A revolution is a project. Like all projects, it has requirements before it can truly be deemed successful. For a start, there must be popular resentment of the government and a desire for change. Another rule is that once completed, the revolutionary government must be purged of the elements which helped it succeed, while incorporating the useful elements from the previous government. According to T.E. Lawrence, this is necessary because “rebels, especially successful rebels, [are] of necessity bad subjects and worse governors.”
However, there is one other rule between these two, which revolutionaries in the Middle East seem to have forgotten: they need a leader who drives the whole project forward. What singles out successful revolutions is that they have been led by a charismatic figure, a leader — or in some cases more than one person — who can inspire the people to change a corrupt and oppressive system that has transgressed far beyond the point of tolerance or patience.
The effects of the absence of such leadership has been seen in recent uprisings across the region: protests in Iraq have resulted in the slaughter of citizens by the Iranian-backed government and Shia militias; protests in Iran have seen the government kill over 300 civilians on the streets; demonstrations in Lebanon have signalled an ongoing political crisis in the government; and a few months ago protests in Egypt against corruption and government repression resulted in the arrest of more than 1,900 people. To this we must also add the revolution in Syria, which became what is already a nine-year civil war that has ravaged the country.
They all have the lack of leadership in common. Legitimate dissatisfaction with the ruling elite or government to one side, the people have not grasped the fact that they need solid leadership if they are to succeed. This has made revolution an abstract concept in the Middle East, holy and religious among devout activists, for which all thoughts of compromise must be sacrificed on the altar of political change.
We would do well to consider a revolution which was, in many ways, a model for any and all of the above. The 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran was led by the charismatic yet solemn Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, under whose guidance and leadership from exile in France the monarchy of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was overthrown and replaced by an Islamic Republic. With his vision, intellect, philosophy (velayati-e-faqih, rule of the clerics) and gravitas, Khomeini swept millions of Iranians into a revolutionary frenzy.
Other such leaders were in place throughout the 20th century, including Gamal Abdel Nasser, Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi in Egypt, Iraq and Libya respectively. They were examples of charismatic figures who encouraged the existing sense of Arab nationalism, mixed it with distinct and diluted Socialism, then overthrew unpopular monarchies left over from the colonial era, promising a greater and more united Arab world.
Without such leadership, a revolution or any popular uprising or simple protest can be aimless and random. The leader is half of the revolution itself, alongside the cause upon which the uprising stands. As the face of the revolution, the leader provides direction to the masses in the squares and streets. There is, of course, a fine balance to be sought between a popular revolution built on solid foundations and the development of a personality cult that will crumble along with the regime as soon as the leader himself is overthrown or dies.
How can an opposition leader emerge under a repressive regime in which democratic processes do not exist or are tightly controlled? One method utilised by the West has been to foster opposition groups and individuals in exile. Often educated in Western universities, such figures might be parachuted in when regimes are toppled. However, they too often find themselves poorly suited to the country that they once knew, and out of touch with the concerns of the population.
This was the case with Ahmed Chalabi, one of the Iraqi political exiles who were in opposition to Saddam Hussein. He spent his youth between London and the US, becoming one of the most prominent figures whose efforts to overthrow the dictator from abroad earned him and his group of dissidents hundreds of thousands of dollars every month from the CIA. He supplied the George W. Bush administration with “information” about chemical and biological weapons in Iraq, which was needed for the 2003 US-led invasion to be approved. When he and other exiles retuned to Iraq after 45 years away, however, he was overwhelmingly distrusted by many Iraqis and faced assassination attempts, a lack of political power and the end of payments from the US, which blamed him for plying the administration with demonstrably false information.
Although a leaderless revolution can succeed in overthrowing a regime through the sheer power of discontented and repressed people, it is at risk of crumbling when the power struggle to be the replacement begins.
The Egyptian revolution during the 2011 Arab Spring was leaderless and yet succeeded in bringing down the regime of Hosni Mubarak. Elections were held, and the long-suppressed Muslim Brotherhood which played a huge part in the protests won, but President Mohamed Morsi’s rule lasted little more than a year before Egypt was again taken over by a military coup which ushered in a dictatorial regime to destroy the nascent democracy in the republic.
Regardless of whether a revolution is based at home or in exile, for a people to rise up with little or no coordination, common stated aim or internal or external support there are likely to be catastrophic results, as the recent protests across the Middle East have shown. Any government or regime with relatively efficient military or security forces can easily crush a leaderless uprising.
Such revolutions will most likely result in the brutal crushing of dissent, endless military conflicts and a political monopoly conferred upon the opposition favoured by foreign powers looking for influence in the country. The uprisings in the Middle East are naïve without leadership; the region seems to have lost the revolutionary art.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.