Covers | May 22, 2011 at 5:20 pm

What is Revolution?

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In The Social Revolution, Karl Katusky warned that “there are few conceptions over which there has been so much contention as that of revolution.” This argument does not only exist within the body of scholars attempting to describe and define the phenomenon of revolution, but it is also shared with the revolutionaries themselves, as they devote time and energy to define the purpose of their struggle. While academics and pundits have disputed the intricacies of what is considered a revolution, at the broadest level, a revolution leads to some type of significant change in a community. The difficulty in defining a revolution illustrates how diverse the experience of revolution can be, from its birth to its aftermath, and even its nonexistence.

The recent upheaval in the Middle East was largely unexpected. It is widely acknowledged that social media contributed to the birth of popular dissent in the region, but it is clear, that like Eastern Europe in the wake of the fall of the Soviet Union, a distinctive regional brand of authoritarianism contributed to the domino of protests during the Arab Spring. In a region of rentier states with rich supplies of oil to subsidize authoritarian regimes, revolutionaries were met with mixed results.

The mixed results of popular movements in the Middle East beg the question of why popular dissent fails to manifest into political change. Alexander Lukashenko continued his 16-year reign as president of Belarus by winning 79.65 percent of the popular vote in an internationally criticized election last December. Despite the fraud in a country that Condoleezza Rice labeled “the last true remaining dictatorship in the heart of Europe,” most Belarusians seem satisfied with the standard of living. In Thailand, which has experienced mass protests since the 2006 coup, a disintegrated political field with multiple movements vying for power has eroded the legitimacy of the political framework to create long standing change.

Given the various upheavals around the world, Americans have justifiably wondered as to the proper response. Engrained in our own revolutionary history, Americans have had a long standing romanticism towards the concept of revolution. Through the symbolism of Che Guevara t-shirts or the following of Twitter feeds of protesters in Tahrir Square, Americans are generally supportive of the perception of individuals fighting for their own rights. But as we consider the future of states like Egypt and Tunisia, it is important to realize that our international policies play an important role in framing the constitutional moment in post-revolutionary societies. Newly formed democratic government in the Middle East may force the United States to make difficult decisions if we are really committed to the free expression of political will.

Neil Patel ‘13 is the Covers Editor.

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