And Where it Stops, Nobody Knows

Excuse me for not joining in the cheering for the recent uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia, and other Islamic countries. I'm very nervous about revolutions, especially those that take place in February.

The symbol of all political revolutions is a spinning roulette wheel, with the croupier chanting "round and round the big wheel goes and where it stops, nobody knows." The leaders of a revolution are not necessarily the ones who end up in power. The people who rise up to overthrow one tyranny often end up suffering under another.

The French Revolution in 1789 was fueled by the desire of common citizens for human rights and freedom from oppression by aristocrats and privileged classes. The original goal was a constitutional monarchy, but an extremist faction, the Jacobins, managed to seize control, arrest and execute the royal family, establish a reign of terror, and eliminate all opposition. The Jacobins were in turn overthrown by their rivals, the Girondists, who executed them. The resultant constitutional republic, under the Directory, lasted about four years until Napoleon Bonaparte seized control and became first "consul" and then emperor -- which was not at all what the original revolutionists had fought for.

In February 1848, the second French revolution overthrew the Orleans monarchy and established the Second Republic. In December of that year, Louis Napoleon was elected president. Three years later, he suspended the legislature and, by a coup d'état that even Marx admired [1], established the Second Empire.  

In February 1917, the people of Russia overthrew the tsarist regime to rid themselves of its oppressive aristocracy and bureaucracy. Kerensky's democratic provisional government tried to work with the radical Bolsheviks and shared power with their network of "soviets." However, in October, the Bolsheviks engineered a revolution of their own and established a socialist tyranny (with its own aristocracy of bureaucrats) which was worse than any tsarist regime had ever been.

The Cuban revolution ended in February 1959, when Batista fled from the country. In this case, the leader, Fidel Castro, remained in power, largely by killing or imprisoning all of his opponents. Soon enough, the people of Cuba realized that they were under a harsher dictatorship than they had endured under Batista.

The revolution in Iran attained victory in February 11, 1979 when the royal regime was overwhelmed and the shah went into exile. Although the preceding popular uprisings had been inspired by a variety of secular and religious motives, the most organized components were followers of the Ayatollah Khomeini, who returned from exile just before the shah's departure [2]. Thereafter (according to one author [3]), "what began as an authentic and anti-dictatorial popular revolution, based on a broad coalition of all anti-Shah forces, was soon transformed into an Islamic fundamentalist power-grab." Ultimately, despite his numerous prior assertions to the contrary, Khomeini became the de facto ruler of a rigid Islamic theocracy.

Aside from noting that February is not an auspicious month for revolutions, we may infer from these examples that:

  • Only a small percentage of a nation's population may actually participate in a successful revolution. According to one author, "it is almost unheard of for a revolution to involve as much as 1 percent of a country's population." [4].
  • As I have described elsewhere, apparently "spontaneous" demonstrations are often carefully organized by a small group whose existence is virtually unknown to the public. This seems to have been the case in Egypt.
  • These obscure or clandestine organizers may have an ulterior motive and are in a key position to divert a revolution toward their goals.
Let us now consider the current game of Middle East roulette -- the apparently successful revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, the civil war in Libya, the protests in Bahrain and Yemen, and the smoldering-fuse beginnings in virtually every country in the Middle East, including Jordan, Syria, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia.

Obviously, these uprisings have been fueled by secular unrest among poor and oppressed populaces, especially among students and the unemployed. But these spontaneously energized groups have received substantial assistance from several terrorist groups who have reasons of their own for exacerbating unrest in Islamic nations.

These intrigues seem to defy analysis. The Middle East has always been a richly brocaded fabric of interwoven beliefs, traditions, deceptions, plots, and counterplots that are generally unfathomable to western observers. And contemporary Islam, although based on fairly straightforward documents that every one of its sects and factions would swear that they (and they alone) follow faithfully, is extremely complex and ambiguous. Nonetheless, although I only know what I read in the papers or see on TV -- i.e. a handful of facts adulterated by propaganda, fabrications, surmises, and misinterpretations -- I think I can discern a few major threads in this complex fabric.

Among the Islamic factions that advocate violence against heretics and unbelievers, Al Qaeda is one of several essentially Sunni brotherhoods, Hezb'allah and Iranian fascism are Shiite, and the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas are considered to be Wahhabi. Presumably, all of these organizations hope to utilize current Middle East unrest to expand their own influence and power. It may be significant that all of them have expressed their approval of the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt.

Despite its professed hatred for Mubarak, Al Qaeda seemed conspicuous by its absence in the Egyptian revolution. Opinion is divided as to whether Al Qaeda will become more or less powerful in post-revolution nations. This might mean that their tactics and intrigues have become more subtle, as evidenced by their supposed presence  in Yemen. One wonders what to make of Gaddafi's initial claim that Al Qaeda was behind the insurrection against him and his more recent threat to join them if the west intervened.   

A more ominous speculation, inspired by Iran's emphatic approval of the current uprisings, is that they are part of a global scheme for Shiite domination of Islam. Although only 10 to 20 percent of the world's Muslims are Shiites, they constitute 90-95% of the Muslims in Iran, 60-75% in Iraq, Azerbaijan, and Bahrain, 45-55% in Lebanon, and 35-40% in Yemen. We tend to forget that Hezb'allah, which now controls Lebanon, is a Shiite terrorist organization. The uprising in Bahrain has already been characterized as a Shiite attempt to overthrow their Sunni regime while the protests in Yemen may be, at least in part, a reprise of the five previous Shiite rebellions there in 2004-10. One analyst  has gone so far as to infer that Ahmadinejad plans to encircle and conquer Saudi Arabia and thereby to attain Shiite control of the Islamic world. In this context, the recent constitutional referendum in Egypt is disturbingly reminiscent of a similar step in Khomeini's coup d'etat in Iran.

And what of the Wahhabi? Although initially conspicuous for violence, the experience of their Hamas faction in Gaza seems to have taught their sister group, the Muslim Brotherhood, the art of the velvet glove -- that being unobtrusively helpful leads to influence and power. They seem to have used the same approach during the Egyptian revolution, so much so that even Islamophillic PBS, in a recent Frontline broadcast, wondered what the Muslim Brotherhood is really up to. 

Personally, I believe in all of the above. I suspect that all of these factions are maneuvering and trying to manipulate each other [5]. The real question is whether they can work together. Despite past enmities, the answer is probably yes. They all share a common goal, the establishment of a pan-Islamic caliphate throughout the Middle East, and common objects of hatred -- Israel and the United States.

I never liked roulette. But I am forced to stand by and watch this game, with an ever-growing suspicion that the wheel is crooked. The house always wins, but who's running the house?


[1] Marx and Engels thought that the 1848 French revolution would trigger a wave of proletarian revolutions all over the world-as some seem to think is happening now. Marx's The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, published in 1852, can be construed as a rueful realization that revolutions can be derailed by clever coups d'état.

[2] Khomeini's return to Iran, just before the Shah's downfall, is curiously reminiscent of Lenin's return to Russia's Finland station, in April 1917, to start the Bolshevik October revolution. One might infer that Marx learned from the Bonapartes, Lenin from Marx, Khomeini from Lenin, and the current plotters from Khomeini.

[3] Sepehr Zabih, Iran Since the Revolution, Johns Hopkins Press, 1982, p.2. I wonder what Professor Zabih would have said about this year's revolutions.

[4] The anonymous Wikipedia author goes on to cite exceptions: "The French Revolution of 1789, the Russian Revolution of 1917, perhaps the Romanian Revolution of 1989 - these may have passed the 1 percent mark. Yet in Iran, more than 10% of the country marched in anti-shah demonstrations on December 10 and 11, 1978."

[5] We should not ignore the possibility of intrigues involving non-Islamic groups. The numerous parallels between Islamic and Marxist ideology may inspire intervention by communist cells and nations.