrilla movement with a territorial base" operating outside of the government's control. Defections in the security apparatus are far less likely if the soldiers share the regime's "ideological zeal" or belong to "a different religious or ethnic group than the revolutionaries."
In Syria, the military remained largely loyal to the government because it was dominated by Assad's minority Alawite sect. Had the mostly Sunni Muslim revolutionaries succeeded, there could well have been a genocide of Alawites – a powerful motivation to stick together. Similar calculations led Bahrain's Sunni-dominated security apparatus to remain steadfast in the face of mass mobilization by the country's Shi'a majority during the Arab Spring. In Tunisia and Egypt, by contrast, there were no ethno-sectarian divisions between protestors and regime security forces.
In Iran today, despite widespread demonstrations, economic dislocation, rising prices, inflation, and other conditions ripe for revolution, mass movements have failed to oust the ayatollahs because the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and other security bodies have remained loyal. This is partly due to ethnic solidarity among Persians, who constitute around 60% of the population and dominate the regime apparatus, but it is mostly due to the high level of ideological indoctrination within the IRGC. Other factors, such as the IRGC's grip on the Iranian economy, also bolster its cohesion.
Meanwhile, Iranian revolutionaries have little capacity to organize armed resistance outside of the areas controlled by the regime. There are few small guerrilla groups in remote areas of Iran organized by Baluchi and Kurdish minorities, but they don't appeal to the majority of Iranians. Consequently, Levinson sees Iran as "virtually impervious" to revolution.
The most promising prospects for revolution in the Middle East today are in Lebanon, according to Levinson. Mass demonstrations have been frequent amid the country's economic meltdown this year. Lebanese security forces lack a unifying sectarian or ideological identity contrasting with that of the protestors; their largely peaceful reaction to mass mobilization suggests "an unwillingness to preserve the corrupt elite there." However, the Iranian-backed Shi'a Muslim Hezbollah militia remains the most powerful military force in Lebanon and could act to stave off challenges to the power structure.
Marilyn Stern is communications coordinator at the Middle East Forum.