The Elements Of A Successful Revolution Egypt's government continues to hold on to power after two weeks of sometimes violent protests. History offers a guide to what makes a revolution more likely to succeed — or fail. Iran's popular uprising, for example, succeeded in 1979, but China crushed the 1989 uprising in Tiananmen Square.
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The Elements Of A Successful Revolution

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The Elements Of A Successful Revolution

The Elements Of A Successful Revolution

The Elements Of A Successful Revolution

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Egypt's government continues to hold on to power after two weeks of sometimes violent protests. History offers a guide to what makes a revolution more likely to succeed — or fail. Iran's popular uprising, for example, succeeded in 1979, but China crushed the 1989 uprising in Tiananmen Square.


Shadi Hamid, director of research, Bookings Doha Center
Simon Schama, professor, Columbia University


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

After two weeks of unrest, Egypt remains in crisis. President Hosni Mubarak proposes to step down but only after he completes his term in office. Demonstrators demand his immediate departure. Some opposition leaders are talking with the government; others refuse.

Is the situation analogous to the people power that toppled Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines or to Tiananmen Square, where communist authorities suppressed pro-democracy protests, to Tehran 1979 or Tehran 2009? What makes one revolution succeed and another fail? Why do some achieve democratic goals while others become new kinds of tyrannies?

Later, Buzz Bissinger joins us on The Opinion Page to argue that violence makes pro football our most popular sport and why we need to keep it that way.

But first, historians, why do some revolutions fail while others succeed? 800-989-8255. Email You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And we begin with Simon Schama, University Professor of History at Columbia, who joins us from our bureau in New York. Nice to have you back on the program.

Mr. SIMON SCHAMA (University Professor of History, Columbia University): Thank you.

CONAN: And I wonder: As you looked at history, and I know you're a particular expert on the French Revolution, what is it that makes one revolution succeed and another fail?

Mr. SCHAMA: Well, revolutions are acts of force. You know, it's when a lot of us celebrate the - it's an insurgency of people that you tend to forget, actually, the tough realities of what revolutions actually are over the centuries, since the French really invented the modern form in 1789.

Isn't it striking? How many times, Neal, have you heard the word carnival-like atmosphere, actually? Yeah, can we retire that please?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SCHAMA: Carnivals are not revolutions, actually, and the extraordinary thing which is sort of moving about Tahrir Square is the persistence and tenacity of all the people there.

But weirdly, if you are too carnival-like, and you actually don't redirect and harness all that popular energy strategically against the institutions of power, you end up, actually, sitting in your own prison. It looks like a carnival, but actually, life goes on around you, and you become a kind of museum of failed revolutionary energy.

CONAN: Can you give us an example of somewhere where that happened?

Mr. SCHAMA: Well, it happened a little bit actually in 1968 in Paris. I was -my only experience sort of really being gassed for liberty, really, along -inadvertently, I have to say, well, not entirely inadvertently. Well, let's not get into my dalliance with insurrection.

But in 1968, do you remember the streets were full of a very sort of disparate coalition of the disaffected; led, of course, by students, by young people, then, as well and into challenging the authority of General de Gaulle's state in the Fifth Republic.

Into the mix came the trade unions, and for a while, workers and students, the kind of dream ideal of the revolutionary romance, actually looked as though it was going to bring the Fifth Republic down.

At that point, General de Gaulle, not to give you a lengthy history, actually made contact with the head of the army, camped out in eastern France. But he could see already, as could his prime minister, George Pompidou, that really this group had nothing in common.

And once the government, in effect, paid off the union side of the coalition of the angry, leaving - what was left was a kind of a theater, a spectacle. It wasn't even a carnival. And ultimately, most people in France actually got tired of what they thought of as student shenanigans.

So, you know, Woody Allen at the end of "Annie Hall," a crucial source for us in thinking about this, says: Love is like a shark: Unless it moves forward, it dies. The same actually is true of revolutions.

Revolutions thrive on the symbolic and the strategic. They do need symbolic humiliations. That's why all the emphasis is on: We will not talk to the government, Suleiman, until Mubarak is so humiliated that he steps down altogether. But symbolic action won't work unless you have a very strong strategic sense of actually where you can actually jam up the works of the functioning of government.

And in that sense, it was almost a sort of a bad sign for the revolution in Cairo, that the banks started opening again today, even though the stock exchange.

CONAN: And in that sense, does not that strategic sense require organization, require leadership, which is one of the things that seems to be lacking in Tahrir Square?

Mr. SCHAMA: That's exactly right. The European experience is, you know, sort of windbags for liberty, like me. Professors, students, professional writers had no trouble at all in constituting themselves as provisional revolutionary committees, committees for the dawn of democracy, committees against despotism.

Please, you know, the extraordinary thing is we're a bit committee-starved, a sentence I thought I'd never hear myself utter, in the case of Egypt. Even if it is going to be very provisional, what you don't want is simply a relatively, you know, sectarian group like the Muslim Brotherhood to constitute the only group that know actually what they want out of political and constitutional change.

CONAN: Well, joining us now is Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center. He's an expert on democratization in the Middle East. He joins us from the BBC studios at Western House in London. Nice to have you with us today.

Mr. SHADI HAMID (Director of Research, Brookings Doha Center): Thanks for having me.

CONAN: And does history, in your opinion, give any guidance as to what may come to pass in Egypt?

Mr. HAMID: Yeah. Transitions usually work in a particular way. You have protestors on the ground that are pushing hard, that have, in some sense, uncompromising goals. As we see in Egypt, the protestors do not want to back down from the demand that Mubarak step down.

Once you have - so you have that, but in parallel, you have opposition elites, and they're usually not the people who are in the square protesting, and you have negotiated pacts that really happen in back-door deals between the elites and the regime forces.

And I think that's what we're seeing now, where you have this, for example, this so-called committee of wise men that is negotiating, presumably, on behalf of the protestors, even though they haven't been authorized to do so.

And we're seeing a proliferation of these committees of independents and opposition elites who are trying to get a piece of the pie. And again, we see a disconnect between the protestors in Tahrir Square and the people who are in the rooms negotiating with the regime.

In other words, transitions are messy, they're uncertain, and oftentimes the protestors, or the opposition more generally, will have to make compromises they otherwise wouldn't make.

CONAN: Well, the elites may make those compromises on their behalf without telling them, and thereby lies a danger. They may accept them; they may not.

Mr. HAMID: Right, but protestors won't, at least some of them will not accept what comes out of these deals between both sides. And that's why they're likely to continue protesting, and that seems to be the plan right now, to continue having a presence in Tahrir Square really indefinitely. But that's not really a strategy.

And that's been one of the big questions: What do the protestors want to achieve? How do they plan to achieve it? What are the mechanisms for change? It's one thing to bring hundreds of thousands onto the streets. It's another, to translate that into effective, tangible political action, and that seems to be lacking right now.

Mr. SCHAMA: Can I come in for a second, Neal?

CONAN: Simon Schama, go ahead, please.

Mr. SCHAMA: This is so interesting. You know, the European tradition, really because, you know, the history of the French Revolution is so imprinted, generation after generation. It was important for the Russians in 1917 and so on.

There was already an education in exactly this problem, the problem being that those who constitute themselves as elite committees actually only have the cards they can play when they can mobilize popular anger out there in the streets.

But the people who are, you know, who are actually themselves part of the demonstration of popular anger, can't do anything with it unless they do as the politician says. So they have to - what Egypt is going through, it seems to me from a great distance, is a kind of improvised education in that.

At some point, and this is why, you know, sort of why the Suleiman and who knows what's happen in the army command, whether it's divided or united, are sitting there waiting and watching for the moment when the committee are - you know, can actually constitute, they can actually plug in to the energy they're getting from Tahrir Square.

And the people in Tahrir Square understand it's pointless staying there unless they have a plan of action for the politicians to go forward. And that's a real kind of education on the spot, which is very difficult. It's fraught with danger, and if you divide those two forces, you'll find someone in the army will drive one of those tanks right through it.

CONAN: And Shadi Hamid, that's the - the word army is an interesting one, and it connects a lot of revolutions. Which side does the army select? And is the army unified? And again, the idea that we in the United States have, the purposes of armies are to fight and win wars, not necessarily true in much of the world, where the purposes of armies are to keep the regime in power.

Mr. HAMID: Well, yeah. What's interesting about the army in the Egyptian case is that in the initial days of the protest, there was a lot of euphoria about the military siding with the protestors and playing, essentially, the same role it played in Tunisia: an honorable role of protector of the people and refusing to shoot and all of that.

I think we got the military a little bit wrong in Egypt in that respect. Yes, they did play an honorable role in terms of not shooting or refusing to shoot, but at the end of the day, they still are part of the regime structure, and that's what we're seeing the last few days.

CONAN: They refused to protect the people against the pro-Mubarak protestors.

Mr. HAMID: Exactly. So that's where we start to see - there was some confusion. Is the military with the protestors? Is it with the regime? At the end of the day, it benefits quite a bit from the status quo. Let's keep in mind that the new vice president is a senior military man, former army general.

So that was part of a regime effort to consolidate control over the military, that appointment as well as the appointment of other security military types in the positions of interior minister and prime minister.

So now the army seems to be saying: Well, protestors, we understand your demands, we see where you're coming from, but now Mubarak has made concessions, we're moving in a positive direction, it's now time for you to go back home, and let's get this country back on track and back to normal life.

And that seems to be where the military is right now. They don't seem to be very sympathetic to this idea of even more changes or radical change, and that's why they seem to be coalescing behind Omar Suleiman, the vice president, right now.

And that's where we really see the start of this so-called counter-revolution, which I'd say, began on Wednesday, after really the euphoria and jubilation of Tuesday night, where I think a lot of people felt Mubarak would fall any moment.

This is not a regime to be underestimated, and they have done a fairly impressive job in recent days of regaining some of their lost momentum.

CONAN: We're talking with Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center, with us from London; and with Simon Schama, University Professor at Columbia, an historian and an expert on the French Revolution. Why do some revolutions succeed, Tehran 1979? Why do some people-power movements utterly fail, Tiananmen? Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

In Egypt today, members of the Muslim Brotherhood threatened to pull out of talks with the government is President Mubarak does not resign. The group was one of the few willing to negotiate. President Mubarak offered some concessions but insists he will stay until his term ends in September.

Whether the protests lead to a more representative government remains to be seen, but history gives us some clues as to why some revolutions are more successful than others.

Historians, why do some revolutions fail? Why do others succeed? 800-989-8255. Email You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Our guests are Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center; and historian Simon Schama, University Professor at Columbia in New York. And let's get a caller on the line. We'll start with Francine(ph), Francine with us from Denver.

FRANCINE (Caller): Hi. Revolutions succeed just as an authoritarian regime begins to liberalize. In other words, those regimes that truly crack down put out any sparks immediately. For example, the first Iranian revolution happened when the shah was under pressure to give some civil rights and loosen up and not be so brutal. And that's the moment when a revolution can happen. Had the army been called out, and had they gone out on the Egyptian streets and cracked heads and have horrible injuries and murders, there would be no situation at the moment. I mean, that's a horrible thing to think, but it seems that that's the case.

CONAN: Simon Schama, certainly in the Bolshevik case or the Russian case, the transitional government there provided some, what Francine would say, some civil liberties, some change and then gave way to the Bolsheviks.

Mr. SCHAMA: Francine is exactly right. Before the March Revolution, actually, of course, there had been a great period of liberalization, the creation of a representative Duma, which was sort of an apprenticeship for jockeying among opposition groups in Russia.

It's also the case, as Alexis de Tocqueville reminds us always in his eternal wisdom, that actually the old regime in France was not the kind of arthritic tyranny. It had illusions of its own liberalization.

So she's absolutely right. The issue, however, is: Because of those liberal moments - and one could say, actually, that even though the Mubarak regime certainly hadn't liberalized its state security apparatus, we are talking about an Egypt with a fairly respectable performance and economic growth.

We're not talking about an Egypt absolutely stuck. For all the numbers of the destitute in Egypt, mostly the economic pain was felt about the young, the people who are on the streets.

So the issue is, really: When you're in this period of relative modernization, how does the leader present himself, essentially, as supreme nationalist, the incarnation of the country? It's always a danger when you're old and decrepit, and you somehow don't seem to represent Egypt.

And in the Egyptian case, the army, going way back to the uprisings of 1882 against the British and the French, the army has always seen itself as the cradle of reasserted national dignity, three wars against Israel and so on.

So it is the case of the army, in their back rooms, trying to find a way in which some figure or some force can come forward and take on board the constitutional reforms which are clearly absolutely critical to an Egyptian national regeneration without simply surrendering power over the process to the street.

CONAN: And Shadi Hamid, let me ask you about a transitional figure in Iran who's written, recently, that after his experience as president, after the 1979 revolution - Abolhassan Bani-Sadr we're talking about - he said one of the lessons he's learned, as he'd hoped to lead a democratic movement. Well, one of the things you never do is form a revolutionary guard.

Mr. HAMID: Right, if we're talking - certainly the IRGC in Iran, the revolutionary guard, has played, you know, a role that I think many of us are aware of in terms of taking Iran in a very different direction than some of the original revolutionaries intended. And I think Iran's a very interesting case of how a revolution gets out of hand and starts out liberal and democratic and becomes something altogether different.

Iran is an instructive case, although it's not one that I think is particularly relevant when we're talking about Egypt. And I think there's been a lot of comparisons made in recent days, especially about the Muslim Brotherhood and the alarmism that we're hearing from Washington, that this might start out as a liberal democratic revolution, but then the Islamists will hijack it.

So I think Iran has had the ability to, I think, taint our understanding of how change occurs and has really contributed to a paranoia about Islamists. And, I mean, we can certainly have a discussion about the Brotherhood, but suffice it to say that the Brotherhood is a relatively moderate and mainstream organization that isn't even nearly comparable to Khomeini and the people around him in '79.

CONAN: Obviously, each case is different, and clearly, one is a Sunni country, one is a Shiite country, very different traditions about the engagement of clerics in temporal structures, if you will.

But Simon Schama, nevertheless, the Brotherhood - the Muslim Brotherhood - very well-organized, at least in part because of repeated and consistent and persistent attempts to suppress it. So, organized into resilient kinds of political structures.

And there is a history in all kinds of revolutions of resilient minorities, small groups, but better-organized groups, taking advantage.

Mr. SCHAMA: Yeah, I do agree with the criticism of alarmism about the Muslim Brethren. They are, you know, have been ferociously condemned by al-Qaeda as being insufficiently jihadist.

However, you are absolutely right, Neal. It's true, wherever you look, revolutions, as one of the Jehhondone(ph) minority in the national convention in France famously said, tend to devour their own children.

And it's very hard to look at all-out revolutions and find ones - the Central European velvet revolutions were a case in point because Soviet military power decided to abdicate - that don't end up in the dictatorship of very well-organized minority groups.

That was the case of the Bolsheviks who, when they were in power, you know, immediately dissolved the provisional constituent assembly and persecuted their opponents and locked them up. It was the case of Jacobean France. It was obviously the case in China.

And it certainly was the case - you could say that for all its fundamentalist, Islamic character in Iran - Iran was absolutely following the course, which popular revolutions, alas, often do.

Egypt is different - you know, it may be that it's Egypt's redeeming quality, having said it lacks a strategic sense of where it's going, is indeed its chaos, its sort of pluralistically chaotic quality right now. The Muslim Brethren do not, sort of - giving off a kind of particularly Bolshevik odor -they may teach themselves to adopt the cunning, the wait-and-see and then pounce game that the Bolsheviks did in 1917. That remains to be seen. But I will say that what usually, you know, enables such tough, well-organized minorities to put themselves in the position of a dictatorship is usually the foreign intervention, the threat of a foreign war, the sense of a foreign conspiracy.

Those - this happened in Iran. Chinese had fought a civil war. It certainly happened in revolutionary France. That is the classic template. If somebody from the outside puts a great, hobnailed boot in the stomach of the revolution, generally power falls to the most militant of the opposition.

Mr. HAMID: I have to disagree with a little bit, in the sense that the international factor in Egypt I think will work out in a different way. The U.S. is going to be involved in this transition. It already is, and that's what we're going to continue to see over the next year or two years. And it's very difficult to see how the Brotherhood or any other organization could pounce and really come into the political vacuum.

The U.S. is overseeing all of this, and all the parties involved in Egypt are very sensitive to the fact that the world is watching, the world cares, and that's why the Muslim Brotherhood is purposely playing a limited role, because they know that if they play a more visible role, that is going to frighten the international community, and particularly the U.S.

So I think for the foreseeable future, the Brotherhood is going to purposely limit its involvement in any interim or transitional government, because it knows that once it has more than a limited number of ministries, say, in a unity government, that is going to cause an international outcry. And I think the examples of failed revolutions in, say, Algeria 1991, '92, an example that I don't know enough of us remember; and also Hamas coming to power in 2006, Islamists have learned that sometimes it's better not to rule. The world isn't quite ready for Islamists just yet.

CONAN: Well, let's get a caller in.

Mr. SCHAMA: Just one very quick point.

CONAN: Very quickly, if you would.

Mr. SCHAMA: Very, very quick point. The issue is not America. It's Israel. It's if, for example, the Muslim Brotherhood came to power - not came to power, but shared power in such a way as to alarm the Israelis into something dramatic, that which is very, very unlikely, I think, very unlikely - that would be a classic revolutionary template for power going to the most militant inside Egypt.

CONAN: Let's get Silash(ph) on the line, Silash with us from Allegan in Michigan.

SILASH (Caller): Yeah, thank you for the opportunity.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

SILASH: Revolutions in the Islamic world tend to succeed or fail depending on which side the religious establishment weighs in. Could you please comment? For example, Ayatollah Khomeini is the obvious one. And now, in Tunisia, the religious leader who has been exiled for 22 years has come back. So please comment.

CONAN: Shadi Hamid?

Mr. HAMID: Sure. The religious leader that you're referring to in Tunisia is not, in fact, a religious leader. He's not a cleric. This is I think this is a misconception about much of the Arab world. The Muslim Brotherhood and Islamist groups in general are not clerical organization. They're almost never run by clerics. They actually usually don't have good relationships with the clerical establishment. The Brotherhood in Egypt is made up primarily of doctors, engineers, lawyers. It has very, very few preachers or clerics at its in its senior levels.

Actually, in fact, if we look at the establishment in the religious establishment in Egypt, they're largely with the regime only because they have to be. The religious establishment in Egypt is controlled by the regime. There isn't a separation of mosque and state, and that's something that we've seen in most of the Arab world throughout the 20th century. And that's why the religious establishment doesn't have the same kind of authority and respect it once did. And there are and that establishment is very much playing a minor role and not really just pretty much supporting the regime or coming up with patois that justify regime actions. So if anything, the rise of Islamism is actually counter to the religious establishments' preferences here.

CONAN: Thank you very much, Silash. Email from Paul in Grand Rapids. The Nietzchean concept of the ubermensch comes to mind given the examples of the French, Iranian and Bolshevik revolutions - I always like to get the ubermensch on the program. Tiananmen Square on one hand and Tahrir Square on the other, of those who rise above the law and take things into their own hands involving gratuitous bloodshed, get things done. Their ends justify their means. However, those that follow the rules, e.g., peaceful protests, are more susceptible to defeat at the hands of those who do not. The American revolutionary rights would be an anomalous example since the Americans did not run around executing all opposition and the established power structure. But we certainly did not follow the rules of the status quo. I wonder, Simon Schama.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SCHAMA: Yeah. If you want to I'm an untermensch really, actually not an ubermensch. So I'm completely flummoxed by...

CONAN: Maybe a middlemensch.

Mr. SCHAMA: But a middlemensch? Thank you, Neal. Yeah. I'm a bit flummoxed by that. If it means that revolutionary situations are ripe for the immergence of some trans-partisan figure, shall we say, it goes back to the point I was making about a figure possibly emerging from the ranks of the army who is prepared possibly to dispose of Mubarak, but present himself in the way in which Nasser did. Although the waft is really out of the I don't mean literally as inherent of waft, but represent themselves as a sort of symbol of the reborn Egyptian nation. That's, I suppose, always possible. But there's nothing guaranteed about revolutions.

Essentially, again, not to beat the issue over the head with it, it's usually in war time. Both revolutionary Russia and revolutionary France were beset by foreign invaders and it's usually which is not the case in Egypt. It's as your other guest said, it's usually in that situation where there's a sense of terrified, almost paranoid national emergency about what might happen to the people in the streets and the popular insurrection that a strong man emerges. There doesn't necessarily seem to be anything like that in the Egyptian situation that would make us that apocalyptic. I certainly hope not anyway.

CONAN: Historian Simon Schama, also with us Shadi Hamid of the Brookings Doha Center. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's go next to Al(ph) and Al is with us from Eugene in Oregon.

AL (Caller): Thank you very much. You know, I have a couple of question. One, could the revolution happen through nonviolence and now - known as the power of Twitter and Facebook? And the second question, what would happen to those young people of Tahrir Square from the government since it seems to be getting its footing?

CONAN: Can you give us an example, Al, of a nonviolent revolution that...

AL: Well, maybe in India.

CONAN: Well, Simon Schama...

Mr. SCHAMA: Yes, that is likely the one I was thinking of. Gandhi put such -such a lot of good points being made by the callers. The British were, thank goodness, victims of their own liberal hypocrisy in some sense. They wanted to believe, actually, that the raj could go on ruling in the interest of the masses of Indians. And Gandhi's extraordinary revolution - it is really rightly thought of, you know, maybe as a revolution. It was much more emphatically nonviolent, even than Nelson Mandela's in South Africa, was it's ability to mobilize millions of people in strikes and marches.

But it was - the extraordinary thing about the Gandhian movement after the First World War was that it was constantly on the move. One day, you know, one event would be a massive national general strike. Another would be a profound and symbolic march to the salt pans to the sea. And it was able to really torment the British by saying come and get us wherever we are in our masses. Imprison us, persecute us. It was an astonishing and I think rather kind of one-off example of a massively successful as I say, depended on this peculiarly, gentlemanly liberal, slightly hypocritical, self-mortification of conscience that the late British Empire had. You don't really have that in this case, so you don't really have it. It certainly don't have it in places like China or Iran.

CONAN: And important to remember, it was followed - yes, the British left peacefully...

Mr. SCHAMA: By violence, yes.

CONAN: ...followed by terrible violence in the partition, so.

Mr. SCHAMA: Yes. One has to say, for the most part, a peaceful revolution is an oxymoron.

CONAN: Well, Simon Schama, thank you very much for your time, as always.

Mr. SCHAMA: You're welcome.

CONAN: Simon Schama, university professor at Columbia in New York. And he joined us from our bureau in New York. Our thanks also to Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center, with us from the BBC Studios at Western House in London. Thanks very much for your time today.

Mr. HAMID: Thanks for having me.

CONAN: Coming up, one day after the Super Bowl, Buzz Bissinger joins us to argue that football without violence would not be football at all. The Opinion Page is next. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR NEWS.

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