Arab Spring. Arab Uprising. Arab Revolution. Such are the names assigned to the convulsion gripping the Middle East. On one hand, it's not terribly important what you call it; the names are merely a reflection of the news industry's need for a label and a headline.
Nevertheless, "revolution" is a tricky one. It is questionable whether the toppling of regimes in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya constituted revolutions. If they did not, it gives pause to considerations of what and how new domestic arrangements should be built to replace old regimes.
"Revolution" is a modern concept whose beginnings were contemporary with the Renaissance.
It is about the upending of paradigms of thought in how we represent nature (which provided us a new relationship with the world), how we understand nature (which allowed us to harness science to another modern principle, progress), and finally how we overcome the baser instincts of human nature to construct conditions for the fulfilment of freedom.
Before the onset of modernity, the ancients removed their kings through uprisings and assassinations, or just locked them up. From Rome to China, new regimes brought new rulers, new dynasties and new empires, but offered no fundamental re-evaluation of the notion of freedom. The German philosopher Hegel made the observation that in the East, only "one" - the king - was free as opposed to the many.
In contrast, modern regime changes such as the American, French, Bolshevik, Maoist and Iranian revolutions were constructed around the notion that freedom for the many would be advanced through a restatement of politics. For the Americans, that involved an interpretation of natural rights based on Locke. The French looked to Rousseau and Montesquieu; the Russians and Chinese to Marx, as edited by Lenin and Mao; and the Iranians, to a grounding in theology. In short, revolutions are impelled by new ideas for a new regime. The violence that accompanies regime change is then clothed in reason.
That said, there is no straight-line determinacy in modernity. While the American Revolution led to the happy result of the entrenchment of liberalism, this came in different flavours - the American republic has a texture distinct from that of the French, for example. Then, there are the dead ends: Marx, Lenin, Mao and, in our region, Baathism.
Modernity, defined by the primacy of reason, opens up possibilities. But reason on its own does not always signpost the road to the "end of history", as envisaged by the American political theorist Francis Fukuyama. Although Marxism, for instance, is only possible in the modern age, it is also a step backward for freedom. So there are detours and perils in modernity, too.
All this might sound overly theoretical. But there are implications if regional uprisings do not constitute revolution. In Tunis, Cairo and Tripoli in North Africa, Damascus in the Levant, and Saana in the Arabian Peninsula, populations labouring under dire economic conditions and severe restrictions in the political and social spheres are overturning, or hoping to overturn, the established order. Yet there is a palpable lack of ideological impetus behind the movements. Without a game plan beyond toppling the old and without a description of a political landscape over the horizon, much is left to vicissitudes. There is, moreover, a greater chance of heading down one of those perilous dead ends.
Already in Tunisia there are signs of simply reshuffling old regime hands. And until elections are held, national stewardship in Egypt primarily lies with the military. By toppling first and reasoning out regime change later, the people who risked their lives at the barricades are denied the opportunity of fighting for a vision of the future, rather than fighting against the past. This is a situation more pre-modern than it is revolutionary.
In more concrete terms, a critical issue is economics, which when defined as wealth of the masses is a condition for life and liberty. But new regimes have not offered any new ideas. While there have been calls for fresh foreign investment, there has been no intimation of plans to break with old paradigms. There continues to be a tendency towards low-wage tourism and unproductive spending in real estate. Absent has been any acknowledgement of manufacturing, the globalisation of which has been an achievement of modern times.
Manufacturing offers a range of blue-collar to management positions that take in a wide swathe of a country's workforce. Indeed, across the Mediterranean from rich consumers, it is a glaring oversight that the region has not courted companies to locate plants here to make the goods that Europe now imports from the Far East. Instead, Chinese goods from the cheapest trinkets to electronics flood even the Middle East.
Manufacturing has other benefits, and chief among these is that it offers the best opportunity for economic mobility, letting workers scale the ladder from working class to middle income and higher. For emerging economies, it reorders people's place in their world through the technology of production, providing the momentum for social progress.
And then there is of course politics. In Egypt, Tunisia and Libya a restatement of freedom is only now being attempted, after the fact. But a work in progress threatens to disappoint people who may believe they fought for something different. Indonesia's road to stability is instructive. After the removal of the Suharto regime in 1998, it took four presidents and several election cycles before a political arrangement acceptable to the majority finally gelled.
None of this discounts what Egyptians, Tunisians and Libyans have achieved. It's only that ideology-led revolutions have a clearer path of transition. And while it is no guarantee, ideas tempered by lessons from the past lessen the danger of heading down one of those dead ends that masquerade as life, liberty and happiness.